Plant of the month: hops

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The United States undergoes a craft beer Renaissance. As Atlantic Remarks, “Between 2008 and 2016, the number of brewing establishments increased sixfold and the number of brewery workers increased by 120 percent.” These breweries tend to produce IPA style bitter beers using abundant hops, a flower of the Humulus lupulus vine.

These hopped drinks found themselves at the center of a larger “gender and race calculation“within the craft beer industry, which continues to be dominated by white men and filled with explicit examples of Sexism and racism. As sociologists Nathaniel Chapman and David Brunsma have argued in a recent book“the history of beer and brewing in the United States has been racialized and is, in fact, racist – doling out opportunities and cultures centered on whiteness and white supremacy in the beer industry.”

By focusing on hops, a primary flavoring agent in many beers, a set of stories emerge that show how the “whiteness” of beer was built through “settler expansion imperatives and racial capitalist logic.” It also crucially shows how marginalized communities in the United States have historically used hops and brewing beer for their own ends amid this violent dispossession and oppression.

First: what exactly are hops? The word hops, as detailed by historian Peter Kopprefers to “both a plant in the family Cannabaceae (with its closest cousin being cannabis) and its cones. The hops that many of us associate with beer are actually one of three species of the plant; this “common leap” is a perennial plant with deep roots native to Eurasia and North America.

Hops have been used for millennia. Although written records are unclear as to the first use of hops, it is clear that historically they were not simply an additive for beer. Scholars demonstrated how “the Greeks only used hops as a salad plant” and that “in the past many ailments of man were treated by physicians with prescriptions of hops to be consumed green or in various liquid concoctions”.

In the eighth century AD, hops began to be added to beer, replacing previous flavoring additives like moss, dandelion, and juniper. Hops gained popularity at this time because the bitterness of hops “helps[ed] balance out the sweetness of the malty grains,” as Kopp pointed out, and the resins from the plant acted as a preservative for the beers. At first, Western European brewers did not cultivate the plant, seeking it instead. It is unclear exactly when hops began to be grown in Europe expressly for beer. But, as Kopp writes, “by the end of the ninth century, the cultivation of hops for the purpose of beer-making spread from Bavaria to Bohemia (in today’s Czech Republic), to the Slovenia, France and other temperate regions of continental Europe”.

England in turn became a center of hop-growing, spanning seventy thousand acres of harvest in 1885. The cultivation of hops in Britain was deeply linked to national identity: a handbook of horticulture from 1729 held by Dumbarton Oaks Library maintains that, “given the small space of land [hops] take[e] Compared with other plants and the small expense of planting, the prodigious profit in proportion and great advantage it brings to the crown of Great Britain is well worth our consideration.

An illustration of Humulus lupulus, 1887 via Wikimedia Commons

European imperialism has hopped around the world in what scholar Michael A. Tomlan calls the “hop diaspora.” As early as 1620, English Puritan settlers in Plymouth Colony began growing hops. With the advent of industrial agriculture, hops moved from family plots to large commercial farms and spread throughout the country. In the mid-19th century, this industry coalesced in the Pacific Northwest, partly in response to the increase in pests and diseases impacting crop yields on the East Coast and Midwest as well as the scars left by Prohibition. Soon, growers residing in Oregon claimed the area was the “hops center of the world,” covering 34,000 acres in the 1930s.

This industry, as shown by Megan A. Carney, was based on both “the violence of westward expansion and the central role of Aboriginal people in hop production”, among other marginalized groups. While early producers in the Northeast tended to employ white women, “because most men could not leave their farms or factory jobs for the entire harvest seasonas hop cultivation became established on the West Coast, white women “found themselves at a distinct disadvantage as pickers, as they often became the center of attention.” As Michael Tomlan details, indigenous communities were “invariably favored by producers”, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, as they were seen as trustworthy and able to “photograph”.[k] clean.” In other places like California, Chinese communities were employed on hop farms because “they were willing to pick for much less” than white Americans or native peoples. Tomlan notes that in 1891 in Mendocino , Chinese laborers received $0.90 per hundred pounds of hops, compared to $1.00 paid to native pickers and $1.10 to white pickers.

In addition to rampant wage discrimination, indigenous and Chinese workers have faced numerous labor abuses. Journalist Putsata Reang showed how, in one case, more than 50 Chinese hop pickers in Butteville were “arrested by seventy-five white men and forced onto the steamer Toledo [and] sent home to Portland and warned not to return.” Racial oppression was enshrined in law in many cases: Oregon’s constitution of 1859 prohibited any “Chinese” from owning property, and in 1923 the state passed a law making property a right reserved for citizens. In a 1982 oral history, Ming Kee, who was born into a Chinese hop-growing family, describes the consequences of these laws: “You cultivate all these years and […] you can’t own your own farm and you pay a quarter [of profits] lease…. You just work for the other guys. The low wages paid to indigenous and Chinese pickers have created “a system that resembled debt bondage», with pickers in « state of perpetual debt ».

Despite these horrific working conditions, Chinese and Indigenous workers used hop picking to exercise their agency and autonomy. Historian William Bauer has demonstrated that in the Pacific Slope hop industry, Indigenous hop growers used their labor in the hop fields as a means”take control of their economy.” Indigenous communities often pooled their stable wages from hop picking to assert self-reliance “in their daily lives” and reclaim land. In addition, hop picking was used as a tool “to maintain kinship and family relationships” – at a time when American authorities were trying to control the sexual practices of Native communities, hop picking “offered men and Aboriginal women the freedom to engage in sexual activity. beyond the agent’s view. Indigenous leaders sometimes successfully argued that their children could not be sent to off-reserve boarding schools because they worked in the hop field.

Chinese workers also used hops to achieve social mobility, despite widespread racism, discrimination and abuse. Although some state laws prohibit Chinese from owning property, there are records of Chinese families owning land to grow hops. Reang recalls how a man, Hop Lee, bought land from a white farmer who was his employer – and eventually “purchased over six hundred acres of farmland in the early 1900s” on which he grew hops.

The bitterness of the hops was thus reflected in the bitterness of the working structures, a relationship that continues today. Carney forcefully details how migrant workers in the Yakima hop industry are “relegated to the margins of local social and cultural life. [and] rarely, if ever, achieve social mobility in industry. It is crucial to also remember how these oppressive conditions were and continue to be challenged by workers, such as during the Yakima Valley hop strikes of the 1970s in which “lots of Chicanos/aces [used their] political organizing skills to combat the exploitation of agricultural workers.” These activists managed to negotiate higher salaries.

Journalists have detailed how black Americans used hops to produce their own brews: although there are few historical studies of the role of black Americans in hop cultivation, it is clear that the “the starkly white imagery of beer culture also obliterates a much longer and far-reaching narrative.” This narrative is beginning to be co-opted by groups like Harlem Hops, a craft beer bar in New York that has “taken up the torch of reorienting the relationship between beer and black America.”

As craft beer considers its oppressive history as well as the discrimination of the present moment, it is important to remember the long history of hops in the United States, especially how various marginalized communities have mobilized the plant. for their own purposes. The Plant Humanities Initiative in Dumbarton Oaks highlights the long and complicated histories of how marginalized communities used their encounters with plants like hops as a way to challenge subjugation and exploitation, even as these plants were used to support colonial expansion settlers.


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