at The Grey Lodge Pub
Let me tell you a tale of a beer whose time didn’t come around for years after it first appeared…a beer that dare not speak its name…a beer whose greatest strength is its weakness. I speak of Yards Brawler.
I’ve been a fan of Yards Brewing since, well, before they even opened. I remember the moment well. It was back in 1995, at an early beer festival here in Philadelphia, and while Yards hadn’t actually opened their doors yet, Tom Kehoe was there with co-founder Jon Bovit – who has since left the company – and a firkin – yes, a properly-conditioned firkin, in America, in 1995! – of Extra Special Ale, the prototype Yards ESA. (I was told it was ‘one letter better’ than an ESB). It was deliriously good: fruity, earthy, and most of all, wreathed in a seemingly luminous cloud of hop aroma, brought on by a hop pocket of East Kent Goldings in the firkin.
I mean, it was 1995. Is it any wonder I loved these guys?
They brewed other beers: a barleywine or two; an IPA with English hops; a dubbel; and a series of “Revolutionary” beers based on recipes from Philly’s Independence era, including one of the first commercial spruce beers brewed in modern times. And, for a time, they also brewed a beer they called Entire Porter, which was, yes, a blended beer, Imperial stout mixed with dark mild.
The Entire went away, as early beers often do, but the recipes didn’t. I had a suspicion when I started this story that Brawler had its origins in the Entire, so I asked Tom Kehoe. “It absolutely does,” he confirmed.
The Entire was good, but not enjoyed sufficiently to make it worth the trouble of brewing two beers. The mild, however, was a beer they liked at the brewery. “The funny thing is,” Tom said, “we always thought, ‘Gosh, this would be a fun beer to introduce, but no one wants a dark beer, and for sure no one wants a mild.’ At least, back then that was true.”
And that’s where it was left, as Yards went through four moves and a contentious change in partners that ended with Kehoe owning the brand, but no brewery other than the tiny system they’d opened with. He sank roots on Delaware Avenue (literally: the soft ground required 10-meter deep pilings to support the brewery), and thought about what to do next.
What was next turned out to be Brawler. “We needed a new year-round beer,” he recalled. Why Brawler? “We always thought we were in for a fight at that time!” They’d used the name before on a nitro dark ale that didn’t last long, so the ruby mild – with a little added melanoidin malt – became the Brawler.
It seemed crazy. Brawler is a dark ale. Strike one. Brawler is not a hoppy beer. Strike two. Brawler is a low alcohol at 4.2%, which in 2008 should have been strike three. But Tom did a very smart thing – he gave the beer a pugnacious name and a Dickensian label of a man boxing with the devil. You also won’t find the words “mild” or “dark” anywhere on the label; it is instead proclaimed a “pugilist-style ale.”
Brawler was simply sold as Brawler, and it continues to surprise me how many places you’ll find this dark mild on tap in Philadelphia. It may be dark, but it’s mildly sweet, totally approachable, and good with a range of bar food. With notes of cocoa and whole wheat pastry, it’s a beer that tastes pleasantly nutritious, wholesome and delicious. It reminds me of the old-fashioned donuts my grandmother used to make on Fat Tuesday. I loved the plain ones, not overdone with sugar, just good dough, and fresh. Brawler’s like that.
I’m drinking it at the Grey Lodge Pub, another Philly-unique institution that flew under the radar. It’s not a craft beer bar, it’s a corner bar that happens to be in the middle of the block. It hosts events like Friday the Firkinteenth, the rocking cask ale event that happens every Friday the Thirteenth, but continues to be a friendly, low-key neighborhood bar that doesn’t turn anyone away because of what they want to drink. Perfect for Brawler.
Is Brawler really the Flagship of Yards Brewing? Not exactly. Their Philadelphia Pale Ale has ruled the roost since shortly after it came out, and rightly so, it’s a great beer. Philly Pale, Brawler, and the Yards IPA make up a little over 70% of the brewery’s sales, but Brawler gave up second position to the IPA a year ago. So, not the beer on which that brewery hangs its hat.
But like Philly’s Italian roast pork sandwich, forever in the shadow of the much better known cheesesteak, Brawler is the beer that comes in a beloved second. It’s a beer we love to call our own, so quietly that no one else hears. It’s the beer I’ll be drinking at 7 AM at the Grey Lodge Pub today, Groundhog Day, decked out in the day’s traditional shorts and Hawaiian shirt. Because Brawler is Brawler, and it’s our beer.
Phil speaks, and the Lodge crowd goes wild: Spring is just around the corner!! PHIL!
This event, this place, this pub owner, BTW, is the reason that Pennsylvania bars can be open at 7 am on Groundhog Day…even when it falls on a Sunday. Or Super Sunday! [Scoats, the owner of The Grey Lodge] got legislation proposed and passed to adjust the Liquor Code.
We are the veteran warriors here. This has got to be the oldest average age beer event anywhere. I doubt there are more than five people under 30 in the room (who aren’t behind the bar).
Winding up with my fourth Brawler.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.