LeBaron: Sonoma County when hops was the ‘King of Crops’

Who would have dreamed, back in the 1950s and '60s when Sonoma County's undisputed “King of Crops” disappeared from the land, that hops would ever come around again?

But it could happen.

The news that the crop that made Sonoma County a treasured name on a beer-drinkers' map for 100 years might have a renaissance is an exciting prospect.

Farm adviser Paul Vossen is planning a symposium on the cultivation of buds that make beer taste like beer, tentatively set for March 26 at SRJC's Shone Farm.

Hops once flourished along the Russian River and its tributaries, making growers rich and going a long way toward establishing Sonoma County as a national agricultural leader.

Now, answering a call from local brewers, Vossen has paid a visit to the Yakima Valley in Washington, where 75 percent of the nation's hops are now grown. And he came back excited at the prospect of a new demand created by the burgeoning craft beer industry.

As you may have read in last Sunday's newspaper, fresh hops, or “wet hops” are what's new; a different treatment from the olden days when buds were dried crisp in the ubiquitous hop kilns that dotted our landscape, baled and shipped east to brewers.

(Some stayed here, of course, for GB or Happy Hops or any of the many brands produced by Grace Brothers Brewery in Santa Rosa in those years.)

From 1858, when Amasa Bushnell and Otis Allen first planted vines along the Laguna to “see how they would go,” the crop caught the fancy of growers here. And for a hundred years, until the last big crop came off the Bussman Ranch near Windsor in the 1960s, there was no harvest - not apples or French prunes, or pears or walnuts or chickens or grapes - more exciting than bringing in the hops.

It has been my good fortune to talk with some of those old hop growers, among them Talmadge (Babe) Wood, who sat down with me in 1992 for a far-reaching video that included memories of his favorite crop.

Before he became the county's leading dealer in fancier automobiles - from Reo to Cadillac - Wood worked the family ranch on River Road where his grandfather, Sam Talmadge, had planted hops in the mid-1800s.

“He bought the place out there on the lagoon,” Babe told me. “It was 160 acres where he and Otis Allen started the first hop yard. They got the roots from Germany. My grandfather went into it a little bit heavier and he made some money.

“They selected this ranch to grow hops principally because it had very fine land, good, rich soil and would hold moisture. … Of course we had pears and we had apples, too. But everything was in the hops. That's where the money was and that's where the fun was,” Babe said.

On the harvest: “We had the same families that came from San Francisco and other places. Every year they'd take a vacation, and what a vacation! We would dam up Mark West Creek, and we had a beautiful campground. It had a natural arbor of wild grape vines. They camped there. And they stayed a month or maybe two months sometimes. They'd have a swimming pool (in the creek). And the kids would love it. And they would stay for the prunes. And, of course we had pears and we had apples, too. But, in my family everything was in the hops.”

WORLD WAR II created the last high prices for Sonoma County hops, with a government determined to see that the servicemen had enough beer. Bob Bussman, whose family ranch was on Woolsey Road near Windsor, recalled that they employed 350 to 500 pickers in the season, with tent cabins in the pear orchard, four Maytag washers, stoves, temporary electric lights and an outdoor store set up by a grocer from town, where they could buy fresh meat and staples.

Babe Wood's memories included the dramatic early “pay days,” in the early 1900s. “I just wonder what people would think, if they could turn the clock around, we had a pay day, you know, 150-200 people picking hops, that's a lot of labor involved. And we never paid our hop-pickers until the crop was picked. My grandfather told me, he said, ‘Don't pay 'em until you're through, make 'em stay through the picking.' And we never had any trouble doing that. They were happy to stay.

“We had families that came with a horse and buggy. They'd come in early in the morning with lanterns … a bale of hay in their wagon, you know, and one horse coming down the road in the dark.

“Pay day is an interesting part of what I'm talking about. We set up a table at the end of the season, inside of a big window that opened on the porch, with a table inside. And people would come and get their money.

“My mother was the bookkeeper. And she would tally up the accounts and pay them in gold and silver, all gold and silver. I almost forgot about that. Gold and silver. My dad kept it in a steel box with a key. He would bring that up and put it on the table. Honestly, it was a picnic. Everybody did that.”

BABE'S ENTHUSIASM for hops was reflected in the entire region. Fred King, whose family started the nursery on Santa Rosa's 13th Street (between the SP depot and McDonald Avenue) more than a century ago, gave me a scrapbook compiled by his father… of “hop news” from 1915 to 1921.

Leafing through this old ledger with newspaper clippings glued to the pages, one can understand why, in the season, hops would be the topic of street corner conversations. The prices fluctuated wildly. Vern Wood (no relation to Babe) grew hops west of Santa Rosa. He told me his father once held out for a dollar a pound and ended up taking 8 cents. It was Vern who told me: “There are two things you can do with hop. You can throw it out or make beer.”

It was a world market and hop prices here depended on what the weather was like, whether there was a war, what was happening in England, in Czechoslovakia, in Germany.

AFTER AN EXCITING CENTURY, hops disappeared, almost in a flash. There were multiple reasons, including:

A nitrate fertilizer left over from World War II ammunition production which contributed to a condition known as “downy mildew” in moist soil

The invention, by Santa Rosan Florian Dauenhauer, of a hop-picking machine that made larger acreage than our small farms possible

A dramatic change in the public's beer-drinking habits.

Walt Tischer, who managed hop yards in the west county and kept close track of the industry throughout his life, liked to attribute the decline of Sonoma County hops to Rosie the Riveter.

It was the big, heavy taste these hops gave to beer that made the Russian River valleys premier growing regions (a combination of soil and a unique planting process that included an unproductive “male” vine for every row of “female” bearing vines).

It was a distinctly European flavor and when women left the kitchen to work in the shipyards and defense plants they started drinking beer with fellow workers at shift's end.

Women didn't like big “hoppy” beer (some say they still don't), preferring something lighter. And Rosie gets blamed, as well, for the start of a another problem, tagged as juvenile delinquency, the new term for young people, with mother at work and father gone to war, who roamed free. These kids, described by a writer for a magazine called The Hopper as “bobbysoxers with the palates of jelly fish,” added another layer of light beer drinkers.

ONE OF THE ENTHUSIASTIC PROPONENTS of new hops is Vinnie Cilurzo, brew master at Russian River Vineyards and “father” of the famous Pliny the Younger.

Cilurzo makes a wet-hop beer in season (September) which he named “ Hoptime,” after hearing that mothers would garb and gear their youngsters for the picking season saying, “It's hop time again.”

Along with other local brewers, he would love to see a resurgence of small hop yards. He described the value of wet hops, fresh from the vine, to the difference between a handful of fresh basil compared to a teaspoon, say, of the dried herb.

He also sees the potential of a cooperatively owned picking machine, much as growers share the olive presses.

Looking back at the glory days of hop-growing here, one cannot help but make note of economic changes along the way. In the 1950s, $1.10 a pound for dried hops came in waves of glee. Today, Vinnie says, fresh hops, hauled in from elsewhere, can bring as much as $9 a pound.

So, along with lending credibility to the inveterate prognosticator's claim that “what goes around comes around,” the latest “word on the street” about hops may take us another small step off the highway to monoculture.

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