Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Weisbrod and Hess Oriental Lager Beer Brewery, 1882-1939
Yards Brewing, 2001-
2439 Amber Street, Philadelphia PA 19125 (main entrance on Martha Street, below East Hagert Street)

Carmen A. Weber, Irving Kosmin, and Muriel Kirkpatrick, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Lager beer production began in Philadelphia in the 1840s. 1 George Weisbrod and Christian Hess opened their brewery in 1882 at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Adams (now Hagert) Street. According to the Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, this brewery was one of nine operating in the 19th and 31st Wards. 2 In 1886 the Weisbrod and Hess Lager Beer Brewery employed 32 men and comprised a brewery, refrigerating houses, stable, and cooper shop with the bar-room, store, and meeting rooms facing Frankford Avenue. 3 Expansion by 1889 included construction of a new brewery, with 100 men working at the brewery. 4 The Weisbrod and Hess Oriental Brewery operated until Prohibition in 1920. The brewery reopened for five years following Prohibition, closing in 1938. 5
 
The stable, facing Martha (once Holman) Street, is the oldest remaining structure in the complex. Built in 1885, this three story, three bay brick building with stone detailing contains the inscription ‘W H’ on the second story. The brewery stands across the street. Constructed by 1889, the two story brick building has decorative brickwork and stone keystones and belt courses. The complex is missing the refrigerator houses and storage buildings that faced Frankford Avenue and the boilerhouse that stood at the corner of Hagert and Martha Streets. The three story brick building with brownstone water table, belt courses, and lintels along Hagert Street housed offices. Finally, a bottling plant, probably built in the 1930s, stands on the corner of Hagert and Amber Streets. This two story brick building has terra cotta detailing and tile mosaics.
 
The brewery held a four story millhouse, with the hop tank, two steam engines, and two ice machines on the first story. The cooling tanks were on the top story, with the kettle and mashtub on the second story. The copper brewing kettle had a capacity of 250 barrels. The attached four story refrigerator house had the fermenting room on the third story. The boilerhouse contained three boilers.
6
 
At present, the buildings appear abandoned.

1   Scharf and Westcott, History of Philadelphia, pp. 2280-2281
2   Blodget, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia, p. 82.
3   Hexamer General Survey #1997 (1886) "Weisbrod & Hess' Lager Beer Brewery."
4   Hexamer General Survey #2561-2562 (1892) "Weisbrod & Hess, Oriental Brewery."
5   R. Dochter
6   Hexamer General Survey #2561-2562 (1892) "Weisbrod & Hess, Oriental Brewery."


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Update May 2007 (by Torben Jenk):
Most of the buildings west of Martha Street survive, including the Bottling Plant with its colorful Phoenix mosaics and terra cotta letter panels, and the 1885 stables to the south. One now enters from Martha Street through a facade into a courtyard that used to be roofed. The roof sat atop huge wooden trusses. Yards Brewing bought these buildings in May 2001 and started brewing beer in March 2002. Brewing capacity has grown from 2,500 barrels to 8,000 barrels in 2006. All brewing starts with thirty barrels mixed into sixty-barrel fermenters. Half the production is of Philadelphia Pale Ale, "a Pale Ale brewed with a Pilsner malt" that was recently rated one of the five best Pale Ales in America. Other beers regularly brewed include India Pale Ale, Extra Special Ale, Saison, and three "Ales of the Revolution," the latter brewed according to the historic recipes of three founding fathers: General Washington Porter, Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, and Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce [Ben Franklin]. Yards uses Simcoe hops from the Yakima Valley region of Washington state and malts from the US and Germany. The company sells direct to over 330 accounts in the Philadelphia area. The high local demand has restricted availability elsewhere.

John Bovit and Tom Kehoe started Yards in 1995 in Manayunk, and moved eighteen months later to Roxborough. In 1998, Bovit left and Kehoe (President) was joined by Nancy Barton (Secretary-Treasurer) and her husband Bill Barton (Vice President). Thirteen people are on the Yards staff including head brewer Josh Ervine, the "Parson of Fermentation," Dean Brown [a skilled brewer], and "The Enabler," Chris Morris [Sales Manager]. It was the Bartons who found this building, noticing the "Bottling Plant" sign after delivering beer to a local customer. At the time the complex was stuffed with used supermarket equipment, deli cases, carts, shelving, and scales being offered for resale.

Yards brews on the second floor of the former Bottling Plant and the gently sloping concrete floors and two original floor drains still serve their original purpose. Large windows to the west offer a rooftop glimpse to a concentrated collection of Kensington mill buildings clustered near Coral and Front Streets. Bottling is done downstairs on a line requiring five pairs of hands. Kegging can be done by one. The Bartons have visited breweries in Europe and hosted Brew Masters at Yards to learn how to increase capacity within the building; they now estimate they can grow to between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels per year. The packaging and shipping room is on the first floor of the building to the north of the courtyard, while the office and tasting room are above (often used by community groups as meeting space).

In the tasting room,
"Pennsylvania Brewery Historian" Rich Wagner has given a number of illustrated lectures on brewing in Philadelphia, some of which have included descendants of the Weisbrod & Hess families, who have shared their family photos. Some of the photos show bear and other wild animals on display in the refrigerated rooms, shot by the Weisbrods at their hunting lodge in the Poconos and brought down for the delight and fright of the kids of Kensington. Other family stories tell of the fire in the stables; the horses were cut loose and the men got on with fighting the fire. Hours later the horses were retrieved, having patiently waited at their first delivery stop! Renowned brewer Joe Ortlieb visited Yards recently, expressing amazement at the premium price paid for Yards beer, about $200/barrel while he received only $20 in the 1970s. Others stop in to Yards for the Saturday tours, but most come for the beer, which is sold from the loading dock for around $20 per case. It’s delicious beer at a competitive price.

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In the stables west of Martha Street, Helix Motorsports turns the new Minis into hot rods, boosting them to 300 hp. East of Martha Street stand some of the Wagon Shed and Stables, now mostly a ruin, along with the brick chimney.