Reporter’s Notebook: These are heady days for craft brewers

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For many local beer lovers, 2005 was a year to forget.

That was when Yakima Brewing & Malting Co., founded in 1982 by the beloved craft beer pioneer Bert Grant, closed after years of financial mismanagement by the brewery’s final owners. Grant’s Brewery Pub, which was the first brewpub to open since the Prohibition and a popular downtown spot, also closed.

Fast-forward nine years and it’s clear that local beer lovers have a lot more to smile about when it comes to craft brewing — a practice where small batches and flavor are emphasized — in Yakima and Central Washington.

I’d argue that 2013 was the year that craft beer gained major traction in a region long known for wine.

I have several reasons to think this:

In July, the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau launched a new website for the Yakima Valley Spirits and Hops Trail, which highlights the Yakima Valley’s breweries and other speciality alcohol products. Bureau CEO John Cooper said the craft brewing industry reached a critical mass that made the site necessary.

John I. Haas opened its new 23,500-square-foot building in August, which includes, among other things, a new testing brewery where craft breweries could make beers made with different types of hops. The company’s executives said they built the facility to better respond to the growing craft brewing industry.

The Fresh Hop Ale Festival, the annual fundraiser for Allied Arts of Yakima Valley, was the biggest in its 11-year-history in October. The event took up the entire parking lot near Millennium Plaza and attracted a record 5,000 attendees.

Finally, I think Yakima Valley now has a mix of craft breweries that would have made Bert Grant proud. Snipes Mountain Brewing Co. in Sunnyside continues to produce beers that show up all over the state. Yakima Craft Brewing Co., which, when it opened in 2008, was the sole brewery within the immediate Yakima area, celebrated five years this year and now seems more like a veteran compared to the slew of breweries popping up nationwide.

Ellensburg-based Iron Horse Brewery — though not in the Yakima Valley but a local favorite — also did well in 2013. This was the first full year in the brewery’s larger production facility. The brewery also opened a new pub in downtown Ellensburg this fall.

Meanwhile, the small but thriving Horse Heaven Hills Brewery and Whitstran Brewing Co. continue to operate in Prosser.

And then there’s the new kid on the block: Bale Breaker Brewing Co., which opened in April near an eight-decade old Moxee hop farm built by the great-grandparents of co-owners Meghann Quinn, Pat Smith and Kevin Smith.

The brewery received a lot of buzz before it opened, but ultimately the taste drew craft beer lovers in. Recently, Bale Breaker’s Field 41 Pale Ale was named one of the top 25 beers of 2013 by DRAFT Magazine, a national craft brewing magazine.

While things seemed obvious to me, I decided to ask Ralph Olson, a longtime observer of the craft beer industry and a former fixture in the Yakima Valley hop industry, if he agreed with my assessment.

He did.

“Everyone has taken notice” of the local craft brewing industry, he told me during a chat last week.

When I asked why, he gave me a straightforward answer: “It obviously (means) there’s more money in it, so more people are interested in it.”

In 2012, retail sales volume for craft brewers grew by 17 percent compared to just 1 percent of the overall beer market, according to statistics from the Brewers Association, an organization that represents small craft brewers.

Craft beer, however, is still a small percentage of the market, about 6.5 percent of all beer sales.

However, the craft brewing industry’s growth cannot be ignored, and it’s clear that craft breweries, including those locally, are upping their game, Olson said.

During the early days of craft brewing in the early 1980s, the quality of a craft beer was suspect, Olson said.

“There’s a lot of hit and misses; there’s been a lot of bad beer,” he said, noting that if one out of three tasted good, that was a good day.

Today, Olson said that just about all the craft beer he tastes is pretty good.

“They got this thing dialed in as far as quality,” he said. “They are so much more consistent today.”

That consistency, he said, has contributed to the increased popularity in craft beer and the success that local brewers saw in 2013.

“It’s at the point where there’s national recognition and acceptance by people,” he said.

And it’s only going to keep growing, along with other specialty alcohol.

“People are looking for things that are a little more unusual and have more flavor and taste,” he said.

There is more business news and analysis on the Shop Talk blog (, where you’ll find updates on various construction projects in Yakima, including one at Nob Hill Plaza at 26th Avenue and Nob Hill Boulevard and on a new retail development at 24th and Washington avenues.

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