Consume This! Hop To It

I found the following blog post about researching the history of hops, originally posted on the Consumers & Consumption blog, fascinating.



by Jennifer Jordan

I have a stack of library books to my left, and in front of me is a hard drive full of documents and reading notes, and the powerful (if also problematic) search engine that’s easy to take for granted. I am in the middle of writing a book about hops, whose history illuminates labor relations, racial and ethnic formations, gender and family structures, ecologies, riverways, trade routes, and changing tastes and landscapes. Because all of my research subjects were long ago laid in their graves or cremated on their pyres (my time period is roughly the 12th century to the early 20th), I look for traces of their thoughts and actions, tastes and habits in vast quantities of library books, digitized archives, oral histories, photographs and maps, handwritten ledgers and old newspapers, and other sources of varying degrees of inscrutability. Once in a while I’ll venture out to talk to a farmer or brewer, grateful for all-wheel drive as I wind my way down ever-narrower and icier country roads to one of Wisconsin’s new hop yards.


But more often I’m poring over texts both digital and analog. One of the most powerful tools I use is Google Books—the ability to electronically search so many full text documents is quite remarkable for someone who started her writing life with a typewriter and a card catalog. Even when the search only yields a snippet of a page, I can then order the actual book through interlibrary loan. In other cases the whole book unfolds before me on the screen, with the relevant pages so helpfully illuminated. The ability to thoroughly search within the bodies of obscure agricultural manuals, city registries, and decades-old ethnographic surveys with a couple of keystrokes radically alters the process of this kind of research. Here, for example, I followed a lead from another source that had suggested a man named “Kiewert” might have been a Milwaukee hop dealer–and there he is.


The ease of access to so much of this material, however, can mean that I’m sometimes startled to discover that really valuable sources are deeply analog. My university library happens to hold the Blatz and Pabst brewery papers in its archive, so just steps away from my office I can descend into archival reverie (and sometimes drudgery). The leather binding rots all over my hands with a stinging dust, as the archivist slides a pillow underneath the enormous book to take the pressure off its 150-year-old spine. I search through these ledgers, page by page, to find out where Blatz and Pabst and others were buying their hops. It turns out, not surprisingly, that they were buying almost entirely from dealers rather than farmers. Here Kiewert appears in real life (if also with a slightly different spelling), but now I also know where his building was, and where he lived.


The combination of Google Books and old ledgers helped me realize the centrality of hop dealers to both the production and consumption of beer in the 19th century (and far beyond Wisconsin). According to the census searches I’ve done so far, they are all white men, some of whom started out as hop farmers themselves, and many of whom became prosperous traders in other people’s hops. These dealers command time and space with railways, telegraph wires, and the well-packed hop bales piled into train cars, horse-drawn carts, schooners and later steam ships, speeding to the marketplace that promises the best prices. Sometimes there was a glut, and the hops would languish in rural barns (one farmer lost thousands of pounds of dried hops when his barn burned down) or urban warehouses in Milwaukee or lower Manhattan or Liverpool. This was a brisk international trade, made possible by the same smoothing out of uneven land with railroad tracks that William Cronon describes in the rise of Chicago to a metropolis. That trade, in turn, relied on tens of thousands of children, women, and men picking hops in the brief window of ripeness in August and early September.

As I move through these documents, both physical and virtual, individual personalities and biographies emerge for both Wisconsin and California (14th century Germany is a whole other ballgame). I have a growing database of hop farmers and hop dealers—and a very scanty collection of the names of hop pickers, despite the fact that they vastly outnumbered the dealers and farmers. Before mechanized harvesters appeared in the early 20th century, the hop harvest required a sudden and massive influx of laborers to pick the hops by hand. In Wisconsin in the hop boom of the 1860s, this labor force consisted largely of young white women. In California, in the second half of the 19th century, hop pickers reflected the broader racialized, classed, and gendered labor pool in the state. Depending on the time and place, the quickly ripening hops were picked by Chinese men, Japanese men, Native American families, and white families. Despite their greater number, the people who swiftly harvested these sticky, perishable blossoms have, so far, appeared less frequently in search engines and the holdings of historical societies than the property owners. That said, clues do emerge here and there. Annie Burke (1876-1960), for example, was a Makahmo-speaking Pomo basket weaver, who also picked hops in her younger years in Hopland, California.[i] Here is a picture of her gravestone, with abalone shells laid before it, and a photograph of Annie with several baskets: There is also John Rooney (1844-1917), who was born in Ireland, but moved to Wisconsin with his family as a child. He was a hop picker and later a hop farmer, and also had two sisters (probably Margaret and Ann, the oldest) who picked hops in Loganville, Wisconsin during the Civil War.[ii] Digitized historical census data has proven extremely useful in piecing together the shapes and paths of families, including the wives and daughters performing unpaid labor for and with the hop farmers, as well as the paid hop harvesters, and the smaller number of people hired to string the hops as they start to wind up their poles.


The hop is an odd consumable. It has very little value outside of beer-making, at least today. Only edible as a young shoot, it was enjoyed in that form by many Romans, long before the hop blossom had found its way into brew kettles. Only in the 9th century is there more convincing archaeological and archival evidence associating hops with brewing. By the 19th century, just about any commercial brewing in the US and Europe would have used some quantity of hops. If you are not a beer drinker, chances are pretty good that hops play no role in your life. If you are a beer drinker, hops are absolutely essential to the flavor you experience, whether you are drinking a watery American lager, a citrusy IPA, or a barrel-aged imperial stout. In other words, hops have long been grown for one use only—beer, where they lend bitterness and a range of aromas (depending in part on the variety and quantity of hop), as well as antimicrobial properties. The tastes of beer drinkers, whether in the 12th century, 19th century, or today, have translated into specific types of agricultural landscapes and labor patterns. Hops have long, hungry root systems that seek out deep, alluvial soils when they grow wild, as they have done for millennia across Europe, Asia, and North America. Cultivated hops are also often planted in river plains, capturing the nutrients those rivers have laid down over millennia of flowing water and seasonal flooding. The tending of these plants, and the satisfying of the thirsts of legions of beer drinkers, leaves its mark unevenly and sometimes inscrutably in landscapes and archives alike.


[i] Herbert W. Luthin, ed. Surviving Through the Days: A California Indian Reader: Translations of Native California Stories and Songs. Berkeley: UC Press, 2002, p. 313.

[ii] John Rooney, in Harry Ellsworth Cole, A Standard History of Sauk County, Wisconsin, Volume 1. Sauk County, Wisconsin: Lewis Publishing Company, 1918, pp 96-97.


Jennifer Jordan is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of Structures of Memory: Understanding Urban Change in Berlin and Beyondand Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods.

Comments are closed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: