hops heaven

Hops Heaven

In Washington’s lush Yakima Valley, one family has spent generations trying to bitter your beer.

As soon as Meghann Quinn was able to stand, she was using a broom to sweep out the picking machine on her family’s farm in rural Washington state. 

At the age of 3, she got her first farm paycheck, and in the years that followed, she and her two brothers performed every sort of farming task imaginable, from chucking bugs from the plants to driving tractors. One specific trial was reserved for the last September harvest of the siblings’ senior years of high school: manning the kiln, drying out the entire season’s crop in grueling 12-hour shifts every day of the week for the entire month.

Initially, that was enough to drive Quinn away. Like many kids who spend their childhoods in the fields, watching their parents struggle under the strain, she had no desire to take up the family yoke. Instead, she followed her older brother, Patrick Smith, to the University of Washington, where she studied finance in the hopes of never having to rely on the soil for a living. “We were like, ‘Screw this small town,’” Quinn says. “‘We don’t want anything to do with this.’”

That was 16 years ago. Today, Quinn, 34, and her brothers, Patrick, 36, and Kevin Smith, 31, are the fourth-generation owners of B.T. Loftus Ranches. What brought them back was the pull of ancestral roots, a business opportunity, and a passion for beer. Loftus Ranches isn’t a typical American farm, herding cattle or growing corn or soybeans. The cash crop here is hops.

hops

About 99 percent of the hops grown in the U.S. are planted in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and 75 percent comes from a single region in south-central Washington. Pinned against the Cascade Range, the Yakima Valley is the ideal environment for the sun-hungry flowers of Humulus lupulus. The days and summers are long, with 200-plus days of sunshine a year beaming down on the nutrient-rich earth that’s deposited and irrigated in the Yakima Valley by the eponymous river. Hops have been a staple in Yakima pretty much since the 1860s.

Unfortunately, that horticultural tidbit was of little use to Quinn’s great-great-grandparents, who settled on 5 Yakima acres in the 1920s. Hops really only have one use: a flavoring and stabilizing additive in the brewing of beer, which Prohibition had outlawed in 1920. The family subsisted on wheat and other traditional crops until 1932, a year before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. The next generation—Quinn’s great-grandparents, B.T. and Leota Loftus—capitalized on the impending brew bash by planting 9 acres of the region’s signature crop.

By the time Mike Smith, Quinn’s father, took over Loftus Ranches in 1974, the farm had grown to 132 acres. But the industry wasn’t all boom. Along with being a natural preservative, hops can be stored as an extract for as long as a decade. Following stretches of robust production, surpluses accumulate, demand falls, and prices plummet. For every five-year uptick, a decade-long downturn follows. That volatility took its toll on the region’s farmers: Whereas Smith inherited one of about 250 family hops farms in Washington in the 1970s, today there are only about 35 independent, family-owned operations in the state. “It’s a real cyclical business,” Smith says. “Some families just took on too much debt. But mostly, it was that the successive generation wasn’t interested in that sort of livelihood.”

Quinn and her brothers initially shared that mindset. But while Quinn was in college in the mid-2000s, she witnessed the explosion of the craft-beer industry. Suddenly, small breweries were popping up all over the country and putting out their own beer—and many of those were India pale ales, a style that relies heavily on hops. Not only were these craft brewers interested in obtaining hops, as the major brewers had been for decades, but they also wanted ingredients with a farm-to-flagon story. Where better than Yakima Valley?

While Smith and his son, Patrick, who returned to the farm in 2009, guided the farm through this latest boom, Quinn had other ideas. She and her husband, Kevin Quinn, along with her brother, Kevin, concocted the idea of opening up a brewery right in Yakima.

In 2013, Bale Breaker Brewing Company opened with just 2,000 barrels. Last year, they produced 23,000, making them the fifth-largest craft brewery in the state. And while Bale Breaker has taken the family story in new directions, Quinn and company have made sure to honor the old. Two of their best-sellers are the Field 41 Pale Ale, named after the hops field that surrounds the brewery, and the Leota Mae IPA, after the woman who planted the original 9-acre field.

“My grandma is over-the-moon proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Quinn says. “It’s such an honor to be able to build on that family history. People don’t have that connection these days. But farming is family.”

And now there’s a fifth generation, still in diapers, who can carry on the family business—if they can handle their first harvest.


Tony Rehagen is a writer in St. Louis. His stories have appeared in Popular Mechanics, GQ, Men’s Health, and ESPN The Magazine. Email him at rehagentony@gmail.com.

Photography by Dave Lauridsen

Originally Published December 2018