Hops from North Bend farm’s glory days make for a tasty pint
It won’t be “last call” for locally flavored ale thanks to a group of volunteers who spent Labor Day picking Meadowbrook hops, the wild descendants of hops from what was once described as the largest hop farm in the world.
The aromatic green buds, remnants from the 19th-century Snoqualmie Hop Ranch, still grow around the 460-acre Meadowbrook Farm Preserve in North Bend, with vines winding around any structure or plant they can grip on to.
Some hop vines climb the tall wooden posts outside the interpretive center. Other vines wind up tree trunks and weave their way through blackberry bushes around the preserve.
Volunteers powered through thorn bushes to reach hop-heavy vines in the thicket, using ladders to clear narrow paths. Vines growing up the timbers next to the interpretive center were cut by volunteers on ladders. Loaded hop vines were worth the extra effort they took to reach, as the fruits of the labor will end up in a uniquely local batch of beer.
While some homebrewers have known about and picked the hops for many years, Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Company started using the wild hops in special batches only four years ago.
Currently in his mid-80s, Dave Olson, a board member for the Meadowbrook Farm Preserve, was climbing ladders, carrying hop-filled baskets and getting deep into some blackberry thickets during the harvest. His son Alan and wife Betty were also there, climbing, cutting and picking. Dave Olson plays bridge with Pat Anderson, part owner of the Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Company, and helped Anderson get on board with the idea of using Meadowbrook hops in a beer batch.
In 2012, volunteers brought the first load of Meadowbrook hops to the brewery. The inexperienced pickers had made some mistakes so that the crop needed to be picked through again, Dave Olson said. The workers at the brewery were ready to scrap the hops rather than pick through them, but Anderson asserted, “We are making Meadowbrook ale this year. Get to work,” Dave Olson recalled with a laugh. They’ve made the beer three out of four years since then.
Meadowbrook’s volunteers worked the old-fashioned way. They cut hop vines down and ran fingers along each vine looking for green hops that were about three-quarters of an inch or larger. They snapped off the keepers into baskets and boxes and piled up the harvested vines.
Very few, if any, commercial hop-growing operations still hand-pick hops, said Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America.
That was not the case at Snoqualmie Hop Ranch while it was operating. Though it was once one of the most productive hop farms in the world, it would not live to see the mechanization of hop harvesting in the post-prohibition era.
After hop crops in Europe were wiped out by pest infestations in the 1860s, Western Washington farmers stepped in to fill the worldwide demand.
The Snoqualmie Hop Ranch, located in the fertile prairie above the falls between Mount Si and Rattlesnake Ridge, started in 1882.
Hop-growing operations at Snoqualmie Hop Ranch ceased by 1900, and aphid infestations destroyed the industry west of Cascades completely by 1910.