Hop Pickers, Hop City near Cooperstown
Suggested Teaching Instructions
Hops are a hearty perennial that produce annual vines. Hops vines use trees, bushes, or man-made stakes to grow upwards toward the sun. Since the eighth century A.D., hops have mainly been used as the primary additive in beer, although prior to that they grew wild and the young shoots were eaten as a vegetable, much like asparagus. The Romans, who gathered wild hops, named the plant Lupus salictarius, the willow wolf, in honor of the plant’s fruitful nature and its tendency to strangle other nearby vegetation. Early Babylonians and peoples in Mesopotamia also gathered hops as a vegetable as early as the fourth century B.C.
Early beer, or gruit, had a much stronger concentration of alcohol than present-day beer and was flavored and preserved with ingredients such as St. John's Wort, tree bark, bog myrtle, coriander, and rosemary. However, gruit spoiled quickly and, therefore, could only be drunk close to the site of production. Hops were first used as an additive in beer during the eighth century in the Hallertau district of Germany. But the Germans, who eventually became famous for their production of German lager beer, found the eighth century beer market to be resistant to the use of hops as a preservative and additive. The new beer was not well received and was even suspected of causing melancholy and diseases.
Eventually the market power of hops did win the populations of Europe. By the fourteenth century, the Dutch had become acclimated to the new hops-beer. The Dutch brought it to England, where in 1428 the first hops seeds were planted. Hops beer became a staple on the long sea voyages of the day. For example, when the Mayflower sailed in 1620, beer was the preferred drink because it did not spoil during the long journey to the New World.
In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company ordered its first hops seeds from England for the American colonies. The colonists used the whole hops plant, and they used it for more than just beer. A reddish-brown dye could be made from it, as well as flax substitutes for textiles. The young shoots were eaten as vegetables, and the stalks could be used to weave baskets or wicker. The leaves were even found to be a good source of sheep fodder.
Although the first commercial hops planting was done in Massachusetts in 1791, New York was the state destined to become the biggest producer of hops in the newly formed United States. In Otsego County in the town of Madison, New Yorker James D. Coolidge planted the first hops yards in 1808. His commercial opportunity came fourteen years later when blight, insects, and unfavorable weather decimated crops in England. This increased the demand for New York’s hops in both national and international markets.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the influx of German immigrants during the first half of the nineteenth century also increased the domestic demand for hops. In 1850, New York shipped 750,000 pounds of hops to British markets. In 1880, all but sixteen New York counties were growing hops. Otsego, Madison, Herkimer, Schoharie, Chenago, Oneida, and Montgomery Counties were the leading producers of hops, with Otsego County producing more hops than any other county in the United States.
(For current usage of hops, please see other hop image.)