Wisconsin’s Hops Renaissance
By Erin Clune | Photo By Jim Klousia 2
Hops-growing in Wisconsin has a rather curious history. It started (the first time) in the mid 19th century when westward-moving settlers and returning Civil War soldiers converged on the region in search of new opportunities. Coincidentally, the 19th century was also the heyday of the local brewing industry. From 1860 to 1880, the expansion of large breweries like Pabst and Schlitz helped to fuel the hops-growing boom.
Centered in Sauk County, Wisconsin hops cultivation grew so rapidly that some bankers were writing blank checks. A secondary industry of how-to manuals rose up to meet the demand of prospective farmers, many of whom were planting the crop for the first time. At the peak of hops cultivation in 1867, Wisconsin farmers produced 11 million pounds of hops per year. Four million pounds of those hops came from Sauk County alone.
A small but essential ingredient in beer, hops are commonly thought of as aromatic flowers that serve mainly to bitter, but also to flavor and even preserve, the sweet malt beverage. Botanically speaking, hops are actually strobiles or “cones.” They are herbaceous perennials that grow on long stalks, called bines, reaching to 20 feet in just six weeks. They then die back to the ground each winter and go dormant.
It turns out that Wisconsin has an ideal climate for hops cultivation, but as with so many economic booms, the so-called “hops craze” gave way to a dramatic agricultural bust. Farmers in the 19th century had a dim understanding of sustainable agriculture or disease management. They cultivated only one or two types of hops and planted the bines very close together across a relatively small region. Ultimately, what killed the hops industry in Wisconsin was blight. It came first in the form of a mildew. Then aphids. Aphids left behind another fungus–sooty mold–which spread into the hops cones and further decimated the crop. By 1920, the commercial hops industry had completely abandoned the state for the Pacific Northwest.
Over time, most people seemed to forget that hops could even be grown in Wisconsin—an ironic outcome for a state that is virtually synonymous with the production and enjoyment of beer. But even more curious than the historical amnesia is that now, seemingly all of a sudden, hops are coming back. Today, the state of Washington is still the largest hops producer in the United States, but where 19th century Midwest farmers once profited from a “hops craze,” today they are undergoing a modest “hops renaissance.” Where just five years ago there were no commercial hops in Wisconsin, now there are 75 acres under cultivation. There are another 50 acres being cultivated in Michigan, and the overall regional numbers are trending upwards.
There are many reasons for the return of hops to Wisconsin, but two main forces stand out. One is the mercurial rise over the last two decades of the local craft beer industry. Local hops farmers once supplied the largest of the large commercial breweries. Today the large acreage growers in the west do that, while nascent Wisconsin growers supply mainly smaller craft breweries and regional microbreweries. In a state that has upwards of 70 different breweries—including the behemoth Miller Brewing Company— the craft brewery market may seem like small potatoes. But for the past decade, the craft brewing industry has grown consistently at a rate of roughly 10 percent a year—even through the recession. Across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, there are now about 400 craft brewers. While craft beer still claims less than 10 percent of the entire beer market in Wisconsin, so far it’s been a solid partner in the effort to revive regional hops.