COVID-19 Update: Bale Breaker Brewing Company’s taproom is temporarily closed to the public. We are offering beer for pick-up at Provisions Market in Yakima – click here to order
We're officially finished with Hop Harvest 2019 and ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy the rewards of our hard work. We chatted with brewery owner & hop farmer Patrick Smith (brother to owners Kevin & Meghann) to get a recap of this year's harvest.
How did this year’s harvest compare to previous years? More yield, less yield, good growing conditions?
The 2019 harvest overall was a very good one, both for our farms and region-wide. Weather conditions throughout the growing season were quite favorable for the mature plantings, though somewhat ironically were not favorable for first-year “baby” plantings. On the whole however, yields were at or above long-term averages and consequently there will be plenty of your favorite hops to go around in 2020.
What was the largest crop by variety at Loftus Ranches this year? Why is it so popular?
Our largest variety is now Citra®, constituting about 27% of our acreage, followed by Simcoe® (16%), Pahto® (14%), and Mosaic® (13%). Those four varieties make up 70% of what we grow. Demand for Citra, Simcoe, and Mosaic is largely driven by consumer demand for IPAs, and brewers have increasingly designed recipes around hops such as these that lend citrus, tropical, and fruity flavors and aromas to their beer. Bale Breaker drinkers will surely be familiar with these three as they make up the backbone of all four of our classic beers.
What about new hop breeds at Yakima Chief Ranches? How are we involved there and what came out of the 2019 season that you’re excited about?
Yakima Chief Ranches (“YCR”), and its partnership with John I Haas in Hop Breeding Company (“HBC”), has been responsible for much of the innovation and development of the most popular hop varieties in the US. Our family has been involved in this operation from its beginnings in the 80s and 90s, in partnership with the Perrault and Carpenter families. Jason Perrault is now CEO of YCR, and provides great leadership of our collective efforts in breeding. In 2019, we grew seven “experimental” varieties on acreage from a single acre up to about 20 acres. It took a long time, and a huge amount of effort to get from where we were about 30 years ago to today. Hop breeding is a really long-term game, taking about 10 years to commercialize a single variety. It’s also a numbers game, and we start with tens of thousands of genetically distinct cultivars, hoping to find one or two that might see commercial success. Our pipeline now is pretty full and we’re running into the paradox of choice. With so many great new varieties in the final stages of development, how do you choose the one or two to focus your efforts on? It’s a challenging problem, but a good one to have. Stay tuned though, many of those varieties are going to be the stars of tomorrow and the new flavors and aromas they provide are really fun and unique.
Any innovations to processes this year that helped smooth things along, or is it a well-oiled machine?
I hesitate to say that we’ve ever really figured things out, but after 88 years and four generations of combined experience we’re executing pretty well right now *knocks on wood*. We’ve invested heavily in new equipment and technology in the last seven years and those investments are starting to pay off. We’re always tweaking things, but our throughput and quality during harvest this year were the best we’ve ever had. To accomplish that in a year with exceptional yields is something we’re quite proud of, and is a real testament to our operations team. Those guys are the unsung heroes of the beer world, so if you see one of them in the taproom, buy them a beer! They’ve earned it.
What does your schedule look like during hop harvest? Are you working around the clock?
Yeah, hop harvest is all-consuming. From the time we start in late August until we finish at the end of September, every single minute of every single day, we’re doing everything we can to pick, dry, and bale the crop we spent all year tending to. We’re running two harvest operations separated by about 30 miles, and each of those operations is a 24/7 ordeal. It’s a lot to manage, but it’s what we do and it’s in our DNA. I wouldn’t know what to do in September if we didn’t have hops to pick.
What is your favorite part about hop harvest? How many years have you been involved in hop harvest?
Harvest is also a really exciting time - the culmination of a year’s efforts and a time that we get to share our labor of love with brewers from around the world who make the pilgrimage to our wonderful valley. It’s not hyperbole or arrogance to state that Yakima is an incredibly special place, the best place in the world to grow to hops, so it’s little wonder that brewers large and small trek thousands of miles to come experience hop harvest in our little corner of the world. Most of them end up at Bale Breaker each night during September which is pretty cool and humbling for us. On any given night, the who’s who of the beer world are in our taproom, in the middle of our farm, drinking our beer, and discussing the year’s harvest. There’s nowhere in the world quite like it. Without question my favorite part is sharing our home and our passion with the best brewers in the world that we are so fortunate to call our friends. 2019 was my 11th harvest back on the farm full-time, but I’ve been around hop harvest in varying capacities every year of my life.
What are your goals for the hop farm in the future? What is Loftus Ranches working on that you are most excited about?
Great question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about (but could spend double that). We’ve built a really great team in the last few years and I really like seeing all of them grow and expand their roles. We’re a restless bunch though, and even though we’ve accomplished so much I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we’re done. There’s so much we still don’t fully understand about what we do - the universe of microbes living in our fields, the exact metabolic processes that create the acids and oils that make beer taste so delicious. We’ll never stop learning and trying to get better in all facets of our operation. The two biggest focus areas will continue to be the health of our plants, soil and the environment; and improving the lives of our valued employees. Working in agriculture can be a challenge. It’s often physical labor, with inconsistent hours and schedules throughout the year, and isn’t always a job that people really want to do. We’re trying to change that however we can. We recognize the many sacrifices our employees have made, and we want to make farm work a career that is as rewarding as any other. 98% of Americans eat and drink the product of the efforts of the other 2%. Our food is the safest in the world and agriculture is one of America’s largest exporters. We feed the American people and the world - and it’s a lot of work to accomplish all of that. We’ve raised our hourly wages substantially, now over $15/hour for all employees, with medical/dental/vision benefits and a 401k program. We believe that we have a responsibility, an obligation, to do everything we can for our people and to give back to our community. Executing at a high level in the fields and in our operations gives us that opportunity and allows us to work toward that ultimate goal.
Posted November 14, 2019