Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon's Willamette Valley

Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon's Willamette Valley

by Peter A. Kopp

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The contents of your pint glass have a much richer history than you could have imagined. Through the story of the hop, Hoptopia connects twenty-first century beer drinkers to lands and histories that have been forgotten in an era of industrial food production. The craft beer revolution of the late twentieth century is a remarkable global history that converged in the agricultural landscapes of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The common hop, a plant native to Eurasia, arrived to the Pacific Northwest only in the nineteenth century, but has thrived within the region’s environmental conditions so much that by the first half of the twentieth century, the Willamette Valley claimed the title “Hop Center of the World.” Hoptopia integrates an interdisciplinary history of environment, culture, economy, labor, and science through the story of the most indispensible ingredient in beer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277489
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #61
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 1,230,145
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter A. Kopp is Assistant Professor of History at New Mexico State University, where he also serves as Director of the Public History Program.

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A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon's Willamette Valley

By Peter A. Kopp


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96505-8


Wolf of the Willow

MILLIONS OF YEARS BEFORE AMERICAN BREWERS opened the taps of the craft beer revolution, a climbing plant of the Cannabaceae family evolved in Asia. The hop, characterized by herbaceous bines, vigorous growth, and cylindrical green cones, made its home in river bottomlands and forest margins. It grew best in temperate climates with ample spring rains to inspire rapid growth, dry summers to help stave off pests and disease, and enough of a winter freeze to allow for a period of dormancy. The plant also preferred deep, fertile soils that allowed for an extensive root system to support its ascent up trees or shrubs. If all of these conditions could be met, the perennial hop might subsist for two or three decades, with its bines growing annually each spring and then dying back to the permanent root system in the autumn.

Over the course of millennia, the dioecious plant (one with two distinct sexes) set out roots in the soil and pollen in the wind. The gene pool widened as the hop successfully spread to temperate regions not just in Asia, but all over the Northern Hemisphere at approximately latitudes thirty to fifty-five degrees. Eventually, three distinct species populated the planet. Two of those, Humulus scandens (until recently called Humulus japonicas) and Humulus yunnanensis, remained isolated in Asia. But the most ubiquitous of the three, Humulus lupulus L., or the common hop, established itself across Eurasia and found a path to North America. Still, the plant's adapting and evolving was far from over. Across all of the regions that the plant colonized — whether present-day England, Germany, Russia, or New Mexico — the hop took on variances based on climates and soil types. Local varieties evolved with different rates of growth, resistances to diseases, and, most noticeably, unique shapes, sizes, and colors of cones.

In many ways, the hop's early story unfolded like countless others during the angiosperm revolution, a period that began over a hundred million years ago when flowering plants repopulated a world of conifers, moss, and ferns. It was a time when nature embellished the earth with the botanical biodiversity with which we are more familiar today. To survive, all plants confronted an evolutionary path rife with geologic and climactic change, not to mention competition among other species. Taking a moment to consider Humulus lupulus L. as part of that grand narrative is worthwhile. Envision how the plant interacted with its environments and how it tested new ones as it traveled the world. How did the common hop entangle itself in unfamiliar places in the face of shifting continents and floods, droughts, and competition from other flora and fauna? Why did it succeed? When did it fail, and why? Scientists and archeologists have mapped out some answers, including the expansion and contraction of populations as the earth warmed and cooled. Fossil records and DNA help in this task, and the plants provide clues about their past via the places they inhabit and in the physical manifestations of their evolution (whether color, size, shape, or fragrance). But most of our understanding of the hop's evolution and movement across land and sea, the trial and error, remains to the imagination.

While the details of the distant past may seem a far-off place to begin this book, knowledge of deep time provides an essential backdrop for understanding what unfolded much later in the far west of North America. Plants have much older stories than do humans. They simply lack an easy way of telling them. The fibers that make up the fabrics we wear and materials from which we build our homes, as well as the foods and drinks we consume, all have long, intricate histories. At the very least, even if we lack clarity of the day-to-day details throughout the millions of years that those plants carried forth, it is worth acknowledging that they all have a long and complex past. Perhaps all plants should be revered simply for the fact that they have persisted and continue to do so as human populations have expanded in the past millennia. Of course, the common hop deserves particular distinction among all of those botanical stories: for it was the plant that evolved and modified to become the chosen ingredient to flavor and preserve beer.

