While the lumber, coal, and dairy industries played important roles in Washington's early economic development, the humble hop is a significant part of that story as well. The pretty green cones of hop vines (known as bines) that grow high on trellises in the Yakima Valley today helped build fortunes and create centers of agricultural commerce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The business of hops began with plantings in Western Washington in the mid 1860s and quickly took off. As production grew, along with evidence of high-quality hops, the crop began gaining attention. "There is no State in the Union where hop growing is carried on with more success than in Washington," stated The New York Times in September 1891. Factors including an aphid blight that decimated crops west of the Cascades and progress with irrigation east of the Cascades shifted the industry eastward, where today about three-quarters of the nation's hop harvest is sourced. Based on 2019 figures, hops ranked sixth among agricultural commodities in Washington with a harvest valued at $475.7 million. In 2020, 42,269 acres were harvested (up from 23,320 acres in 2011), a production level of just over 74 million pounds. Washington has been producing more than half of the nation's hops since the 1960s.
Hops Take Root
Washington pioneer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) is credited with launching the state's hop industry, though he credits his father, Jacob R. Meeker (1804-1869) with that honor, noting that Jacob Meeker didn't live to see valuable results that came from what he first planted. The Meekers planted hops in the Puyallup Valley in 1865 (the most commonly referenced year; Meeker cites it as 1866). This was prompted by Charles Wood, a brewer in Olympia, who promised to purchase the resulting hop harvest. Wood supplied the hop cuttings from his own garden, and Meeker's first crop yielded 185 pounds, sold for 85 cents per pound.
In the Eastern U.S., hop growers couldn't count on a good harvest the first year of planting. But soil and climate conditions in Western Washington proved so well suited to hops that decent crops the first year were the norm. It was a success that not only encouraged Meeker to give hop-growing serious attention, it spurred others into action as well. Meeker prospered quickly. "Meeker's hop business was so successful that he established a branch office in London to sell hops on the world market. In 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1887 the Meekers spent four months a year in London" ("Meeker, Ezra ...").
In the years following that first planting, hop fields (known as yards) popped up in the Puyallup River Valley, White River Valley, Green River Valley, and to the north in Squak Valley, near what is now Issaquah. By the early 1880s, hops became the dominant crop grown in the Puyallup Valley. In the area around what is now Kent, "Hop farms and hop kilns blossomed throughout the valley, making many farmers wealthy men" ("Kent -- Thumbnail History"). In fact, Kent, the town once known as Titusville, gained its new name in 1885 inspired by Kent County in England, a region known for hop growing.
Two Wold brothers were among the early settlers of a town named Squak that, following a couple of intermediate monikers, became Issaquah. There in the Squak Valley the Wolds planted hops in 1868, using roots purchased from Meeker. The success of their crop proved as motivating as Meeker's first planting had been to the south, and hop yards spread in the Squak Valley as well. But of all the soon-to-be-flourishing hop growers, Meeker stood out for his expansion and his commitment to learning what he could about hop cultivation. He went on to write a book chronicling the knowledge acquired from 15 years in the business, with Hop Culture in the United States, being a Practical Treatise on Hop Growing in Washington Territory, from the Cutting to the Bale published in 1883. In his book's introduction, Meeker acknowledges that the early growers in the Puyallup Valley knew little of growing the distinctive crop. What came to be a lucrative product wasn't without some initial strain as part of the learning curve.
By 1884, more than 100 growers were cultivating hops in the Puyallup Valley, with Meeker alone tending to more than 500 acres. The state's harvest in 1888 exceeded 6 million pounds and production grew to 9 million pounds by 1890. A 1891 New York Times article stated, after noting initial hop-growing successes, "From that beginning sprang a business that has brought into the State more than $20,000,000, and now gives employment to 15,000 people annually" ("Hop Growing In Washington").
Labor in the Yards
Native American pickers were a significant portion of the seasonal hop workers. "The bulk of the hops are picked by Indians; they come from far and near, some in wagons, some on horseback, a few on foot, but the greater number in canoes. Two thousand, five hundred Indians came into the Puyallup valley during the hop-harvest of 1882" (Meeker, 18). Indigenous hop pickers came from throughout the Puget Sound region, British Columbia, and some from as far away as Alaska.
