1. Wisconsin was once the nation’s largest producer of hops. The 1860s saw “an unbounded zeal” in Wisconsin hop production, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1867, when Wisconsin was growing 75 percent of the nation’s hops. The state’s brewing industry demanded hops at a time when wheat prices were declining, prompting many farmers to grow hops instead. The hop market crashed soon thereafter, but the boom-time infusion of cash helped establish a strong agricultural base in Wisconsin.
2. There’s a wine connection. The Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy is believed to have grown some of the first hops in Sauk County, which became the epicenter of the Wisconsin hops craze. But the Count’s true love was grapes, and alongside hops he planted vineyards that were to become the heart of Wollersheim Winery, Wisconsin’s largest. Seeking a warmer climate for grape growing, Haraszthy moved to California, where he became a pioneer of the state’s wine industry.
3. And a pot connection as well. The hop is a member of the Cannabis family. As its scientific name (Humulus lupulus) indicates, hops contain the chemical lupulone, which is a mild sedative. Long before the plant’s female flowers were used to provide flavor and aroma in beer, they served a medicinal purpose as a sedative and digestive aid (pillows filled with the flowers, for example, were used to induce sleep).
4. The Pacific Northwest rules. Wisconsin breweries purchase most of their hops from that region. Washington state leads the pack, growing 77 percent of the nation’s hops.
5. But we’re seeing a mini-revival of hop growth here. In Iowa, Sauk, Grant and Dane counties people are buying land and planting hops again. Gorst Valley Hops, near Black Earth, has developed a charter growers program, a cooperative of sorts for hop growers. In northern Wisconsin, many of the smaller brewpubs and microbreweries are beginning to grow their own hops—an example is the South Shore Brewery in Ashland. As you drive around the state, look for tall poles in long lines across a field. It could mean that hops are happening.
Judith Reith-Rozelle is assistant superintendent of CALS’ West Madison Agricultural Research Station. She wishes to thank Laura Paine, grazing and organic agriculture specialist with DATCP, for the historical information about hops.