Part 1 of 3
Hops come in an industry stable form, nicely pelletized, vacuum sealed on nitrogen and include the alpha and beta acid levels right on the package. There are over 70 varieties of hops in a climate controlled freezer at Northern Brewer just waiting to be purchased.
So why grow your own hops? Because for starters, it is a darn cool plant. Hops will grow 6 to 12 inches a day, topping out at 16 to 20 feet by July 1st. It is also a beautiful and resilient plant once established. If you treat them well, a freezer full of freeze-dried hops will allow you to laugh in the face of variety shortages and the possibility that everybody will be making a Cascade or Centennial IPA this summer.
In my case, it is a salute to my heritage. When my family emigrated from England to Oneida, New York, resting in Sussex, Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, the first crop they grew was hops. It was important to me to get hops re-established on the same land my family homesteaded in 1840. The Sussex/Lisbon Historical Society archives include correspondence my ancestors wrote to relatives in Peasmarsh, Sussex County, England where the hop harvest and wholesale prices were discussed. A good year here was $13 per hundred weight versus $11.
Shortly after the Civil War, Weaver Bros. Hops Brokers and Dealers (upon hearing of a hop blight in Europe from relatives) bought all the hops futures they could get their hands on. They made enough money that some hop farmers were able to pay off all their debts in one season. However, this market boom was followed shortly by the inevitable glut when the price collapsed, and many moved on to dairy farming to supply milk, butter, and cheese for Milwaukee.
Records show that the industry was large enough that 20,000 to 30,000 teenagers came to the area in the early 1800s for the hops harvest. The picture below is from a picnic in 1901 in Sussex WI. The tamarack poles in the background were used to support the hops bines. I am related to some of the men in the picture (and not the good looking ones).
Unfortunately, shortly after this picture was taken, the hops louse (an aphid) put an end to the hops industry in Wisconsin. After over 70 years of great profits and market crushing losses, a tiny bug killed the Wisconsin hops industry. I was however able to salvage a little of my family’s history by recovering and replanting two hops plants found on the family patriarch’s property which produce an amazing wet hop beer every year.
Growing your own hops can have it’s challenges. Like any agricultural product they are labor intensive and subject to the whims of mother nature’s wind, rain, drought, storms and the ever present pests (damn Japanese Beetles). But it is well worth the time and toil, as the beer you make is unique and truly your own.