By 1850, 2.5 million of the U.S.’s 3.5 million pounds of annual hop production came from the heart of New York. The empire state dominated the hops industry until 1900 when the fertile and pest resistant farmland of the West Coast took over. The only blip in New York’s reign was a short period from 1860 to 1870 that many have coined as “The Wisconsin Hop Craze”.
Commercially produced hops were first introduced into Waukesha county around 1837, most likely by farm hands from New York who brought their root stock with them. In 1842 the first hop farms appeared in Sauk County, which would become the heart of the hops industry with Kilbourn City (now Wisconsin Dells) as the processing hub.
Numerous factors came together to create the Wisconsin hops industry. First, there was a major failure of the New York crop. Based on descriptions from the time, most likely it was the hop aphid that was ravaging their crop. Following the hop aphid’s damage came sooty mold to finish off the crop. This shortage caused a 700% spike in prices enticing new growers to enter the industry.
Simultaneously, the Civil war was drawing to a close. Approximately 40,000 soldiers returned to their farms in Wisconsin to find the women and older folk were still harvesting wheat and other crops. These soldiers had spent years living on adrenaline and probably felt the need to make up for lost time. The spike in hops prices provided the perfect opportunity for them to make a lot of cash…which they did. Farmers went from simple wheat farmers to prosperous plantation owners. In 1860, Wisconsin produced 135,000 lbs of hops. By 1867, the state’s production was over 6 million pounds.
The meteoric rise continued just one more year. 1867’s crop topped out at over 11 million pounds with 4 million of those pounds in Sauk county alone. By then New York had solved their problems and brought their production back on-line. This combined with the increased production from Wisconsin caused a major drop in prices. Many simply abandoned their farms or sold them to the new crop of German immigrants arriving with their dairy cattle and more sustainable farming practices. By 1880, Wisconsin’s crop had dropped to under 2 million pounds and nearly disappeared by the turn of the century.