Quinn walks the corridor toward the middle of the space and turns just before the canning line and stacked pallets of shiny labeled cans. He opens a small roll-up door to reveal a space lovingly called The Imagination Station. It’s here that he and his brother-in-law, brewmaster Kevin Smith, let their creativity run wild cooking up special brews in hopes of delivering the next session, seasonal or new standard beer in the Bale Breaker lineup.
Nestled in the Yakima Valley high desert, Bale Breaker Brewing Company’s operations are a testament to the sense of community – instead of cutthroat competition – in the area’s craft beer industry.
This video is part of our “Made There” series about local artisans. View more videos from Seasons 1 and 2.
Bale Breaker was founded in 2013 by siblings Kevin Smith, Pat Smith and Meghann Quinn, fourth-generation hop growers. The other co-owner, Kevin Quinn, is Meghann’s husband. Though Bale Breaker is located at Loftus Ranches, one of the longest-running hop farms in Central Washington, Kevin Quinn recalls the ways other brewers helped them when Bale Breaker was starting out.
There are a lot of specifics to the process, including lab tests, which can be time-consuming and costly for small brewers. Today Bale Breaker has its own lab and regularly helps smaller brewers with testing alcohol or bitterness levels, problem-solving, and even supplying yeast from their surplus.
Kevin Quinn believes it’s all part of paying it forward in service of the craft-brew industry, but also for the good of the consumer.
“We owe it to every brewery that came before us to make sure that when any consumer has a first experience with craft beer, it’s a great one.” Quinn says. “We got to talk to craft brewers that were established and knew what they were doing, and they were very open and helpful to us. So it’s only right that we do it for anyone else that’s in the same situation.”
The whole beer industry, not just craft beer, heavily depends on Central Washington. More than 70% of the total hop acreage in the U.S. is located here.
“When you say ‘farming’ to people, I feel like they think of the Midwest and giant combines farming, like, 5,000 acres,” Quinn says. “That’s not how it works here. Every hop needs to be touched by a human’s hands like twice a year.”
The hop farm, managed today by Pat Smith and his dad Mike, has grown considerably since 1932, when it spanned nine acres. Today the family farms over 2,000 acres of hops. And with each plant requiring a human’s hands at least twice a year, that’s a lot of hands.
Driving through the Yakima Valley in the off-season you may see rows of twine suspended from 18-foot wooden frames. These twine grids will host each hop planted at its base. The plant itself starts as a root ball and will go dormant over the winter. Come spring, the plant will produce a small patch of bright-green leaves in the dirt before beginning to vine up the twine. Each vine needs a little assistance with getting itself onto the twine.
“When you think of how many millions of hop plants are in this valley, it’s crazy,” Quinn says. “It’s all the farm workers that we have in this valley that really make the agricultural engine of the valley work.”
At harvest, the bottoms of the vines are cut with a machine called a bottom-cutter, while the tops are cut with – you guessed it – a top-cutter. Both machines have earned the honor of becoming names of beers in the brewery’s main lineup, with artwork reflecting their respective tasks. After cutting, the hop vines are dropped into a truck, then transported to a facility where they’re sorted, dried and sent to be processed.
Select hops will remain onsite to be used in the fresh-hops beer recipes for which the brewery has become known.
“On the fresh-hop side of things, that’s a pretty highly Pacific Northwest thing,” Quinn explains. “They can start degrading rather quickly, and so you want to keep them cold and you want to use them ideally as soon as possible. I’m sure no one uses them faster than we do, because it takes less than five minutes to get from the packing facility to the brewery. We actually timed it once.”
The brewery has become known for its hop-forward recipes, highlighting the efforts of their farm. But it’s important to them that the phrase “hoppy beer” doesn’t automatically lead to thoughts of bitter beer. Balance is always part of the brewing process. Also, the emergence of new varieties of hops now offer different flavors and aromas, not just bitterness.
“It's like the spice of beer. What gives it all the flavor,” Quinn enthuses. “You know, 15 years ago or so when the craft-beer revolution really took off, Washington was producing a lot of what we call alpha hops, which just imparts the bitterness into the beer, and wasn’t as focused on these aromatic varieties that we use as craft brewers. So like your Citra, your Simcoe, your Mosaic, your hops like that weren’t even around, like, 20 years ago.”
Back in The Imagination Station, the two Kevins walk among the tank rows, glancing at the clipboards hanging from each silver vessel to assess the notes. After some consideration, they agree to try one at the end of a row. They each pour a couple of ounces into small tulip glasses.
They examine the contents, each noting the soft golden color and hazy clarity before giving the glass a little swirl while raising it to his nose. Kevin Quinn’s eyes close as he inhales, taking in the fragrance of the brew. They sip simultaneously and their heads begin nodding in agreement, the corners of their mouths turning up in satisfied smiles. The pair chat about the different fruits making up the flavor profile before emptying the remains of the glass into a floor drain. Two more beers are tested in the same fashion; it’s just part of the process in their quest to make the best beer they can for a community they love.