Yakima Valley brewery produces hop-forward ales amidst the family hop farm
by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Bale Breaker Brewing co-owner Meghann Quinn greets most patrons of their tap room by name, many of whom she grew up with in this small farming town. Moxee, WA sits on the Northern edge of the Yakima Valley in Washington where around 75 percent of the United State’s hops are grown.
Bale Breaker, one of the first of a growing number of brewers in the region, is situated in the middle of B.T. Loftus Ranch’s hop fields. The beers Bale Breaker is most known for are, no surprise, hop-forward ales, showcasing what sourcing hops from less than a mile away can do.
The family — Quinn, her husband Kevin and her brothers Kevin and Patrick Smith — started the brewery in 2013, 81 years after their great-grandparents planted the first hop vines a few miles from their current location. Nowadays, B.T. Loftus Ranches is a 900-acre hop farm, run by Patrick Smith and his father Mike Smith. Farm and brewery are two separate business. The brewery goes through hops merchant YCH Hops to purchase the farm’s crop.
Quinn, who grew up working on the farm with her brothers, says the idea for the brewery began as kind of a dream. “We started out just playing around with brewing and seeing what hops can do in beer,” she says. They began to get serious when older brother Patrick drew up a business plan for a brewery on a hop farm as his capstone project while attending the University of Washington, which earned him a trophy for best project.
After that, the dream started to look more real and the market was ripe for a brewery showcasing hops. “The craft beer market was starting to shift,” says Quinn. “IPAs were growing at such a fast pace.”
Bale Breaker was a way for them to share the family’s product directly with beer drinkers. “The hop farm’s customers are mostly hop merchants,” Quinn says. “Over the last few years they’ve gotten more of a direct link with brewers, but there’s no link to the beer consumer on the farm, so that was one of the things we were really excited about doing.”
Quinn, the brewery’s business manager, says the family works well together but that it was a challenge at first to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. She has a degree in business finance (as does her husband) and experience working in the wine industry. Kevin Smith, head brewer, earned his brewing chops at Seattle’s Two Beers Brewing.
Bale Breaker’s recipes were developed on a 10-barrel system. They were able to get a lot of feedback from the many brewers that visited the farm. Like many of the hop farms of the region, B.T. Loftus Ranches invites brewers to the farm during harvest.
“That just happened to be a time when we were really refining our recipes. We were getting people like the head brewer from Stone Brewing Company coming through giving us feedback on our beers,” she says. “It was a really cool time to have a lot of our peers in the industry around. Not only to bounce off ideas, because everyone’s really willing to share information, but also to get feedback on the beers that we’re working on.” Although she notes it was also stressful to unveil their new brews to professional brewers, wondering whether or not they would like them.
The response continues to be positive. Last year they amped up production and added new equipment, including a larger canning line and a 5-barrel pilot system, an exact replica of their 30-barrel system. Current production is around 22-24,000 barrels a year. They can three ales (Field 41, Topcutter and Bottomcutter) and sell to restaurants and bars, with distribution in Washington and Idaho.
Their most popular brew, Field 41, named after the field the brewery sits on, drinks more like a session IPA. It just gets hoppier from there. Topcutter, named after hop harvesting machinery, is their flagship IPA, coming in at 70 IBU. Bottomcutter, a 100 IBU Imperial IPA is dry-hopped with Citra, Simcoe and Ekuanot hops. They also make a dry-hopped blonde, IPL (India Pale Lager), a stout and a few seasonals. Orangey McTartface, brewed this summer with additions of blood orange, raspberry and peach, was their first kettle sour.
Bubba’s Brew is a summer seasonal, made with a different blend of proprietary and experimental hops each year and the result of another collaboration between farm and brewery — Ales for ALS, a national fundraising campaign the farm began in 2013. They partner with YCH Hops to donate a hops blend to participating breweries across the country. A dollar from every pint of the unique brews is donated to the ALS Therapy Development Institute. This year’s Bubba’s Brew (named after the siblings’ uncle) is an IPA.
Bale Breaker is also part of a regional craft beverage marketing association, Craft Beverage Yakima, which showcases craft beverages made in and with ingredients from this fertile region. “We believe that Yakima’s unique combination of producers located in the middle of Washington’s agricultural heartland is truly special and worth visiting,” Quinn says. “You can sip beer in a hop field, wine in a vineyard and cider in an orchard. Yakima is really a special place that we love to celebrate.”