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Hops Preliminaries

1875 map of Hardwick, Vermont, published by F.W. Beers & Co., showing the location of a "hop yard" on or near property owned by B.P. Colier, above Hardwick Center

 

 

Adam Krakowski has pointed out that Vermont was an important locale of hops farming during the 19th century, with production peaking around 1860, then entering decline through the rest of the century. Various factors contributed to this decline which, alongside the challenging nature of hops agriculture, included the gradual diffusion of hops farming to the Midwest and West in the latter part of the 19th century, and perhaps also the Temperance movement somewhat later on. But during the heyday of hops agriculture, Vermont produced more hops than any other state except New York.

 

Even so, as Krakowski notes, hops farming was a gamble in Vermont, especially if the season was too rainy. It seems that sugaring, the more traditional crops such as potatoes, oats, and wheat, and grass raised for hay to feed livestock, were more reliable mainstays for local farmers. Following its demise, hops farming would not be revived until a full century later, in the mid-1980s, amidst the surging craft beer movement.

 

Henry O. Woolley farmed about 136 acres in northern Vermont, near the town of Derby. According to his 1865, diary, Woolley followed an unsurprising pattern of agricultural activity. He or members of his household chopped and hauled wood in winter, sold corn, threshed oats and beans, and "broke" or opened the roads as Spring arrived. For example, as sugaring season approached, on 10 March 1865 Woolley "Went to mill/Broke road to Sugar house".  On Monday the 20th, Woolley purchased a sap pan from a neighbor who was perhaps a local merchant, and on Tuesday 21 March he began tapping maple trees. Woolley's entry for March 25th notes that he "Gathered sap and boiled all day", persisting in that activity nearly every day through about 10 April, after which he sowed oats and wheat, and planted potatoes.

 

An aside on sugaring: According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (available online by subscription at www.daredictionary.com), the term "sugar place", used to denote the site where tapping and boiling of sap take place, is virtually unique to Vermont; it has been recorded in parts of New Hampshire, but mainly in those places bordering Vermont.* The diaries I read at VHS, including Woolley's, use this term without exception. "Sugar place" appears in printed and archival sources from as early as 1825, through the 20th century; then as now, hops farmers may tap maple trees and boil sap in addition to growing hops. Needless to say, maple syrup is often added nowadays to craft beers, hard ciders, and some distilled spirits produced in Vermont.

 

Woolley records the first hops-related entry of that year on Saturday 25 May, when he notes that "Plowed hops/fore noon".  Over the course of the following week he "scattered Hop poles" and on the 16th and 17th he "set Hop poles" and "finished Hop holes".  By the 25th, Woolley had "Finished sticking Hop poles & worked in garden". These entries reflect the principal method of cultivating hops, which involves setting cedar poles in the ground and stringing wires to facilitate the climbing hop vines, which grow rapidly and aggressively. According to herbalists, the hops plant is dioecious, meaning that a given plant may contain either male or female flowers, but not both. The female hops plant, not the male plant, is used for brewing beer.

 

On the 19th and 20th of June he "howed [hoed] the Hop yard" and also hoed corn and potatoes, and around that time also sowed turnips. Woolley writes that he put ashes on the hop yard toward the end of June, and two months later, on 28 August he notes that he "Commenced picking hops", which activity continued for a few days, till September 1st. Woolley mentions hops only once more that year, when he notes on 17 November that he "plowed below the hop yard", a chore that was probably unrelated to hops cultivation on the Woolley farm.

 

It's unclear how much production Woolley derived from his hops acreage, or indeed, just how much acreage he devoted to cultivation of the hops plant. I was unable to review all the extant Woolley diaries at VHS, which cover the years 1865, 1870, 1871, 1873, 1876, 1877, and 1895, though I was able to go through the 1877 diary, which contains references to hops farming that are similar to those of the 1865 diary. Woolley records having "stuck hops" on Saturday 8 June of that year. Interestingly, he records having "Cultivated hop yard" on June 14th, and also that day, writes that "Mrs. Horton tied hops", suggesting that for the 1877 season, at least, he'd hired someone to help with gathering and processing of hops. Other entries provide a little more information about hired help, as for example on Saturday 1 September, when Woolley writes, 'rained/carried the hops Girls home".

