Beautiful Yakima Valley, Washington, just two and a half hours from Seattle and three from Portland, has been a major fruit growing and agriculture area since the mid-1800’s. Beer lovers will be happy to note that Yakima Valley also grows about 75% of all the hops in the U.S. And one of those hop farms is Bale Breaker Brewing Company, an artisan brewery on a working hop farm.
Yakima Valley gets about 300 days of sunshine a year. It also gets only about eight inches of rain, but precipitation from the nearby Cascade Mountains feed rivers and creeks that run through the area. Yakima Tribe members originally irrigated their gardens to grow crops and graze livestock and horses. Once the area was irrigated on a larger scale, farms and orchards took hold.
Today, more than 40 commercial crops, including hops for beer making, are grown in Yakima Valley. About two-thirds of the hops produced here are exported to countries all over the world. According to the USDA, that equates to Washington State harvesting 27,062 acres of hops, while the entire U.S. harvests 35,224 acres. The area has also become one of the hottest wine growing regions of the country.
Hops is the Crop
The Loftus family farm dates back to 1932, when five acres of hops were planted by B.T. and Leota Loftus. Today, the farm, in its fourth generation of family ownership, has more than 900 acres hops growing. They are one of the largest hop growers for the craft brewing industry, and they grow nine different hop varietals. They’re also involved in hop breeding, catering to the brewing industry’s interest in and market for new varietals.
Day-to-day farm operations are managed by Patrick Smith and his parents, Mike and Cheryl Smith. But in March, 2012, the family “knocked out” three acres of hops on Field #41 to make room for their brewing venture and Bale Breaker Brewing Company was born. The brewery is run by the Smith’s younger son, Kevin, head brewer, and their daughter, Meghann Quinn, and her husband, Kevin Quinn. The three have worked hard to learn about brewing, sales, distribution, marketing, management and other aspects of their new business.
Tasting Room and Brewery
In the taproom of Bale Breaker Brewing Company in Moxee, Washington, just outside of Yakima, we sample the beers and listen to the owners’ story. On our tour, Kevin and Meghann take us through the harvesting and brewing process. At the time of this writing, they are the only Yakima Valley brewery located on a working hop farm.
The 11,000 square foot brewing facility and taproom opened in April 2013. The taproom is filled with picture windows and natural light; three sides of the building provide a view of acres of the hop fields. Another picture window allows a peek into the space where the beers are brewed. There’s also a great outdoor patio for enjoying all those sunny days.
The beers speak for themselves, and this young trio is making fine craft beers. No doubt, their great-grandparents would be proud.
Field #41 Pale Ale is dry, low in alcohol and bitterness. It’s a refreshing pale ale, with lots of hop flavor, but still light and entry level on bitterness and strength. It’s also the beer that won Bale Breaker a Top 25 Beers of 2013 award from Draft magazine.
Top Cutter IPA is a bit higher on the alcohol percentage and has almost twice the IBU rating and was my favorite. (IBU’s in beer refers to the International Bitterness Unit scale which is a standard for measuring the amount of hops in beer.) This beer contains lots of aroma, a great floral taste and an appealing bitterness that doesn’t linger. Draft magazine gives it a 95 rating. It’s a beer with something for everyone.
Their Kiln Series #001 IPA is high on bitterness with a rich red color. Its nuttiness is attributed to malt barley, and the full flavor pairs well with meats and BBQ.
Why the Cans, Stan?
It was my belief that everyone made the switch from cans to bottles long ago and that was still the way to do it. But Bale Breaker is pouring their craft brew into cans.
Meghann says, “First and foremost, we feel that cans are a better package for our beer as cans restrict both light and oxygen, both of which will degrade the hop character we work so hard to add to our beer. The recyclability and portability of aluminum cans also factors into our decision to can instead of bottle.”
Bottle recycling is still not truly available everywhere, and cans are universally recyclable. They also weigh less, which makes transporting easier than bottles. And cans instead of bottles are actually a growing trend we’ll be seeing much more of.
Plan a Visit
There’s no onsite food at this time at Bale Breaker Brewing. But you can bring a picnic or have food delivered from a list of restaurants. Plan to spent time touring the brewery. There are plans to conduct hop tours soon. Growlers and cans are available to take home, or check the website to see where their beer is available locally. Cheers! – by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Contributor
IF YOU GO…VISIT:
• Bale Breaker Brewing Company, 1801 Birchfield Road, Moxee, WA, www.balebreaker.com
• Yakima Valley Information Center, www.yakimavalleytourism.com