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The story of the fourth and newest beer in the core lineup at Bale Breaker dates back four generations and almost 90 years to when our family first got into the hop industry. Rather than dive into that history and the namesake for our newest IPA right away, let’s start with how the beer itself came to be.
In early 2017, we were selected to brew the featured beer for the 9th annual Seattle Beer Week (SBW) – a huge honor for a less than four-year-old brewery, especially as the first brewery selected outside of the Greater Seattle area. According to industry sources, SBW is among the top three beer weeks in the country. In true Bale Breaker fashion, we decided our SBW beer would be a fresh take on a NW favorite, a hop-forward IPA. The beer, named Fresh off the Farm IPA, was a huge success, and it was the first time we had ever offered a limited release beer in cans. We brewed and canned nearly 750 barrels, all of which sold in less than two months.
The success of this beer was what got the wheels turning on releasing a new year-round IPA. We immediately started working on a can design and planned for a Fall 2017 release. Topcutter IPA was still our best-selling beer, so we knew a second core IPA had to be different and stand out from Topcutter. We used different hopping techniques and varieties to make this beer less bitter but have more hop aroma and flavor – basically, a juicier, more tropical IPA than Topcutter.
We released Leota Mae in late-September 2017, and like Bottomcutter, cans were immediately picked up into most major grocery stores in our WA/ID distribution footprint. That first year, we sold nearly 1,000 barrels in the 3.5 months it was available, and in 2018, the sales of Leota Mae increased to nearly 4,000 barrels, quickly making it the second most popular Bale Breaker beer at about 15% of our 2018 production. While Topcutter is still far and away the PNW fan favorite at 55% of our 2018 production, it will be interesting to see how Leota Mae does in the coming years. It’s certainly gained a solid fan base in its short 16-month life!
While inspired by Fresh off the Farm IPA, we decided to rebrand this beer to better fit into the core lineup and distinguish it from the SBW beer, but we were completely stumped on what to call it. Then one day, it hit us. Leota Mae IPA. We knew immediately that it was the perfect name for this beer.
Leota Mae Loftus is the great-grandmother of Bale Breaker owners Meghann Quinn and Kevin and Patrick Smith, who unknowingly made a decision in 1932 that set the course of her family for generations to come.
That year, after twelve years of Prohibition’s negative impact on domestic beer and hop production, the announcement came that Prohibition would soon end. Hops were already being grown in the Yakima Valley, dating back to the 1860s, but the industry had seen hard times during Prohibition. Local hops were only sold internationally, or we assume, to bootleggers. Our ancestors had been farming other crops on land just down from where the brewery sits today, but after this announcement and the anticipation of a spike in hop demand, Leota Mae (just 21 years old at the time) and her husband, BT, decided to plant nine acres of hops on land that BT’s Irish-immigrant grandparents had bought with savings from years spent on the Northern Pacific railroad.
As for the woman herself, Leota Mae was often described as “a force to be reckoned with” and “a woman before her time.” It never occurred to Leota that there was a job she couldn’t do. That is to say, if an irrigation ditch needed to be dug, crops needed to be picked, or workers needed to be fed, she was the lone woman on the crew beside (or in front of) the men, getting the job done. In fact, throughout the 1940’s, she was the only woman hop drier in the Yakima Valley. At the time, the drying process was managed through touch and smell – no fancy kiln sensors and technology to monitor the process. If you didn’t dry them right, all the work of the growing and harvest was for naught, and she had drying dialed in.
She made quite the impression on everyone in her orbit, including her young grandson, Mike Smith. Mike spent every summer working on the farm, eventually coming to work with her full time at age 19 when BT suddenly passed away. Leota’s work ethic was so legendary that if you ask him about it today, he still shakes his head in awe. She actively worked alongside her grandson for several years, eventually passing the torch to him in the mid-1980s. Luckily, she did. Loftus Ranches has harvested a hop crop continuously each summer since 1932, with annual hop production now reaching close to 2,000 acres, and Bale Breaker was born out of her great-grandkids’ passion for hops and the desire to connect our family farm with thirsty beer drinkers of the PNW.
Leota’s stamina for work was only matched by her lust for life. For her trips to town, she was coiffed, manicured, and stylish. She kept a lush rose garden, rode horses, and even dabbled in ceramics, somehow finding the time to keep at all of that while caring for her family, workers, and the farm. Not to mention the all-night parties she attended with BT at the Elks club, sometimes arriving home just in time for church. Her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have many years of fond memories spent with Leota Mae, known lovingly to her family as ‘Garn’.
Leota Mae passed away in 2009, just after her 98th birthday. While we miss her bright smile and quick wit that stuck with her until her final days, we’re so happy that, four generations later, we can pay tribute to our family’s hop farming legacy and share the story of the woman who started it all with you. We just wish we could have one with her.
Cheers, Leota Mae. Here’s your IPA.
Posted February 01, 2019