History of Hops in Vermont: New England Hops Production and Early Importance as Cash Crop

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Hops in Vermont sounds like a novel idea, but it really is not. According to Leonard Perry of UVM, the hops plant was first introduced from Europe by the Massachusetts Company in 1629, and production soon spread to other parts of the country. New England production increased to 1.5 million pounds by the mid 1800’s, a million coming from NY alone.

Vermont hops production alone produced 8 percent of the nation’s hops in 1850, and was second only to New York in hops production in 1859 (The Story of Vermont: A Natural and Cultural History). And the New England Hops District, of which Vermont was a member (along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and part of Northern NY), produced 1,000,000 pounds of hops that same year. Hops grown in this district became known in markets as “Eastern Hops,” prized for its particularly strong flavor, preservative qualities, and early yields (The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events of the Year).

What is Hops?

Although hops don’t mind cold weather, what the plant doesn’t care for is humidity, which can foster downy mildew, a microbe the plant is particularly prone to. The major hops pests are spider mites which can deter crop yields significantly. The cone, or fruiting structure, is of the most interest in terms of harvesting and is scientifically known as Humulus lupulus, in the same family as its more popular relative Cannabis.

Although perennial, unlike other vines, hops do not shoot tendrils, but climbs by twining clockwise. The “bines” die down each year but spring to life again from hardy crowns marking their roots. According to Perry, the producing plant is almost always female, although it needs a male to reproduce.

The Hops Movement Westward

Gradually the eastern hops began to give way to the western markets, especially those of California and Oregon, and by the 1920s most major hops production had shifted out of the East. The combination of early rainfall, late summer sun, and a longer growing season made it ideal for growing hops. However, as Kihm Winship ironically notes in his article, Hops: A Brief History, California hop production began in 1857 when a hop grower from Vermont settled there.

Hops is surprisingly well suited for growth in Vermont and has a rich history there; it is an important plant with a complex flavor that, along with its preservative qualities, has played a pivital role in brewing. Today it continues to be important, and a variety of hops are available for growth and consumption, from buying pellets and flowers ($1-2 per ounce) to planting roots and rhisomes (around five dollars). Locally grown hops are also making a comeback with large-scale and home brewers alike in a state that has one of the most mico-breweries per capita.