Well known for their use
in beer, hops (Cannibaceae Humulus lupulus) are native to North
America. The hop vine, upon which grow the blossoms used in brewing,
is similar in appearance to the grape vine except that it has rough leaves
and stems. Closely related to hemp (and marijuana), the vines will
grow up to thirty feet in length and have sets of leaves every foot or
so. Around the first week of August the blossoms, or strobiles, begin
to grow out of the vine where the leaves are attached. The blossoms
are not considered hops until they are nearly ripe. When the hops
are ripe and ready to be picked around the first week of September, the
strobiles can be as large as three inches long, and the stems will measure
three or four inches. Only the female hop plant grows the blossom.
The male plants have clusters of very small flowers and were kept out of
the hop yards as they caused the female blossoms to go to seed instead
of turning into hops. The male hop vine is extremely scarce.
While finding several dozen hop vines in the past fifteen years of searching
the countryside, I have found but one male vine.
Although hops were cultivated by the Dutch in New Netherland by the late 1690s, hop growing did not become important in New York until the first decade of the nineteenth century. Before 1850 the State of Vermont led the nation in hop production. By that time New York's hop yield was just over two and one-half million pounds a year. By 1879 New York hop fields covered over forty thousand acres, and produced almost twenty two million pounds that year. But, by 1899 hop production in New York State was down to a little over seventeen million pounds annually, and by 1920 there were almost no hops grown for commercial purposes in the State. The primary cause for the drop and final end of hop farming in the state can be found in the states of Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, where new hop fields were opened in the 1880s. Prohibition and a strong temperance movement also greatly effected the amount of hops produced.
The main hop producing area in New York State was the eastern central region, namely Madison, Onondaga, Otsego, Oneida and Chenango Counties.
Even though most farmers gave up growing hops around the turn of the century a very few still have plants around for old-times-sake. Many times the vines can be found growing along the edges of the long abandoned hop yards.
Hop growing was an art in itself. A lot of care and hard work went into each plant to ensure its survival and proper growth. To get a hop yard started the roots of a hop plant would be cut into pieces about three inches long, having one or two eyes similar to a those on a potato. The roots of a hop vine can grow to be some ten or fifteen feet long after several years. These pieces were buried in the soil, fertilized, and left for two weeks so they may heal up and grow new shoots. The roots were then dug up and the dead and damaged ones sorted out. The small root sections were then buried in small hills of dirt where a new hop yard was to be started. A five foot stake was placed into the center of the small mound to hold the small vines that would grow the first year.
When the vines began to grow, the young shoots, called "snake heads", would be tied loosely to the stake to hold them in place and train them. The small hills of soil were placed seven to eight feet apart in rows also seven to eight feet apart, which made for easy cultivation and better growth. There were approximately eight hundred hills per acre and a good year would yield up to two thousand pounds of dried hops per acre. The yards would produce a healthy crop for about a decade and every ten years or so a new field would have to be started.
The new hop plants needed to be fertilized when they were planted. Manure was used and kept them healthy and growing all year. Cultivation was first done by hand, and later in the year with horse drawn cultivators, which were dragged up, down and across the rows. When the cultivating was done the grower would use a hoe and remove the weeds from around the base of the mounds. To make weed control easier and to get more from the field, other crops were often planted between the rows of hop vines. Corn, beans, potatoes, and pumpkins were among those that were planted. The husking corn, or sweet corn would be planted with three hills of corn between the two hills on which the hops grew. The potatoes, beans and pumpkins would have been planted between the rows of vines.
In the first year blossoms would grow on the vines, but they would not be of a good enough quality or quantity to warrant hiring pickers to harvest them, and they were left on the vine.
The second year larger poles would be set. These poles up to twenty feet tall were set in the center of the small hill where the vines were planted. The ends of the poles were buried deep enough to hold the heavy vines, yet not so deep as to be difficult to remove come harvest time. The poles were anchored to each other by a network of wires or strings. These were run from the top of one pole to another across the rows, and from the top of one pole to the middle of another running with the rows. When the vines began to grow up each spring they were wound around the pole and wires to train them and to spread them out so that they could get more light.
After the poles were reset each spring the farmer would hoe around them to remove weeds and loosen the soil before the young vines began to appear. This was usually done by the first of May.