 

It seems that Woolley may not have cultivated hops on consecutive years, or every year.  Skimming through the 1873 diary, for example, I saw no mention of hops in the entries for that year. By 1894, Woolley records what appears to be a valedictory entry, possibly indicating that he's no longer growing hops. On Wednesday 2 May he writes, "Planted a few potatoes by hop house"; there are no other references to hops for that year.

 

*Discussing maple sugaring terminology, Hans Kurath suggests as much in his classic A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, where he reviews the various maple sugaring terms that have been in use in the northeast: "New England itself has a variety of expressions. Maple grove is little used in areas where such groves are located, but it is common in southern New England from Boston to New Haven, especially in urban areas. Upland Maine and eastern New Hampshire have sap orchard, northeastern Vermont and the adjoining parts of New Hampshire have sugar place, the greater part of Western New England sugar orchard. Sugar orchard is used also on the lower Merrimack and, though less commonly, in other parts of Eastern New England. It is rather striking that none of the local New England expressions have survived west of the Hudson River." (p. 76)

 

A few words about oasts:

 

This word, "oast", designating a sort of kiln where hops are dried, was commonly used in England but appears to have been relatively uncommon in North American speech. Interestingly, "oast" does not appear at all in the online Dictionary of American Regional English. This is a telling absence. Instead, the word "kiln" may have been more widely used, though "oast" was probably known here, given that English publications on hops culture were imported and distributed in this country, according to Michael A. Tomlan in his book, Hop Culture in the United States. In fact, one of the diaries I read at the historical society in Barre makes at least one mention of a "hop house", which I assume to have been a structure, whether makeshift or purpose-built, where hops were processed and dried. The word "oast" doesn’t occur in these 19th century documents, though it must have been known in this country given the influence of the English manuals, whether or not it was used in everyday speech.

 

Still, the word is interesting, perhaps because of its seemingly exotic nature, though oast has a long history in English, going back to at least the 11th century. It appears in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary as āst, where it's defined as "kiln" though the entry also cites the word "oast" in quotation marks, indicating that āst eventually developed into the latter form. The etymologist Walter W. Skeat suggests that "oast" is a "purely English” word, and following certain developments in the written language, was probably originally written as dst, changing to "oast" later on -- much as dc became "oak", and dr became "oar".

 

Oast probably goes back even farther, however. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the root form for "oast" is ai, whose original meaning is "to burn", but this source confirms that, in developing as an English word, ai later became āst, and eventually, oast. The word indeed appears to be narrowly distributed within the Germanic family of languages, mainly to Old English. It doesn't appear, for example, in any of the Scots dictionaries I've looked at.

 

Oast may have fallen out of use at some point, or perhaps was never part of everyday speech in this country. But for whatever reason the word isn't entirely obscure. On meeting recently with Kevin and Karen Broderick in East Hardwick to discuss their hop yard, Kevin later showed me around the property, pointing out his harvesting apparatus, his pelletizer, and his hops drying set-up. I don't think that Kevin volunteered the word, but when I asked "So this is your oast?", he without hesitation replied, "Yes". 

                      _________________________________________________

 

I'm appending a selection of entries from Henry O. Woolley's 1865 diary, which relate mainly to the cultivation of hops. According to Adam Krakowski, 1865 was likely the apogee of hops growing in Vermont. He suggests that production probably peaked around 1860, based on his review of 19th century US decennial census returns.

 

 

May 1

"Sowed Wheat on the old hop yard"

 

[Woolley records doing additional work on the wheat ground here and there on following days.]

 

June 21

Sowed turnips

 

[Early March — "broke" roads (plowed and opened roads)]

 

10 Fri March

"Went to mill

   Broke road to Sugar house"

 

20 Mon March

"Bought sap pan of [S Kisner?]"

