Hops History in Oregon
Hops in Oregon have a long and varied history, full of tales from pickers, disease, Big Beer and craft brewing, and a solid research foundation at Oregon State.
New York was the first state to commercially produce hops in the early 19th century, but the specialty crop moved west with the people. The exact date hop seeds arrived and made it into our fertile soil is unknown, but we know the plants grown in Oregon were the first on the Pacific Coast. There are stories of hop growing as early as 1849, as seen referenced in this 1963 article.
Published references are also found in records comparing hop production between 1850 and 1900, such as the one below from Henry Reed’s 1903 article.
But there is conflicting information about who the “first commercial hop grower was in Oregon.” According to Virginia Eastlick in The Oregon Geers, Frederick Walcott Geer brought hop seeds with him to Oregon in 1846 and planted them near Silverton; when he died in 1866 he was the first successful hop farmer in Oregon. However, many others report that when William Wells planted his first hop yard in Buena Vista in 1867 commercial hop production officially arrived in Oregon.
Early hop farming in Oregon was a small family affair, with less than twenty acres dedicated to the crop.
In most instances, families grew hops as their sole cash crop, and local families or regional Indians provided the necessary labor for harvest in late August and September. (Kopp, Oregon Encyclopedia)
Though we most often link hops with beer, historically hops served many functions in pioneer kitchens. Hops were used in cooking (breads, salads) and home decor (stuffed in pillows), but they were also known for their medicinal uses. Reportedly, hops would help with afflictions such as flatulence, tumors, skin irritations, and mental illness. In the early 20th century hops were plentiful in Oregon and open for experimentation — and from 1905 to 1915 Oregon was the nation’s largest hop producer!
Many think it was Prohibition that knocked Oregon out of that number one spot, but it’s more complicated than that. Despite a ban on alcohol and Great Depression
Oregon hop production grew after World War I due to the disastrous effects of the war on European agriculture. From 1922 to 1943, Oregon regained the honor as the nation’s largest producer, and by the 1930s (following the repeal of Prohibition), the state’s hop growers expanded production to include over 20,000 acres of hops for a number of years. (Kopp, Oregon Encyclopedia)
In the 1930s the area around Independence in Polk County was known as the “Hop Center of the World,” but the entire Willamette Valley felt an increased demand for a seasonal labor force to harvest hops.
“Growers advertised in newspapers to recruit urban families and provided cabins or tents, water, and other necessities for the hop-pickers” (Kopp, Oregon Encyclopedia), but because the work was “unskilled” pickers were recruited from all over the region for the short harvest season. Women and children were hired for their perceived picking dexterity (and lower wage demands), and a diversity of workers were found in the fields (racial, economic, geographic).
Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos made up a part of the hop harvesting labor force, and several Japanese residents in the Valley owned their own hop farms. Mexican labor was not often used until after the 1950s when the farms had mostly become mechanized.
The Wigrich Ranch, south of Independence, was one of several that regularly hired Native Americans from the Grand Ronde, Siletz and Warm Springs reservations. In some ways, hop picking served the same function for those who lived on the reservations as tradition trade centers, such as Willamette Falls or Celilo Falls had before white settlers arrived. Beginning in the 1880s, Native Americans came to the Willamette Valley from all over Oregon to harvest hop. (Sturgeon)
Urbanites and rural laborers, married and unmarried, young and old, men and women alike enjoyed decent wages, additional income, and a retreat from the city.
The hop harvest was more than just agricultural, but also offered social and cultural opportunities as many farms offered entertainment and camping facilities. More organized hop festivals grew out of the and of harvest celebrations in the migrant camps found at the fields. Pickers still have fond memories of these celebratory evenings, but less fond ones of the hard picking during the day. By the early 1950s the hop crop began to the decline and mechanical picking machines replaced the need for seasonal laborers. This change meant a demise of a large hop festivals, but also a shift in growing practices. Many growers abandoned their crops, while others increased acreage to pay for their investment in mechanical pickers.