Though hop yards needed some tending in the spring and summer to manage new growth and train bines, picking the ripe hop cones beginning in late summer was singularly demanding. Manual picking of hops continued into the 1940s, when mechanized pickers began to be used, significantly reducing the amount of field labor needed. Until then it took a great many laborers to harvest the valuable crop. Supplementing Native American pickers were white and, to a lesser degree, Chinese pickers.
Decimated by Aphids
The effervescent New York Times coverage appeared early in the harvest season of 1891, extolling Washington's ideal growing conditions, saying "cool nights and the long sunny days, and certainty of early summer rains, make the cost light, the yield large, the quality choice and the crop certain" ("Hop Growing In Washington). The Times called out Meeker's "twenty five successive crops without a failure," noting that the region's hop growers had worked diligently to avoid serious issues with pests.
Given that enthusiasm, which presumably reflected experiences of most Washington growers at the time, the events of the following year or two must have come as a harsh surprise. Different sources cite 1891 and 1892 as years of serious decimation of Western Washington's hop yards, due to infestation of a hop aphid, one clearly beyond what even the most diligent hop farmers could manage. Crops of 1892 sold at a fraction of anticipated prices. Meeker later wrote, "All my accumulations were swept away, and I quit the business -- or rather, the business quit me" ("Meeker, Ezra ...").
Not every field was wiped out. Brief news items cite some hop-harvest activities in Western Washington that continued into later 1890s and early 1900s. But this western branch of the industry had mostly run its course. In a matter of years, land that had held climbing bines of aromatic hops west of the Cascades soon gave way to other agricultural operations, such as dairy, lumber, flowers, and produce. Among visible remnants of the hop era is the historic Fall City hop shed, which dates to 1888, restored and relocated to Fall City Community Park. The next chapter sees extensive growth in Eastern Washington, where the industry still thrives today.
Even before irrigation systems advanced agricultural opportunities east of the Cascades, agriculture began to take hold near the region's rivers and creeks. Charles Carpenter (1838-1918) planted hops acquired from his father's hop farm in New York in 1868, 1869, or 1872. Historical sources disagree on the date, but all agree that Carpenter's hops, planted in Ahtanum in the Yakima Valley, set in motion the industry of hop growing in Eastern Washington.
The Union Gap Canal, completed in 1884, was among the early irrigation ditches east of the Cascades, and the first to carry water to Moxee. It wasn't long before hops were a key crop for farmers in that vicinity: By 1930 the town came to be known as the hops capital of the world. Moxee has hosted an annual hop festival for many years.
When water began flowing in the Sunnyside Canal in 1892 it "opened 25 miles of the Yakima Valley to agriculture -- later expanded to 60 miles. Thousands of acres were suddenly converted from sagebrush into lush orchards and hop fields" ("Zillah -- Thumbnail History").
In a twist of history, Alexander Graham Bell played a role in growth of the hop industry in Eastern Washington. He and his father-in-law established the Moxee Company in 1886, with the intent to develop farming operations in the area. Within a couple of years they had about 1,000 acres in production, selling lots to farmers who grew a range of crops. Among them, hops performed particularly well.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, families of French-Canadian descent from Minnesota arrived with the promise of agricultural opportunity that the Moxee Company offered. (By the 1930s, the Moxee Company no longer held land here.) Some of these families, among them Gamache, Perrault, and Brulotte, are still growing hops today.
As was true in Western Washington, hop growers relied heavily on Native American pickers to harvest their crops through the early decades of the industry. Among the first, if not first, Native Americans to establish a hop farm in Eastern Washington was Moses Sampson, who grew them in Medicine Valley near White Swan for 30 years in the early 1900s. Rather than take his pay in cash from work on nearby farms, he received hop roots instead, with which he began his venture.
By 1963 the Yakima Valley was growing more than half of all the hops produced in the United States, and by 1970 the output had grown to 70 percent. By the 1980s it was at 75 percent and has been at that level, with slight variances year to year, ever since. In 1993 the American Hop Museum opened in Toppenish, in a building dating to 1917 that was once home to a creamery. Among the city's 70-plus murals depicting local history, one on an outside wall of the museum illustrates early hop harvest and production. Inside are photos, early harvesting and production equipment and other artifacts from hop farming's history.
