Like the canals in Chandra Mukerji’s work, hops flow through time and space. The walls of the canals stay put, although in ways that are also always changing—construction, reconstruction, repair, erosion—the slow wearing away of stone by water. The water moves and changes as do the people and goods and vessels that navigate the waterways.
Hops, too, are both rooted in place and in constant motion. During their brief growing season on either side of the summer solstice, they shoot out of their dusty resting place in the earth, reaching lengths of up to 25 feet between late spring and late summer. Hops are rhizomatic, and most often new plants are generated by chopping up existing hop roots. Those roots are highly mobile, capable of being shipped around the world long before refrigerated trucking. Indeed, hop roots were shipped around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea in the holds of the vessels of the Hanseatic League.
Hop farmers in medieval Baltic regions grew hops for their Hanseatic trading partners, and today hop pellets and extracts jet around the world to meet brewers’ and consumers’ demands for a particular sensory experience—a classic German Hallertauer grown in the Hallertau, or a piney Cascade from the shadow of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. Today’s high-performance hop fields—with their mechanized harvesters, boutique varieties, and high-tech drying facilities—bear little resemblance to past ways of growing and picking hops, but the old rhizomes lurk in the earth along the edges of modern fields.
For the thousand or so years that hops have been used in beer, farmers have cultivated them for one primary reason—to flavor beer (and, before pasteurization, to add some level of resistance to bacterial infection of the brew). There are also anecdotes about the medicinal use of hops, a close relative of cannabis, but brewing is far and away the dominant use.
Just as the plant’s roots and flowers are mobile, the people who care for them and consume them have experienced layers of mobility as well. Flemish weavers brought their taste for hopped beer to the south of England in the 14th century, and that taste migrated outward to English drinkers as well, as hopped beer went from being the drink of supposed outsiders to a beloved beverage interwoven with regional and national identity. Then and now, hop cultivation often happens to satisfy the tastes of far-off people.
Century after century, humans have loaded up hops with financial and social value, with wild swings in the literal and figurative fortunes of the plant. The hop is a quintessential cultural object. It has, on the one hand, unchangeable physical limits. It mostly grows between 35 and 55 degrees latitude. It almost exclusively twines in a clockwise direction, and the summer solstice triggers a shift to the production of its reproductive elements. Quickly, in late August or early September, the tiny burrs turn to plump, papery cones. Each day the yellow lupulin in the heart of the cone grows yellower, less grassy, ever closer to the ideal balance of acids and oils preferred by brewers and beer drinkers. Harvest too soon, and the lupulin will be underdeveloped and not up to the task of delivering its bittering and aromatic properties to the beer. Harvest too late, and you may lose the entire crop to aphids, hail, mildew, or rot.
Yet the blossoms resulting from that shift can take on myriad meanings and forms. Today, brewers and beer drinkers celebrate particular hop varieties as minor celebrities, heralding newly bred varieties like Cashmere or Zappa, or returning to the classics like Saaz or East Kent Golding. Hops are a way to turn sunshine and soil not into food, but into flavor and, in many cases, money.
Hops, ultimately, are non-essential. They provide no real nutrition for humans, nor do they intoxicate. But throughout human history, the pursuit of flavor and the pleasure that comes from flavor has propelled all kinds of horticulture, exploration, conquest, colonization, and labor. They are there to pleasure (or trigger) the sensors on the beer drinkers’ tongue and the infinitely more complex aromas that waft across the palate and toward the olfactory bulb. The pursuit of that experience has driven an enormous amount of work, radical alterations of existing landscapes, great networks of global trade, and flows of workers and commodities.
Hops sweep across the globe and they settle in specific plains and valleys. They generate particular ecologies—skunks that creep about the hills eating grubs attracted to the plants. Piles of startling red and black ladybug larvae that writhe on the vines in search of aphid infestations. And rhizomes deep in the earth that push upward every spring on the edges of the fields where they once reigned, now supplanted by corn and soy and black & white spotted cows.
Landscapes of cultivated hops are made possible by the varied laborscapes that make them—the range of people who plant the roots, twine the young plants clockwise around trellises or poles, and harvest the sticky blossoms in the heat of August.
Until the 20th century, growing hops for beer meant securing enough hands to pick hops in the brief moment between being under-ripe and risking it all with rot or another catastrophe. For commercial crops, family members were not enough to get the job done. Legions of hands arrived in the fields to strip the flowers and send them to the kiln, and then onward to breweries near and far.
