Author talks about book on agriculture, beer

From parasites to volcanic eruptions, hops have seen it all


GEORGE RODRIGUEZ | The Daily Evergreen

Peter Kopp, a history professor at New Mexico State University, describes the history of brewing hops on Thursday.

LINH NGUYEN, Evergreen reporter

Hops, a crucial element of today’s growing beer industry, have a long history and importance in the Pacific Northwest, said the author of a new book about the herbaceous crop.

Environmental historian Peter A. Kopp spoke Thursday about his book, “Hoptopia:  A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.” In the book, Kopp looks at the significance of hops throughout world history.

Kopp, who is also a history professor at New Mexico State University, won the American Historical Association’s Pacific Coast Branch Book Award for his work.

“Hoptopia,” Kopp’s first book, describes hops’ Eurasian and North American history, how Prohibition affected the crop and its introduction to the Pacific Northwest.

Hops are seed cones of the hop plant, which are grown agriculturally and commercially all over the world. Kopp said the Pacific Northwest is currently the global hub for hop growing.

“Yakima is the hop center of the world,” Kopp said. “They produce a third of the world’s hops.”

Historically, herb combinations or bark were used instead of hops to add flavor to beer. However, Kopp said, these ingredients did not extend the life of beer.

Because of hops’ natural preservative qualities, Kopp said, they were found to be a better alternative. Although hop cones mainly prevent spoilage, he said, they also provide beer with a rich aroma, accompanied by a bitter taste.

Moving toward Colonial America’s experience with beer, Kopp said, there was “hop fever,” as the craze over hops transitioned from Great Britain to the colonies.

Hop agriculture was widespread and provided great profits to many farmers. Although many beer drinkers preferred British hops, Kopp said, the market swung open when the Southeast Asian volcano Krakatoa erupted in 1883. The climate change caused by the eruption resulted in the destruction of much of the British crop market.

The hops industry took a hit around the Great Depression, Kopp said, when downy mildew, a plant parasite, wiped out the majority of agricultural hops sites. The Pacific Northwest was hit especially hard because the parasite thrives in wetter climates.

The hops industry bounced back around the 1970s, he said, upon the introduction of the Cascade hop, a genetically modified version of the plant that could resist the mildew. The Cascade hop’s popularity grew in the brewing industry, and it is now one of the most common types in the Pacific Northwest.

He said the well-known Rainier Brewing Company also brews with Yakima hops.

“Whether you drink beer or not,” Kopp said, “you see hops every day and you don’t even know it.”

Using famous beer companies Budweiser and Sierra Nevada as examples, Kopp said hops have become an integral part of brewing society, appearing on many beer ads and labels.

“The history behind this [crop] is very interesting,” Kopp said. “Very unique.”