A September drive down the side roads in the vicinity of Toppenish, Mabton, Zillah, Moxee, and other towns in the Yakima Valley provides ample evidence of the hop industry today, both in the oddly tall, lush curtains of hops ready for harvest, and the heady aroma wafting from production facilities.
The Beer Connection
A hop is the mature cone-like product of the Humulus lupulus bine. The cone is made up of fine, green leaf-like bracts inside which is found yellow lupulin, the vital element sought for beer making. Though there are other uses for hops, those grown commercially are used almost exclusively for beer.
The hop industry has long been intertwined with brewing. One striking example was during Prohibition, when brewers' woes were hop-growers' woes. Farms that remained in operation made do with supplying hops for export or use in nonalcoholic beverages, as advances were made by the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company for a product with "the social and beneficial features of beer without injury to health or morals" ("Seattle To Revolutionize ..."). A number of new growers timed the establishment of their farms to coincide with supplying hops for the post-Prohibition return to beer making.
There are two general categories of hops, known as "alpha" and "aroma" varieties in the industry, with some hops that are dual purpose. The alpha hops, so named for the high levels of alpha acids they contain, are known as bittering hops. Their contribution is as a balancing ingredient to temper the sweetness of the wort, a liquid produced from boiled malted barley and other grains, the foundation of beer. The degree of bitterness can vary with the style of the beer. Also, these alpha acids act as a sort of preservative, helping prevent development of bacteria.
Aroma hops, as the name suggests, are valued for the qualities of aroma and flavor that they contribute to beer. These can include attributes described as citrus, grassy, floral, spicy, tropical fruit, pine -- an array of potential features for brewers to choose from when creating their recipes. Demand for aroma hops has been steadily rising, and today about 80 percent of hops grown in Washington are the aroma (or dual) type.
Hops are added at different stages of the brewing process according to the goals of the brewer. Those added earlier will give off more bittering character from their alpha acids, while hops added later impart more aroma character to the beer. This explains why aroma hops, usually added later in the process, may also be called "finishing" hops.
One beer that exemplifies an amplified role of hops in brewing is India Pale Ale (IPA), a beer grown of practical considerations. The first IPAs took advantage of the preservation function in hops. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, British brewers amped up the dose of hops in beers destined for India to help assure a quality product upon arrival after months at sea. So began a new beer style that brought the distinct flavor of the hop to the forefront. Though as with so many things, the tides of favor can rise and fall over time. Meeker devotes part of his 1883 book to the brewing industry, one section titled "Influence of Fashion on the Use of Hops." He notes a number of waves of different beer trends, including a period after the Great Exposition of London in 1851 when "the taste for highly-hopped beers has gone on increasingly until lately, when there has been an evident tendency to fall back again upon milder and less bitter beers" (Meeker, 146).
Demand for IPAs waxed and waned over the past century, but has had a serious resurgence since 2010 in the U.S. and increasingly around the world. (For the 2021 craft beer industry awards given at the Great American Beer Festival, the top two categories relative to entrants were hazy IPAs and American-style IPAs, with 427 and 404 entrants respectively.) There are many styles of IPA brewed now, including regional styles and experimental brews. Beers today may also tout use of a specific single variety of hop, akin to single-varietal wines.
It is craft brewers who make a point of showcasing distinct hop character in their beers, relative to larger macrobreweries. And they have great interest in the kinds of robust aroma varieties that Washington grows so well. With more than 40 varieties of hops grown, Washington hop farms offer brewers a broad and enticing array of options.
Brewers worldwide may have access to Washington hops, but local brewers benefit from proximity to the hop yards. One key benefit comes when it is time to make the annual fresh-hopped ales. For these beers, there is a 24-hour window in which hops go from harvest to the brewing kettle. Local brewers can accomplish this easily with a drive to their appointed pick-up. The resulting beers offer particularly bright, crisp hop character, for hop fans to enjoy as long as that year's supply lasts.
Growing and Processing
As a perennial crop, hop bines reappear year after year until a farmer chooses to change the variety of hop being grown or opts to replant the yard for other reasons. After the new shoots appear in the spring, they are thinned. Remaining primary shoots are trained up twine that is installed each year, reaching from the ground up 18 feet to the lateral wire forming the top of the trellis structure up which the hops will climb over the coming months.