 

21 Tues March 18

"Taped [tapped?] Sugar place"

 

25 March Saturday

"Gathered Sap and boiled all day"

 

[Woolley continues gathering and boiling sap through about 10 April, then sows wheat and oats, and also "borrows" potatoes and plants them.  Note: I read somewhere that it was common practice in some areas to plant potatoes on hop yards to improve hop yield, which were planted later in the year on the same ground.]

 

7 Saturday May

"Plowed hops

 fore noon"

 

[On following days Woolley works some with hops and oats, then on the 13th and 14th (Friday and Saturday) he notes that he "scattered Hop poles", and on Monday 16 May "set Hop poles" and on the 17th "finished hop holes" then visited this uncle.]

 

24 Tuesday May

"Finished sticking hop poles & worked in garden"

 

[Woolley hoed the hop yard on 19 June, and finished work in the hop yard on the 20th; then went visiting both days.  Around this time he's also hoeing corn and potatoes.]

 

Wednesday 28 June

"Sold hops for 12__[?]"

 

Friday 30 June

"put ashes on Hops and Corn"

 

Monday 28 August

"Commenced picking hops 

killed sheep";  [it appears that Woolley slaughtered sheep until 1 September]

 

Friday 17 November

"plowed below the hop yard"  [this is the last entry for hops in the 1865 diary]

 

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Hops Hemp Herbs*

Humulus Lupulus in the Linnaean classification, otherwise known as Hops

 

Some random but loosely connected thoughts in initiating this series. I first encountered the word oast while doing fieldwork in Charleston, South Carolina. There's a craft brewery and taproom there called Edmund's Oast, a popular place featuring good beer in plentiful variety, great food, and a convivial crowd of regulars. That one evening, as I sat at the bar waiting out a tornado warning, I sipped a perfectly made negroni that was available there on tap. Which seemed strange, though as I thought about it I recalled having a decent red wine drawn from a spigot at a bar in the Adirondacks, and thinking it over still more, I remembered imbibing an excellent boulevardier, pre-mixed in quantity and tapped to order from a small keg at the Farmhouse Restaurant in Burlington. Back then in Charleston, however, oast wasn't part of my vocabulary. Until recently.

 

Over the past few weeks I've begun working on a new project, whence I hope to produce some writing for publication on this website and elsewhere. But first, some background. Some years ago I'd written an article for American Public House Review, published online at americanpublichousereview.com (I've posted that article, Tessaro's, in the "Works" section of this website.) Which gave rise to a thought. After relocating to Burlington and setting up as a writer, it occurred to me that, given the robust nature of the craft beer industry in Vermont, and the many taprooms and pubs offering Vermont ales, that I might write a series of articles on those pubs and taprooms for that selfsame online publication. So far, that hasn't panned out – it's not clear whether APR is still publishing articles these days. Undaunted, I decided to develop the series anyway.

 

I've mentioned that I'm a fieldworker, and that I've made a living doing contract ethnography for many years. But I may not have mentioned that fieldwork has been a constant source of inspiration for me, feeding my writing and providing a sense of connection that isn't available to me sitting solo at my desk. So then, seeking to hit upon a workable balance between writing and fieldwork, I decided to approach the new project ethnographically, and venture forth once again into the field. Of course, given the nature of the project my first question was, what's at the back of beer? What provides the distinctive taste experience of a well-made ale? Of course, that's an easy question to answer: HOPS!

 

The really interesting discovery, however, which is widely known but was unknown to me until recently, is that in some cases, the hops used to brew local beers are sourced locally, from growers in Vermont. As it happened, this interesting tidbit would provide entrée into what was already emerging as a viable fieldwork project: identify local hops growers, visit their farms, and explore their relationship to the local brewing industry. That would make a good start to what I believe can be developed into a much larger project.

