Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Hop Grows in Allenville

My 2013 hop harvest is over. I pulled down almost eight pounds of hop cones over the last two
weekends. Not bad for a home grower, but it’s a pittance in comparison to the yields of the hop farmers of Winnebago County in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1855, for example, Silas Allen collected over 6,000 pounds of hops on five acres of land just north of Oshkosh. Allen’s farm was at the center of a hop growing belt of more than 20 hop yards that spanned the Town of Vinland and reached into the Towns of Winneconne and Clayton. And Allen was a prototype of the hop farmers who, by 1867, had made Wisconsin America’s largest producer of hops.

Hops Growing Wild in Town of Vinland
Silas Allen was born in 1813. He had been a hop grower in New York prior to coming to Winnebago County in 1846 and was said to have brought a barrel of hop roots on the wagon that carried he and his family west. He settled in Bald Prairie, a portion of which is now Allenville, in the Town of Vinland and began clearing land for farming. By 1853, Allen’s hop yard was in full flower.

Allen had gotten in at the right time. Wisconsin’s brewing industry was booming and the price of hops was on the rise. Allen parlayed his crop into a small fortune that enabled him to purchase surrounding tracts of land. According to his great-grandson, John Allen, the elder Allen and his son Timothy were predatory when it came to their business dealings. “They were aggressive,” John Allen says. “They always had to be the biggest. They were manipulators; legal thieves.” But Silas Allen didn’t have long to enjoy the spoils of his success. He died in July 1859 of sunstroke while harvesting hay. At the time of his death, Allen owned more than 700 acres of land in the Towns of Vinland and Clayton.

Timothy Allen took over his father’s hop yards and through the 1860s saw his family’s fortunes continue to increase. But as the decade came to a close an influx of new hop growers and the revival of hop growing in New York led to a glut of hops and a steep drop in prices. Following the crash of the hop market in 1868, the number of hop yards in the Town of Vinland began to decline. The last hop yard on the Allen farm ceased production in 1880, when the Chicago & North Western Railway tracks cut a swath 100 feet wide through it. The disruption brought an end to the Allen’s hop growing.

Allenville Hops
Hops, though, are an incredibly robust plant and they continue to flower on some of the sites of these former hop yards. This summer, I’ve spent time exploring areas in the Towns of Vinland and Clayton where hops were cultivated in the 1850s and 1860s. I’ve found a wealth of hops growing wild in both townships. These may very well be feral hops; as in hops that have survived on their own after their planned cultivation has ceased. On the site of what was the Allen farm they are especially plentiful. They grow up into trees and onto vines to heights of over 40 feet with a proliferation of cones. The hops are medium-sized and pungent with a sweet lemon aroma that’s somewhat similar to Strisselspalt, but more intense.

But will they make good beer? I’m trying to find out. I recently picked just over a half-pound of hops at the site of the Silas Allen farm and then dried them for brewing. This past weekend, I brewed a single-hop beer using these hops. If all goes well, I’ll be serving that beer at this year’s Casks and Caskets. If the hops from the Silas Allen site prove to be of good quality for brewing, my plan is to propagate them and share cuttings with other home growers in the area. We’ll see what happens. Maybe after all these years the Allenville hops are ready for a revival.

Here’s an update on the Allenville hops.

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