A deep-time overview of the hop is useful for several other reasons. It is important to know that the first brewers to add hops to their vats used varieties that had adapted to their regional environments. Those hops that evolved with different physical characteristics also had different flavors and aromas. The hop's distant past helps us understand how and why agriculturalists developed specific cultivation methods. In simple terms, farmers have long sought to replicate and improve on the growing conditions of wild plants. Such activities required individuals to study when hop shoots emerged from the soil and latched themselves onto trees and shrubs; it required cultivators to test which soils the hop would grow best in and how to provide the nutrients that the plants needed to achieve an abundance of cones each harvest. Farmers also studied the length of growing seasons and harvest times in accordance with their local environment. This botanical and evolutionary knowledge has been gathered and passed down through generations, and it remains vital to successful hop raising in the twenty-first century. But this is getting ahead of the story.

For most of its existence, Humulus lupulus L. carried forth in a world absent of extensive human interaction. That changed in the last fifty thousand years when Homo sapiens reached a stasis of behavioral modernity, or took on the physical and mental traits with which we are familiar today. Although evidence is sparse, it is likely that even long before agricultural revolutions around the world and the rise of sedentary civilizations, people discovered various uses for wild hops. Gatherers of the plant used bines for twine and the tender shoots for food. Perhaps, most prominently, they used the cones for medicines, believing in the plant's power to heal a variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to digestive issues. Undoubtedly, someone somewhere tried to eat hop cones right off of the plant. As similarly curious people find today, a taste of raw hops offers a bitter and unpleasant experience. Amid this process of human botanical discovery, the marriage of hops and beer was still far off because beer making arose much later in the course of human civilization. And even then, hops were a relatively late addition to the brewer's trade.


The discovery of all forms of alcohol, including beer, coincided with various agricultural revolutions that unfolded across the world around eight thousand to fifteen thousand years ago, when nomadic hunting and gathering societies transitioned to sedentary farming civilizations. Most archeologists attribute the transition to a warming climate that allowed for the raising of plants and stock animals after the cold Pleistocene epoch transitioned into the warmer Holocene. Others embellish that story by suggesting that alcohol proved the motivating factor in this process, because people around the world discovered the intoxicating delights of fermented grains, fruits, and honey and wanted to reproduce them with regularity. Whatever the truth of these origins, it is vital to know that brewing and distilling knowledge matured over time in tangent with agricultural expansion.

The world's first beer makers discovered their craft in Mesopotamia quite accidently when they found that baked grain left to the elements might create an inebriating substance. The Sumerians get credit for the culinary innovation, since they were the first to replicate the process on their own terms. Eventually, the ancient brewers added water to the sweet grainy substance and flavored the malty beverage with dates or honey. The beer-making process took time to develop and perfect. But it is clear the Sumerians achieved incredible success. They even preserved a recipe for beer in the Hymn for Ninkasi, named after their goddess of the beverage. As one historian noted, the hymn, captured in writing around six thousand years ago, provided an expansive overview of the brewing process, from the gathering and treatment of grain to the types of vessels used in transferring and storing the delightful liquid. Over time, the knowledge of brewing passed through generations of empires, from the Babylonians to the Egyptians, to the Greeks, and to the Romans. While the Greeks and Romans always preferred wine, they developed a brewing culture and spread it to the rest of Europe, which became the beer-making center of the world. This is not to say that other regions of the globe missed out in establishing independent beer cultures. Around six thousand to eight thousand years ago beer brewing emerged in what is present-day Iran and Latin America. However, those regions would not have the same global influence as Europe on the history of beer.

Throughout the course of thousands of years, the brewing process has remained simple and relatively similar. Brewers boil malted grain (most commonly, barley, wheat, or rye in the modern era) with water and, sometimes, lesser ingredients of one sort or another to add flavor. After cooling off that sweet concoction, called the wort, the brewer pitches yeast — a live culture that sets about digesting the sugars of the malted grain to create alcohol. One of the biggest differences between the first brewers and those in the more recent past is a matter of ingredients and flavor, particularly in regards to hops. The plant was not part of the original beer recipes, and its use would not be widespread in brewing until the late Middle Ages.

If beer making proliferated throughout the ancient world, what did brewers use to flavor and preserve their beer if not hops? The answer is extensive. According to one scholar, they used nearly two hundred different flowers, spices, and herbs. Some of the most common ingredients added to the wort included dandelion and heather, but the list also included peat moss, cumin, willow, and juniper. Like good cooks anywhere, early brewers experimented with available ingredients and adjusted their recipes over time. Fundamental in this quest for the best beer were locally available plants. The earliest brewing pioneers foraged the countryside around their homes to find ingredients. The results contributed a multitude of beer flavors. In part because of the absence of hops, however, these early beers (often called gruit beers) tasted much different from the beers we have today.

