Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Roots of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale

Last fall, Fox River Brewing Company released Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. It was an unprecedented beer. It marked the first time a commercial brewery in Oshkosh made beer using fresh hops – hops that go directly from bine to brew kettle without being dried or processed. And it was the first time since the 1880s that a commercial brewery in Oshkosh made beer using hops grown in Winnebago County.

Big Ed's Hopyard
This year's version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale has just been released. This time, the connection to place runs deeper. This is a beer with roots in the earliest days of Winnebago County's beer culture. To trace those roots you have to go back to the 1840s and a man named Silas Allen.

Silas Allen was said to have arrived in Winnebago County in 1846. It was also said that he came with a barrel of hop roots in tow. That seems entirely plausible. Allen migrated here from Madison County in mid-state New York. He'd lived and farmed there at a time when Madison County was the largest producer of hops in the nation.

Allen's migration was part of a westward diaspora of New York hop growers. Everywhere they went, they spread hops. Allen settled at what was then known as Ball Prairie. Today we know it as Allenville. He purchased land, cleared it, and began putting down roots.

By 1853, though possibly earlier, Allen's farm was producing hops suitable for brewing. By 1854, he had five acres of hops under cultivation. His yield that year was in excess of 6,000 pounds. This had grown into a significant hopyard.

Silas Allen died from sunstroke in 1859. He had been out tending to his field. His son Timothy took over the farm. The Allen's continued cultivating hops. It lasted until the late 1870s. By then the hop market had cratered due to overproduction.

The final blow for the Allens appears to have come in 1880. The Chicago & North Western Railway cut a track through the middle of their hopyard. Their hop farming days were over. That should have ended the story for those hops. It didn't.

Allenville Hops
Hops are tenacious. Once established, the plants can be nearly impossible to eradicate. They'll turn feral, sending out underground runners. The spread is often prolific. At the site of Silas Allen's farm hops still grow wild.

Those hops piqued the interest of Scott Clark and Steve Sobojinski. They cultivate the hopyard in Winnebago County that supplies the fresh hops used in Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. Last spring Clark and Sobojinski planted cuttings taken from roots of the hops growing wild at Silas Allen's old farm.

The plants flourished. This year’s version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale includes hops grown on plants from the relocated Allenville cuttings. It’s the first time in almost 140 years that hops derived from those roots have been used in a commercial beer.

A bucket of the Silas Allen hops.
The Silas Allen hops are just part of the mix. This year’s Big Ed's Hopyard Ale also includes Columbus, Cascade, Sterling, Centennial, and Nugget hops. They were picked on the morning of September 13.

Brewers picking hops at Big Ed's Hopyard.
A few hours later those hops were in the kettle at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh. The beer went on tap yesterday; Wednesday, October 11. It’s a wonderful beer.

Big Ed's Hopyard Ale 2017
The aroma showcases the hops. They’re bright and lemony. The flavor also favors the hops with more of that citrus fruit coming through. But the hops don’t entirely dominate. This year Kevin Bowen, brewmaster at Fox River, added locally harvested honey to the wort for Big Ed’s. The honey presence is subtle, but it sets a nice counterpoint to that brisk hop flavor. The bitterness is firm and clean and not at all oppressive. At 5.8% ABV, this beer is at the outer edge of being sessionable, but two or three go down easily.

Like all fresh hop beers this one is going to be at its best when it’s at its freshest. That’s right now. This is a rare beer in the truest sense. Don’t let it slip by.


  1. The Silas Allen story from 150 years ago continued today with the cuttings and planting of his hops by modern day hop growers is a great story. Using these wet hops in Big Ed's Hopyard Ale by an Oshkosh brewer is the exclamation point. Well done all around.

    1. Thanks, Leigh. When I first found those hops in 2013 I wanted nothing more than for a brewery in Oshkosh to make beer with them. Having that happen has been immensely gratifying.