 

Before launching into fieldwork, however, I wanted to learn more about local beers. As it happens, there exist a couple of fine books on the subject. The one by Kurt Staudter and Adam Krakowski is especially good, detailing the history of craft beer in Vermont, rendered more or less chronologically, beginning with the first pub to open in Vermont -- in Burlington as it happens -- then covering the many subsequent developments till recent times (their book was published in 2014). That first brew pub, by the way, is the Vermont Pub and Brewery on College Street, established in 1988 by Greg Noonan and still going strong. (Noonan himself wrote an influential text called Brewing Craft Beer, published in 1986.)

 

Staudter and Krakowski's book is Vermont beer: History of a brewing revolution. (Interestingly, though purely coincidentally, their book was published at Charleston, South Carolina, where I myself first learned the word oast!) Adam Krakowski has also researched 19th century hops production in Vermont, under the auspices of a grant from the Vermont Historical Society, who published his results in their journal, Vermont History (Volume 82, No, 2, Summer/Fall 2014). Needless to say, Adam Krakowski's work is foundational.

 

I felt, however, that my approach would be different, providing a more comprehensive and possibly more in-depth perspective on craft beer and other artisinal products grown or produced in Vermont, by focusing on the many individuals who contribute in many and various ways to the presentation of Vermont terroir. Beginning with hops farmers, I could gradually widen the project's scope to encompass much related activity, such as grain farming (for use in distilled spirits as well as beer), malting of grain, distilling, and maple sugaring (a common ingredient in Vermont beers and ciders, especially during the sugaring season). I could also explore the very interesting worlds of beekeeping (important in flavoring some beers and some distilled spirits, not to mention the array of products made from honey), and herbalism more generally, including research into hemp farming -- because hemp and hops are closely related botanically.

 

Hoping to learn whether anyone was already engaged in such a project, I got in touch with Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont, who offered to circulate a brief description of my project to members of the Center's listserv. I provided something to Richard, and he quickly sent it out. That message has already produced a number of very helpful responses. I later revised the text a bit, and have since sent it along to other individuals as a way of introducing myself and my project to them. I'll wind this post down by including the most recent version of that introductory message:

 

Query for Hops Hemp and Herbs Fieldwork

 

I'm a folklorist and oral historian with lengthy experience as a contract ethnographer, working in communities throughout the northeast and other parts of the country for nearly 40 years.  I've recently relocated to Vermont on a full time basis.  While doing exploratory fieldwork here, I've become interested in hops farming in the region, though my plan is to gradually expand the project to include grain farmers and maltsters who supply the craft beer industry, and to clarify that network of relationships.  In addition, I also want to explore farming or foraging activities somewhat related to hops, under the broad rubric of herbalism — the hops plant ( and botanically related plants such as hemp) is well known to herbalists besides being of long-standing interest to brewers.      

 

Having begun working on this project, I'd be interested in learning about others who are working or have worked with communities of farmers and foragers in Vermont, either directly or tangentially while working on other projects.  More immediately, I'd also be interested in knowing of any contacts or leads among hops growers and grains growers statewide, and related processors.  I suspect that the hops and hemp growers community in particular is relatively small, with hops playing a minor role within the more diversified agricultural or horticultural activity of smallholders.  At some point I expect to widen the hops research to incorporate work with brewmasters, and do fieldwork at sites of consumption such as taprooms and brew pubs.

 

I want to emphasize, however, that alongside the hops project I hope to significantly broaden and deepen that work to develop relationships with herbs growers, wildcrafters, foragers, and herbalists, especially those community-based individuals who function within longstanding and somewhat localized traditions of botanical knowledge and practice.  

 

I'd appreciate having any information or suggestions that readers of this query can provide.  For information on my background, please visit my website at tdcarroll.com. I've only just begun to  build the website, but expect to begin incorporating Vermont fieldwork there in the relatively near future.

 

In my next post, I'll introduce some historical material gleaned from research I conducted in the archives at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, in this case relating to hops, though I plan to do archival research on related topics as this fieldwork project unfolds. In that next post I'll also revisit the subject of oasts.

 

*Hops Hemp Herbs is my working title for this project.

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