The Wisconsin Hop Craze by MGV Ann Marie Ott
For a short decade, between 1860 and 1870, growing and drying hops became a major industry in southern Wisconsin, particularly in Sauk County. Crop failures in New York State, most likely resulting from aphid and mold damage, prompted the interest in cultivating hops. Returning Civil War soldiers found themselves looking for a new source of cash and hops were especially enticing, as prices for hops sky-rocketed as a result of the shortage of this important beer-brewing ingredient. Wisconsin produced over 6 million pounds of hops by 1867, increasing from the 135,000 pounds recorded in 1860.
“Memoirs of a Sauk Swiss” published by the Wisconsin Historical Society notes that this family was growing hops and brewing beer. The Sauk County hop growing culture was clearly described by author, Mrs. Belle Cushman Bohn in Volume 18, No. 4 June 1935 edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Mrs. Bohn reports that the men, women and children of the area did not provide enough labor to
pick the hops, and that friends of families growing hops may travel a distance to enjoy an outing, picking hops. Perhaps the Green County Swiss enjoyed such an adventure, however, no current information is available to confirm this possibility.
Unfortunately, the people of New York addressed their hops growing problems and the availability of hops in this major production area caused prices to drop dramatically for everyone in the late 1860’s. Some farmers moved westward to establish hops plantations, where climate and limited pests at the time, favored production. Those who remained in Wisconsin, lost their limited-term fortunes. However, renewed interest in this specialty crop may be increasing along with the expansion of the small, craft brewery industry in Wisconsin. Visit the hops-yard on the grounds of the New Glarus Brewery for a look-back at hops growing in Wisconsin.