According to the best available records, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder first documented the common hop just after the time of Jesus Christ. In Naturalis Historia, he noted that the ancient Europeans called the plant lupus salictarius, most commonly translated as the "wolf of the willow" — perhaps because its climbing bines suffocated willow trees with their rapid growth throughout the spring and summer, or perhaps because of the gnarling twisting of the vines. Even during Pliny's lifetime, when beer was common in parts of Europe, there is no documentation of hops being used in the brewing process. Instead, gatherers of wild hops continued to find uses in the bines for twine, in the shoots for food, and in the cones for medicines, as had likely been done by various civilizations for thousands of years across the Northern Hemisphere.

There are debates on the exact origins, but it is generally accepted that Western Europeans first added hops to their beer in the eighth and ninth centuries. At that time, the hop provided a remarkable addition to the medieval brewer's trade. The gastronomical alchemists came to rely on the bitter alpha acids of hops (known today primarily as humulone, cohumulone, and adhumulone) that helped balance the sweetness of malted grains and on the essential oils that infused pleasant aromas. The soft resins of Humulus lupulus L., found in the cone's inner yellow lupulin glands, also exhibited strong antibacterial activity and thereby acted as a preservative for beer. (See figure 2.) Of course, it is only in the past century that scientists have been able to explain the chemical makeup of the plant. And even now, there is still much to learn. A thousand years ago, brewers gained the knowledge by testing hops in their beers.

The first generations of beer makers who used hops did not cultivate the plant. Instead, they gathered it from the wild, just as had their ancestors. Brewers in Bavaria, likely the first to use hops, found the ingredient rather easily. Wild hops grew (and still grow) abundantly in German river valleys and on the edge of forests. Brewers likely added the whole cones to their vat upon collection in the late summer and early fall. Over time, beer makers also began to dry the cones and store them for uses throughout the year. These adaptations informed future practices and provided standards.

One prominent English hop expert suggested that the A.D. 736 records of a "Wendish prisoner in the Hallertau district of Germany" offer the "earliest written evidence of hop cultivation." Little is known of this account, and it is uncertain why the individual began his work. Nevertheless, sources indicate that shortly after that date, Bavarian monks began planting hops. Perhaps the plant added some charm to their gardens in the summertime, with running bines climbing high and the hop cones hanging throughout. More likely, these early cultivators harvested hop cones for medicinal purposes and brewing. Hop growing spread as the plant became revered for these reasons.

By the end of the ninth century, hop growing for use in beer making expanded from Bavaria to Bohemia (in the present-day Czech Republic), Slovenia, France, and other temperate regions of continental Europe. In the early spring, growers planted rootstock in small, evenly spaced hills. After shoots emerged, growers trained the bines to climb clockwise on timber posts, since the plant's botanical makeup determined that the shoots would fall off if trained otherwise. Come summer the plants matured, and by early fall hop cones adorned the plant. Families then handpicked the cones after the posts and their attached bines had been laid to the ground. Success in the process, as in any other agricultural activity, depended on trial and error. Hop growers searched for and discovered better ways to encourage growth and productivity, whether those were improvements in training bines or methods of fertilization. Intercontinental travelers helped the agriculturalists by spreading both knowledge and plant material in efforts to improve cultivation. That cascading process continued over generations and would significantly improve hop farming.

The most important activity in early hop agriculture pertained to the selection of hops for planting. Early horticulturalists found that the hop did not breed true from its seed, but rather from its rhizomes, or underground stems that send shoots above the soil. This is not an uncommon agricultural phenomenon; many fruit trees behave similarly. Local geography, or terroir — the term used in viticulture to describe the environmental features in which specific grapes grow and which impart unique tastes — proved essential. Although the common hop could be found across Europe, individual regions had unique plants that had adapted to distinctive climates, elevations, and soils. Such variations are called landraces. Beer makers and agriculturalists selected the hardiest and most productive of these, as well as those that offered the best qualities in flavoring and preserving beer. Along with the use of local grains and yeasts, the hop selection contributed to regionally specific beers. The first German hops under cultivation included the Hallertauer and Spalter, and the first in Bohemia was the Saazer — all named from the region in which they grew (i.e., Hallertau, Spalt, and Saaz, respectively). These hops have been long considered the world's finest, particularly because of their pleasant, aromatic attributes. For that reason they have been deemed "noble hops." All of the noble aroma varieties are as revered in the early twentieth-first century as they were in the era of the Crusades.


Excerpted from Hoptopia by Peter A. Kopp. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Defining Hoptopia 1

1 Wolf of the Willow 6

2 Valley of the Willamette 19

3 Hop Fever 34

4 Hop-Picking Time 51

5 Hop Center of the World 72

6 The Surprise of Prohibition 95

7 Fiesta and Famine 112

8 After the Hop Rush 134

9 Cascade 153

10 Hop Wars 173

Epilogue: Hoptopia in the Twenty-First Century 189

Notes 197

Bibliography 255

Index 283

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