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Hops in Sonoma County

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Hops have been grown in a limited number of regions--which were widely dispersed in the United States, Europe, and China. The plant was introduced to North America by English colonists, but commercial production began in New England after the Revolutionary War. New York was the leading producer by the mid-1840s, with  Michigan and Wisconsin also developing significant hops production, but the West dominated during the 20th century. (Hops are also native to North America, but only cultivated hops have figured significantly in brewing.)

Wilson Flint, a New Hampshire native who came to California in 1849, is said to have introduced hops roots to the state from Vermont in the winter of 1855-1856. Amasa Bushnell, who had in 1856 planted 10 acres of hops in San Mateo County with roots he brought from the East, introduced roots when he came to Green Valley on the Russian River in 1858 and went into partnership with Otis Allen of Sebastopol, growing 1,000 pounds that year. But local production did not gather significant momentum until the 1870s. While large farms in the Sacramento and Livermore valleys equaled the largest producers in the Midwest and East, the hillier topography of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties limited the size of farms.

Among the trends that affected hop production in Sonoma County or beyond were the importance of the international market, a factor documented from the early 18th century which dominated the American industry by World War I, the transition from manual to mechanized harvesting with a machine invented by two Sonoma County men, Joe and Florian Dauenhauer, pests and blights, and Prohibition. (A lease recorded at the County shows that the Dauenhauer,50 machine was used on the subject property in the 1950s.  While California eluded pest infestations that beset other hop-producing regions as late as 1891, the introduction of nitrate fertilizers after World War II in an effort to find a peacetime use for chemical plants originally built to produce munitions made the soil of Sonoma County hospitable to the growth of downy mildew, decimating hops. In the Northwest,  the annual freeze killed this blight, compounding the advantage the larger farms there drew from mechanized  harvesting. By 1916, three years before the Constitution was amended to extend Prohibition nationwide, 23 states had already adopted local bans. Hop growers were limited to the export market until the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933. World War II brought two developments favorable to American producers: European production was disrupted by combat, and the U.S. War Department commissioned beer production to maintain troop morale--but both these factors were temporary, and prices fell after the war. A final influence that challenged the domestic hops market until relatively recently was the change in American tastes during the 20th Century. One local veteran of the hops world, Walt Tischer, blamed Rosie the Riveter, explaining that after wartime factory work, more women began drinking beer, but they preferred lighter lagers and brewers decreased their use of hops in response.

California led all other states in hop production from 1915 to 1922, with its acreage in production peaking in 1916. The Northwest was already becoming a leader, with Oregon the top- producing state from 1905 to 1915 and from 1922 to 1943, when Washington assumed dominance.  Sonoma County had 150 acres in hops in 1877, and 2,300 in 1915 producing an average of eight bales per acre. By weight, the production in a mature field was 1,500 - 2,000 pounds per acre annually. In 1913, the county produced almost half of California's hops output; the Healdsburg area accounted for about one third of the county's production. County hops acreage peaked at 2,600 and was estimated by Tischer to account for 15 percent of overall agricultural production, declining to 1,500 acres in 1932. World War II saw a spike in hops production. Sonoma was one of  only three in California with a nationally significant level of  hop production in the late 1930s. By 1960, the county had only two hops growers, Alex Vescova and Pete Bussman.