It is with quite a bit of legitimate boasting that Yakima County considers itself the hops capital of the world.
Yakima County produced 73% of the hops grown in the United States in 2019, with America producing almost 46% of the hops in the world.
But Yakima County was not the first place hops were grown commercially in Washington state. That distinction belongs to Puyallup, which saw its industry knocked out by an insect.
As any beer connoisseur knows, hops are a flavoring agent in beer and give it either a bitter or citrus flavor, depending on the hop variety.
A cousin of cannabis, hops are believed to have originated in Egypt, but were cultivated in Germany in the Middle Ages for beer making before spreading to other countries.
In the United States, the first hops were grown on a farm in Massachusetts, establishing it as the new country’s first major hop producer for 150 years, after which hop farms spread throughout New England, with New York eventually taking the title in the mid-1800s. It would remain so until mildew and Prohibition all but snuffed out hop production there.
Hops were first planted in Washington state in the mid-1860s. Charles Wood had cultivated the plants in his garden with hopes of brewing beer and, in March 1865, gave Ezra Meeker some of his cuttings, offering to buy any hops Meeker could produce.
Meeker, who had come to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail in 1852, planted them in the Puyallup Valley, and they flourished.
Meeker and his father harvested a 180-pound bale their first year, selling it for 85 cents a pound, or $153 for the bale — $2,590 in today’s currency, making them more money than most of their neighbors growing other crops.
That led to one of the neighbors getting their own hop cuttings, while Meeker continued to expand his hop yards until he was producing 400 tons a year.
“None of us knew anything about the hop business, and it was entirely by accident that we engaged in it,” Meeker wrote in one account.
He would eventually cultivate 500 acres of his own, as well as have interests in other hop producers in the Northwest. That industry was further spurred when blight caused European hop production to fall off.
But disaster struck in 1892, when the hop louse infested hop producers’ crops in the area, including Meeker’s. The louse is capable of reproducing rapidly, and the hop industry in Western Washington was devastated.
However, hops were being grown on the east side of the Cascades, and the industry flourished.
Sometime between 1869 and 1872 — accounts vary — Charles Carpenter brought hop cuttings to the Yakima Valley and planted them near Moxee. Carpenter’s cuttings came from his father’s hop farm in New York, and the sunny conditions in the Yakima Valley proved to be quite conducive to the crop.
The hop industry got a boost from Alexander Graham Bell, the man credited with the invention of the telephone, and his father-in-law, Gardiner Green Hubbard, first president of the National Geographic Society.
Bell and Hubbard were investors in the Moxee Co., which sought to set up farming operations in the Upper Valley in present day Moxee. They recruited farmers from the east and Midwest to come to the area with an offer of 50 acres of land for $750.
The Moxee Co. tried a variety of crops, and discovered hops generated the most cash. Descendants of the French-Canadian families that Bell and Hubbard recruited are still major players in the hop industry.
By the 1930s, Moxee was dubbed “the hop capital of the world,” but hop production had spread throughout the rest of the Valley.
In the past, hopyards consisted of poles in the ground that the hop bines would grow around, and at harvest the pole was pulled up and the hop cones plucked off. Today, a trellis system is used, in which the bines grow around a string, which is then cut and the bine taken to a plant for processing and drying.
Today, hopyards continue to dot the Valley, spurred on in part by the craft beer movement, and scent the air every fall when they are harvested and processed.