Harvest time will vary with the varieties, lasting generally from August into early October. On some farms, operations can run 24/7 through the height of harvest season. Specialized tractors wend between the rows. A first pass of the bottom cutter cuts the twine and bine near the ground. A following pass of the top cutter detaches the twine from the top wire, releasing the hops into a truck below. Until a couple of decades ago, when top cutters began being used, that cut was made by hand, workers wielding machetes from their perch in a crow's nest at the back of a tractor slowly working its way down the row.
From the hop yards, the bines are transported to the picking machine where the cones will be mechanically stripped off the bines. The hop cones are then spread in a kiln, at a depth of roughly 30 inches, where hot air will dry them for a number of hours, reducing moisture from about 75 percent to a range of 8 to 10 percent or so, to limit spoilage. Transferred to another room, the hops are cooled for about 24 hours, after which they move on to be baled. Hops are pressed into 200-pound rectangular blocks, securely wrapped in cloth, which is sewn to fully enclose the hops. These bales are moved to cold storage before being shipped to distributors and/or processors.
Hops are used in a variety of forms, the most common being pelletized, plus whole-leaf and extract, among other forms. One paramount consideration through processing is to ensure hops never become overheated, to preserve quality of the oils and other compounds in the hops' lupulin.
Before today's trellis system was introduced, hops grew around poles to which hop vines were tied to encourage them to climb. When ready for harvest, the bines would be cut about three feet up from the ground, freeing the whole hop-entwined pole for removing from the ground and moving to a clear area nearby. Boxes filled with just-picked hops were transited to the kiln for drying, working through as efficiently as possible to avoid discoloration in waiting hops before their turn in the kiln.
There have been a great many advances since the early days of growing hops in Washington. Improvements in picking machinery, harvesting equipment, kiln technologies, and many other aspects continue to evolve for the industry.
The Business of Hops
The business of growing hops includes a host of complex considerations. From the earliest days of the industry, the labor-intensive work required to cut and gather mature hop bines and pluck away the cones has been a paramount focus. "We could raise hops enough to supply the world; just how many can be picked is a problem that will be speedily tested by the increased acreage being planted" (Meeker, 20). For the most part, hop farmers seemed to manage year to year, thanks in large part to the Indigenous pickers who arrived with the flow of the harvest season.
Hand picking continued for decades, but as production grew steadily, so did challenges related to labor. Various designs for mechanical picking were tried through the early 1900s. When World War II drew many pickers away from the farms, the nascent mechanization of hop harvesting proved particularly welcome. By 1950, machines were being used for the large majority of hop harvests.
Another area of import is breeding. Hops grown commercially are primarily of the Humulus lupulus species. One of the oldest varieties in production is Cluster, which was brought from Europe and was broadly grown in the industry's early days. Through breeding programs, hop varieties can be developed that prove beneficial to the grower -- such as being pest resistant, the original purpose of breeding efforts -- and beneficial to breweries, bringing out distinct characteristics desired by the brewers. The first new varieties of hops were released in the 1960s, and over the next two to three decades growers began putting new hops into production on their farms. Both public and private programs contribute to ongoing breeding efforts, such that now there are more than 40 varieties of Washington hops to choose from.
Irrigation is another factor that has evolved with the growing and changing industry. As noted, canal systems in the Yakima Valley made water available to much more acreage, making possible the expansion of hop growing in Eastern Washington. The more traditional rill or furrow irrigation that had been used for many years was effective for delivering water to hop yards, but had its disadvantages. Around the 1980s some growers began transitioning to drip irrigation, and by the early 2000s most hop yards were using drip technology.
If there is any testament to the richness of Washington's hop history, it surely is the living legacy of so many multi-generation hop farms operating today. Six generations after Charles Carpenter planted his first 10 acres in Ahtanum, the Carpenter family now cultivates about 1,600 acres of hops. Many of today's industry leaders grew up witnessing, if not helping with, the work of their parents and grandparents. Certainly Meeker or Carpenter could not have imagined just how expansive an industry hops would be from what they began in Puyallup and Ahtanum more than 150 years ago, producing an important crop of generously aromatic, high-quality hops in demand from brewers across the globe.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.