Tom Kehoe has created dozens of great beers since he opened Yards Brewing Co. in 1994. But when the workday is done and the staff heads off for a drink in the taproom at his brewery's shiny new Spring Garden facility, Kehoe will most often reach for a pint of the first brew he ever made: the ESA.
"It's my baby," Kehoe says of the Extra Special Ale, his hoppy take on an English-style bitter that helped establish his brewery as one of Philly's most reliable craft beer pioneers. It's a malty, amber, and balanced brew that in many ways been overshadowed by more flamboyant beer trends — the hyper-hopped IPAs, aromatic Belgian saisons, and bretty wild things that always draw a beer geek crowd. But there's no question this ESA is still one of Philly's classics, tweaked by Kehoe with a bit more East Kent Golding hops, malt, and alcohol for an American accent on the traditional English version. And its availability "on cask" at Yards' sprawling new taproom puts it in a prime position to be appreciated at its fullest.
Cask-conditioned ales, traditional in England, are fermented in the vessel they're served in, with no added carbonation and typically a little warmer than most American drinkers are accustomed to. So the texture is different. There's definitely still a refreshing fizz to the ESA poured on cask at Yards, but it's far less than the bottled version sold in stores, and even less than the ESA that's also poured there on nitro with a Guinness-style head. As a result, the cask pour tastes denser, deeper, more intense. And it isn't just my senses responding to temperature and bubble tricks. The cask brews actually receive an added hit of flavor from a small amount of whole-leaf East Kent Golding hops that get pushed through a hole in the side of the cask, and they add an extra shade of spicy English herbs and earth without ever tipping this mellow brew's lovely balance. It's so, so drinkable. No wonder Kehoe's been sipping the same beer for 24 years.
— Craig LaBan