When the vines first came up the best vines would be selected and tied to the pole. Those that were reddish in color, being a weaker vine, were tied over several times so they could strengthen. The reddish vines would grow well but it was found that they did not produce very many blossoms.
Cultivation and fertilization would continue until the blossoms began to grow, which began around the first week of August. A layer of manure would be put on in the spring, and lime was added to make the manure decay faster and to keep the scent from attracting animals. This was often covered with a final layer of dirt to keep the lime from blowing away.
The lime was taken from quarries near Chittenango Falls and Perryville to name a few places locally. Some farmers, if the geology was right, even burned their own lime in lime kilns, producing only what lime they could use. Lime was also known by the farmers as plaster.
What remained of the manure and lime was kicked off the mound the following spring and more would be put on, this being done each year.
Plant diseases were one problem that plagued the hop farmers. Mildew and Blue Mold were the most common of these dreaded diseases.
Kendall Cody, who was ninety-one when I interviewed him in he fall of 1977 while preparing this article, said that the year he was born (1886, he was "a hop farmer from way back") the hop crop was a failure because of mildew. He commented that "it was so bad that when the horse came down from the hop yard their backs were covered with mildew". This was long before the use of herbicides and insecticides, although it is said that some desperate farmers tried to smoke the molds out by burning brimstone in the fields.
Blue mold was one of the main reasons that many farmers quit the hop growing business. Blue mold is much like the mold on bread, and would attack only the blossoms or strobiles, and not damage the vine. It would destroy every thing on the blossom, except the core. It is said that the Blue Mold came from Europe as did many diseases.
To prevent the entire crop from being destroyed by these uncontrollable diseases the fields were often planted as far away as possible from other fields, usually in the far corners of the farm. Today, with the use of chemicals, hop yards can cover several hundred acres.
Another problem was small grubs that would eat the stringy roots of the vine. Skunks were considered good in the hop yard as the would eat the grubs without doing much damage to the roots or vines. Mr. Cody said that he didn't mind them in the hop yard, but "I don't like them around the back door".
The blossoms begin to grow in the first or second week of August, and it takes three or four weeks until the blossoms turn into hops. By the first of September they are ready to be harvested.
Many of the pickers came from nearby farms and villages (click the link for a picture) and would go from farm to farm picking hops. Many of them were also migrant workers. Some of the pickers that worked on the Cody farm came by train from Chittenango. They would arrive at the station in Cazenovia in the morning and one of the hired hands would take a wagon in and pick them up and bring them to the farm. The pickers were usually women and children, the men doing the drying, carrying and work in the kiln, although they occasionally did the picking. The women would pick from mid morning until about four o'clock in the afternoon, as they still had work to do at home, or at the small camps which the migrant workers would sometimes set up in the vicinity of the farms they were picking at. Children were let out of school to help with the picking, which could last three or four weeks.
In picking the hops from the vines the hop vines were pulled down from the poles and wires, bunched up and taken to a box were four pickers worked sifting through the coarse and dry gnarled vines pulling off the ripe strobiles. Some farmers would cut the strings or wire and remove the entire pole from the ground and carry this to the hop picker's box. The poles would be leaned upon a bar that was in place several feet above the box, and the pickers would pick from the vines hanging from the pole. Most growers had a hop wagon which looked much like a small version of a hay wagon. A horse pulled the wagon through the yard and picked up the bunches of vines or poles and took them to a central picking place. Some enterprising farmers, hoping to cut down on labor expense, even tried to invent their own automatic picking machines. These inventions usually did not succeed, and picking by hand continued to be the least expensive method. By the 1930s automatic pickers had become successful in the large scale hop yards, and soon picking was done entirely by machine.
When the hop picker's box was full the contents were taken to the hop kiln where the hops would be carefully dried. The hop kiln was a building that usually had four rooms, one for storage, one for drying, one for pressing and a room beneath the drying room that held a very large stove and a unique system of heating pipes. Mr. Cody pointed out that the hop kiln on his farm, which had been built by his father in 1884 was typical of nearly every hop house. They were almost always different on the outside, but the interior was always the same. (click the links for pictures)
After picking they were taken to the storage room where they were kept until they had enough to dry a full batch, or until the previous batch was finished and removed from the drying room. In the drying room, which was on the second floor of the barn, the hops were dumped onto the floor which was made of long wooden slats. (Click the link for a picture) The three-quarter by one and one-quarter inch slats were spaced about three-quarters of an inch apart, and nailed down so as to make a strong yet porous floor. The spaces between the slats allowed the hot air and smoke from the brimstone fire below to pass through and dry and bleach the hops. To keep the hops from falling through the slats, the floor was covered with a type of burlap known as kiln cloth.
