Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Hop Fever" in the Willamette Valley: The Local and Global Roots of a Regional Specialty Crop

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Hop Fever" in the Willamette Valley: The Local and Global Roots of a Regional Specialty Crop

Article excerpt

DURING THE FALL OF 1865, Olympia, Washington, brewer Isaac Wood became frustrated with his inability to acquire hops, grown predominantly in distant East Coast and European fields. He asked a neighboring farming family, the Meekers, to plant a few hills of the crop, and they agreed to the experiment. It was a historic decision. Jacob Meeker and his son Ezra planted rootstock the following spring. By late summer, a successful harvest satiated Wood's desire to use local hops in his beer-making and earned the Meekers more money than had any other crop. (1) Following the family's windfall, Ezra Meeker energetically promoted the news to farmers across the region. He asserted that the future of Pacific Northwest farming rested in hops. Production of the specialty crop expanded rapidly, and Meeker soon proclaimed that his farming brethren had caught "hop fever." (2)

By the early twentieth century, the Pacific Northwest was one of the world's leading hop exporters. Ideal environmental conditions, an established agricultural infrastructure, and improved shipping capabilities all spelled success. Oregon's Willamette Valley appeared particularly suited for the crop. Industry experts remarked that environmental and climactic features of the region resembled the Hallertau district in Germany, a global center of hop production. (3) Farmers in every Willamette Valley county heeded Meeker's ongoing endorsements by planting more crops every year. In 1905, Oregon became the leading hop-growing state in the nation and challenged German levels of production from then until World War II. The region's growers proudly claimed the title "Hop Capital of the World." (4)

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The origin story of the Willamette Valley hop industry, spanning from 1865 to 1905, involves intersecting themes of environment, economy, and culture. The history engages the Eurasian and American genesis of hop agriculture, the role of specialty crops in late-nineteenth-century diversified farmsteads, the creation and dissemination of agricultural knowledge, and the economic and sociocultural importance of the late-summer harvest. Hop cultivation brought together farmers testing new ways of making a living in the Willamette Valley, merchants working to foster global business networks, and a diverse pool of workers making some extra money at the end of each summer. When unfolded, these layers reveal how hops contributed to a local economy and community identity, and how the specialty crop connected the Willamette Valley to people and places across the world. (5)

THE GLOBAL ORIGINS OF "THE WOLF OF THE WILLOW"

Hops are deep-rooted perennial plants that produce annual vines and cones. There are varieties native to East Asia (Humulus japonicus) and North America (Humulus americanus), but brewers covet only the common hop (Humulus lupulus L.) native to Eurasia. Before the use of hops in beer, peoples across the Northern Hemisphere collected wild cones for teas and medicinals, tender shoots for food, and vines for twine. Pliny the Elder documented the plant nearly two thousand years ago, naming it "the Wolf of the Willow" because the vigorously growing vines killed neighboring willow trees. It was not until the eighth century that Bohemian monks domesticated the plants for ornamental purposes, and five hundred years later that beer-makers across Europe consistently used hop cones in their brews. Only after experimentation with dandelion, heather, and other plants did brewers decide on the hop for its many useful beer-brewing characteristics. The bitter alpha acids in hops help balance the sweetness of malted grain, and hop oil provides pleasant aromatic qualities. The soft resins in Humulus lupulus (that is, alpha and beta acids) also have strong antibacterial activity and act as a natural preservative, giving the malted concoctions a longer shelf life. (6)

By the eighteenth century, the world centers of hop production resided in Bavaria, Bohemia, and England. …

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