The work of picking was (and still can be) joyful, deadly, monotonous, well-paid, or undervalued. Hop pickers died of cholera and drownings in 19th century England and succumbed to heatstroke in 19th and 20th century California and Wisconsin. But some of them also danced late into the night, met new sweethearts, earned money to send home, or joined with kin for rituals, games, and celebrations, as described by Bauer in his work on Pomo hop pickers in Northern California. Most of the hop fields of human history have now vanished, and the fields that thrive today in Oregon, New Zealand, Xinjiang, or Bavaria may turn to other crops as these locations face warming temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns.
Forgotten Hop Fields
The book I am writing began when I first read of hops growing in the outskirts of northern German towns in the 13th century, in Richard Unger’s work on medieval and Renaissance brewing. This so surprised me—knowing just a little about hops and thinking of German hops growing exclusively in southern Germany—that I began to dig deeper. I discovered a web of lost landscapes of hop cultivation. I initially planned a book that covered a thousand years of hop history, while focusing on the places where hops once grew and then disappeared. As I continued my research, entire lost agricultural Atlantises emerged before me, rising up out of the depths of Google Books, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s well-kept archives, and digitized census rolls.
Two places once utterly fundamental to the global trade in hops (and thus to the supply of 19th and early 20th century beer around the world)—but now entirely inconsequential to the big picture of hop cultivation—emerged: Wisconsin and California. The hop industries of these two states receive only passing mention in the many fine accounts of beer and hop history in the United States, while many stories focus on the alpha and omega of U.S. hop growing—New York State in the 19th century and the Pacific Northwest in the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite growing up in California, living in Wisconsin, and spending a lot of time in northern Germany, until quite recently I had never known hops grew in any of these places. Yet each had once been a thriving center of hop cultivation. There are other crucial, “forgotten” sites of hop cultivation, beyond my linguistic reach—France, Belgium, Slovakia, and Poland.
In the U.S., while the Pacific Northwest quickly took over from New York as the dominant producing region as the 19th century drew to a close, first Wisconsin and then California played vital roles in the production of hops for the world’s brew kettles. White settler farmers and the people they hired altered the landscape with their plans and their bodies. In Wisconsin, they drained wetlands, chopped down forests, and plowed up prairie grasses central to the livelihoods of Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Menominee, and other Native nations. They introduced hop roots imported from New York, England, and (here and there) Germany, killed plants that they categorized as weeds, and chopped down tamarack and birch saplings to make hop poles. As with other types of 19th century agriculture in the U.S., most of this production would have been impossible without violent theft of native land, the often unpaid labor of a diverse array of women, and the underpaid labor of a racially and ethnically diverse workforce, especially in California and the Pacific Northwest.
Through the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archive, I have found nearly 2,000 hop farmers in just three Wisconsin counties from 1840 to 1870. There are gaping silences in this archive, but still far more information about hop farmers and the landscapes they produced than I ever expected to find. It is impossible to recreate the precise interactions of hops and their landscapes and tenders in this period, but it is possible to begin to understand some of the details. Doing so offers a rich portrait of ways that people and places make each other, and in particular of how taste shapes place. That taste for bitterness among beer drinkers has led to special attention for this quirky plant, and particular landscapes, such as tamarack hop poles packed into loamy Wisconsin soil or early trellis systems in California’s Central Valley.
The book I am writing asks a set of seemingly simple questions: What were the causes and the consequences of the arrival of Humulus lupulus var. lupulus in Wisconsin (and, space permitting, California)? How did the rise and fall of this plant affect people, plants, and places? Wisconsin goes from no Humulus lupulus var. l. to millions of pounds harvested, to almost nothing. This once-great hop industry is often just a moment glanced over with a sentence or two in the histories of hops that focus on places with larger and more sustained hop histories.
Plants don’t speak, and every person involved in this story is dead, at least in Wisconsin (California is a different story). What’s left? The scant archival traces, a few family stories, gravestones, and wild hop plants escaped from the bounds of their fields. This is, ultimately, a story of failure.
But that story repeats itself over and over in agriculture, and the landscapes we see around us today will eventually meet the same fates as the hop fields of 1860s Wisconsin. Taste is part of the story. Today’s preferred hop profiles bifurcate into hops mild enough for the wildly popular lagers that dominate global industrial beer production and hops unique and variable enough to satisfy the significant segment of the market that is craft beer. Craft beer consumers are generally willing and able to spend more on their beer and a search for some combination of novelty, authenticity (a la Johnston and Baumann), rarity, and specific flavors and aromas. The variation in tastes produces a variation in landscapes and laborscapes across time and place as well.
Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.