To minimize heat loss the drying room and stove room below were built to be as airtight as possible, yet allowing the needed circulation of fresh air in at the bottom and hot humid air out at the top. The interiors of the stove and drying rooms were nearly always either plastered or covered with flush boarding. There were small vents to let air in at the foundation and a cowl or vent at the peak of the roof to let the "used heat" out.
Fifteen feet below the drying room was the stove. They were usually large stoves, the one used in the Cody hop kiln being five or six feet tall. Both wood and coal were used in the stove. Wood was used during the day, and coal was used at night as it did not need tending as often as the wood.
It would take about twelve to fourteen hours to dry a large kiln of hops. An average size kiln would hold sixty to eighty boxes with seven bushels to a box. The temperature inside the kiln was kept between 125 and 200 F. To bleach the hops, brimstone, which is mostly sulfur, was put in a kettle on top of the stove and set on fire. This gave off a pungent smoke that went up through the slats and bleached the hops to a more desirable greenish color. If the hops were not bleached they would be a dry brownish yellow color. The brimstone was used only five or six hours. To be sure that the hops were dried evenly they were turned every three to four hours. Turning the hops was not a welcome task, as the temperature within the drying room was kept over 125 degrees, and the air was humid. The stove had to be kept going at all times during the drying process, as the hops would settle if the temperature dropped, causing problems with the desired uniform drying of the hops. Before the hops were dried, a box, containing seven bushels, would weigh about seventy-five pounds. After drying, a box would weigh only ten to thirteen pounds.
Several feet beneath the floor of the drying room ran the stove pipe. In the Cody hop kiln there was a large sheet metal funnel over the stove that caught much of the rising heat and sent it through a series of stove pipes that circled beneath the drying room floor. The pipes would, more or less, distribute the heat more evenly than the stove itself could. The pipes then led into the chimney which carried off the excess heat and smoke. As the stove itself was not directly connected to the chimney, and with the use of the flammable brimstone, there was a constant danger of fire. Mr. Cody could not recall hearing of a hop kiln burning down, even though there was the great threat of fire.
After the hops were dried they were taken to the storage room where they were set to cool for about an hour. The hops were then shoveled through a hole in the floor where they were bagged and pressed.
In the lower room was the hop presser. Mr. Cody's hop press was manufactured by H.D. Babcock of Leonardsville, NY The press was opened and a sack was placed in the bottom. The press was then closed and hops were loaded into the top. They were then pressed and more hops were loaded in and pressed. This was repeated several times, until the hops were compressed into a bail weighing between 150 and 175 pounds. If it weighed more than that the buyer might think that there was something else in there besides hops.
To get a good price for the hops the farmer would have to have a good sample of his crop to show to the buyers. Many farmers would grow a variety of hops called Kennedy Hops along with the regular crop of what they called Cluster Hops. The Kennedy vines produced a greener and better looking hop which were mixed in with the regular hops and the buyer would look at it and smell it to see how good it was. A lot of inexperienced hop growers over dried and over bleached their hops, and therefore could not get a good price for them. The price of hops was very inconsistent. The hops could be selling for twenty cents a pound one day and the next you could not even sell them. The selling price would range from two cents to a dollar a pound, and to get the best price the intelligent hop grower would keep posted on the daily fluctuations of the market.
A man who lived in Morrisville would buy the hops from Mr. Cody, and other farms all over Madison County, and then sell them to a brewer in Waterville. There were many small breweries in communities throughout the hop district.
The breweries use the hops to add the bitter taste to beer. The fragrant oils are extracted from the hops by boiling and pressing them, and straining the juices. This extract is known as wort. Sugar, water and other ingredients are add to the wort, and the concoction is fermented to produce the beer.
Although hop farming is now done on a much larger scale, and more machines are used, the skill and care that went into the growing nd production of the hop is still an important factor in the production of a valuable crop.