History of hops in Sonoma County

Before grapes covered the hills, hops were the king of Sonoma County crops.|

Before grapes covered the hills, hops were the king of Sonoma County crops. In the mid-1800s, early hops pioneers Amasa Bushnell, Otis Allen and Sam Talmadge planted hops in the marshy soils of the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Things took off in the 1870s and by 1913, about half of California’s hop production came from Sonoma County. About a third of the farms were located near Healdsburg.

Hop production fluctuated with the seasons, at times of war and with economic upheaval. During Prohibition, hop farmers stayed afloat filling orders for European brewers. During World War II American hop farmers took over again as Europe saw a disruption in business because of combat.

Several factors contributed to the demise of the industry in the years that followed the war. The invention of a hop-picking machine by Santa Rosa inventor Florian Dauenhaur’s made Sonoma County’s small production farms a thing of the past. A nitrate fertilizer left over from wartime ammunitions production led to a proliferation of downy mildew in the moist soils that surrounded hop roots. And a change in American drinking habits shifted toward lighter, less bitter beer. By 1960s, the last large hop harvest came off of Bussman Ranch near Windsor.

Things have changed in recent years, a handful small operation farms have begun to cultivate the crop that is a key component of some of the flavorful beers that have made Sonoma County a destination for beer aficionados worldwide.

Click through our gallery above to see images of Sonoma County’s hop industry way back when.

Janet Balicki Weber and Gaye LeBaron

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