Concurrent with this boom/bust in production and freedom from Prohibition, hop farmers in Oregon faced a problem plaguing many other hop-growing states: mildew. Downy mildew is a fungal infection that causes brittle basal spikes, curled leaves, stunted bine growth, and loss in production yield. In response, in 1930 the USDA and Oregon State formalized a hop research program that had existed since the first roots were planted on campus in the 1890s. 78 years later, it was Dr. Alfred Haunold who made an indelible mark on the industry with the Cascade and other popular modern American hop varieties.
Vital research into disease and taste continued to happen at and in conjunction with work done at OSU. The 1940s saw the establishment of the Brewers’ Hop Research Institute in Chicago by the Master Brewers Association of America, United States Brewers Association, American Brewing Industry, and American Society of Brewing Chemists; Oregon remained the second largest producer of hops in the country and G. R. Hoerner, a crop scientist at OAC, served as the Institute’s Secretary in Charge of Research. In the 1950s the market was saturated with bland macro brews; while this may have not been a high point for flavor, it did lead to a steady demand for American hops and work for Willamette Valley hop farmers. Macro brewing companies also continued to fund research and cultivated relationships with farmers, often entering into multi-year contracts. Farmers formed the Oregon Hop Commission in 1964 in response to the disbanding of the United States Hop Growers Association, but also in order to meet their own particular needs and interests. They wanted to sponsor research studies, link research to education and promotional programs, study legislation that may impact the industry, and coordinate with other agencies and organizations to carry out joint projects. The 1960s also saw an increased concern with environmentalism; in particular the impact of pesticides and herbicides as industrial toxins. This concern came with research funding and in Corvallis meant a new position for Alfred Haunold.
Haunold was a research geneticist for the hop breeding program from 1965 to 1995 and led the research team that released over 16 hop cultivars and breeding lines to the public. His work led to well-known high-aroma superstars like Cascade, Willamette, Sterling, Liberty, Mt. Hood, and Santiam.
As time marched on into the 1990s, the role of Oregon hop farmers changed. Once top suppliers to the nation’s leading breweries, growers faced an alarming decline in demand (resulting in fewer acres planted) when corporate brewing demands shifted to hops varieties better grown elsewhere or privately developed them in their own labs. At the same time, the eager and expanding craft brewers who able to rely on corporate breweries’ “leftover hops” in the past were faced with higher prices and fears of future shortages as acreage decreased.
However, in the 2000s things shifted again in the industry. Instead of catering only to macro breweries, companies like hop supplier IndieHops were established with the sole purpose of supplying hops for the craft beer market. Indiehops has partnered with OSU on research coordination with the faculty like Shaun Townsend in Crop and Soil Sciences and Tom Shellhammer in the Fermentation Sciences departments, as well as on the creation of an Aroma Hops breeding program. OSU and the USDA continue to collaborate on research programs to address disease and insect problems, hop chemistry and its relation to beer quality, and the genetic basis for quality traits; USDA-ARS research plant geneticist John Henning continues much of the work started by Haunold and his predecessors.
Both mildews and mechanical picking machines had a significant impact on the number of farms operating in the state through the 20th century, but in 2013 Oregon is still the second largest hop producing state in the country with a vibrant farming culture in our own Willamette Valley. It’s an exciting time for growers, brewers, and those who enjoy their creations.
Citations and “See Alsos”
- Eastlick, V. (1986). The Oregon Geers.
- Kopp, P. Hop Industry. Retrieved from http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/hop_industry/.
- Nelson, H. (1963). The Vanishing Hop-Driers of the Willamette Valley. Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 64 (3), 267-271.
- Oregon State University. Federal Cooperative Extension Service, Oregon First Century of Farming (Corvallis: Oregon State College, 1959).
- Reed, H. (1903). The Great West and the Two Easts. Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 4 (2), 110-129.
- Strom. D. Hops. Retrieved from http://www.willametteheritage.org/LaRC/bios_histories/Hops.pdf
- Sturgeon, K. (2012). In 1940s, hops brought thousands to Valley. Retrieved from http://www.willametteheritage.org/News_2012/Hops_SJ_article_7_14_2012.pdf
- Tomlan, M. A. (1992). Tinged with gold: Hop culture in the united states. University of Georgia Press.