How Pleasanton Got Its Hops Back
By Derrick Peterman
The story of Pleasanton’s hop revival begins ten years ago when a certain rural Midwesterner arrived in California to take up a marketing position at a software company. . . . Rich Clayton was soon to learn that hops have a distinctive history in this corner of the East Bay.
Beer lovers who choose to support their local brewers might like to imagine that the distinctive hop flavors they are fond of are part of that “local” expression. But unless they’re drinking in the Pacific Northwest, where 95%* of the nation’s 53,000 acres of industrial hop fields are located, the hops themselves probably aren’t local.
But that’s changing as a growing movement across the country seeks to unlock the hop terroir and diversify the locations where this fragrant flower is grown. The states of Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and Colorado all have small hop regions, each with a few hundred acres of hopyards, but that acreage is rapidly expanding. It’s also happening to a lesser extent in California, where 130 acres of California hops were grown in 2016, a whopping 53% increase over the previous year. (Statistics for 2017 will be released early in 2018 and are expected to show similar growth.) One spot where this hop-growing movement is unfolding is in the central Alameda County city of Pleasanton, a place where hops flourished for a brief time last century. The story of Pleasanton’s hop revival begins ten years ago when a certain rural Midwesterner arrived in California to take up a marketing position at a software company.
Shortly after Rich Clayton arrived in Pleasanton, he signed himself up with the Pleasanton Community Garden. “I like to grow stuff,” he explains. One day as Clayton joined other volunteers tending the garden, he spied what looked to be a large weed at the back of the plot. He ambled over and was about to yank it out of the ground when another volunteer screamed, “Don’t touch that, it’s a hop!” Startled and a bit embarrassed over not knowing what he almost eradicated, Clayton asked, “What’s a hop?” Clayton was soon to learn that hops have a distinguished history in Pleasanton.
A Hop into Pleasanton History
For a short period in the early 20th century, Pleasanton grew a substantial portion of the nation’s hops. The name of a road locals and commuters now use to traverse Pleasanton’s northwest business park district is all that remains as evidence. Back in the hop-growing day, though, Hopyard Road was lined with rows and rows of trellis structures: poles roughly six yards high, spaced a few feet apart, and strung with rope or wire for the hop bines to climb. (Hops are bines: They climb by coiling around objects. Vines, by contrast, extend tendrils or suckers from the main plant to pull themselves upwards.) Large brick kilns used for drying the harvested hop cones loomed beside the fields. Hops are very fragile and decay quickly, becoming unusable for brewing, so they must be dried in kilns within a few hours of being picked.
At their peak in 1913, Pleasanton’s hop fields covered 2,000 acres, producing two and a half tons of hops annually. Schools and businesses closed down during the harvest, and everyone headed to the hopyards, where 3,000 laborers were needed to perform the tedious job of picking the hop cones off the bines. By Clayton’s estimates, Pleasanton produced 10% of hops grown in the United States, with much of it shipped off to Ireland’s Guinness Brewery.
Pleasanton’s hop heyday lasted only a couple decades. The primary factor in the demise might have been World War I, which disrupted exports. There was also mounting labor unrest, which came to a head in a community north of Sacramento with the 1913 Wheatland Hop Riot, when an exchange of gunfire left two striking hop pickers and two law enforcement agents dead. And then came Prohibition. By the 1920s most of Pleasanton’s hop fields were gone.
A Cluster Comeback
A couple years after that fateful day when Clayton nearly tore the hop plant from the community garden, he remained intrigued by hops and began experimenting with growing a few different varieties. Some thrived and some didn’t. Not surprisingly, one variety of hops that did well in Pleasanton’s soil and climate was the leading variety grown during Pleasanton’s hop peak a century ago. Called “cluster,” it was known for its earthy, black currant flavor. Cluster hops dominated California hop fields throughout the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but are rarely found in beers today. A notable exception is at Anchor Brewing, where the brewmaster chose to use cluster exclusively in reviving a historic California lager recipe. Dubbed California Lager, that brew is distributed widely throughout the Bay Area.
Brewing with Fresh Hops
In 2012, Clayton teamed up with friends Greg Visscher and Dave Read to try his hand at brewing beer with his fresh-picked hops. He says, “It gives the beer a crisp, full aroma. We’d share the beer with our friends, and they’d exclaim, ‘Wow, where’d you get those hops?’”
The experiment led to more hop growing and home brewing. Word got around that something was up, and within a few years, the trio decided to plunge into actual hop farming, acquiring a quarter-acre plot near Pleasanton’s Mohr Elementary School on the northeast side of town. Dubbing themselves the Wobblies Hop Company after the labor union involved in the 1913 Wheatland Hop Riot, the group designed and erected trellises on the property and planted hops in April 2016, harvesting the buds that fall. Livermore’s Eight Bridges Brewing used those hops for their California Cluster Revival Fresh Hop Ale.
Fresh hop beers (sometimes called wet hop beers) are found in the Pacific Northwest around harvest time, but are rare in California. Fresh (not-yet-dried) hops retain a bright, menthol-like character that is lost in the drying process. Most fresh hop beers also use a significant portion of dried hops, as beers made exclusively with wet hops tend to have a medicinal character. Dried hops behave more predictably in the brewing process, so wet hops are typically used to give the beer a unique flair.
Growing hops is relatively easy. It’s the harvesting that’s difficult and labor-intensive. Automated harvesting equipment used by large commercial farms costs $150,000–$200,000, so purchasing it was out of the question for the Wobblies Hop Company. “We’d all call our friends for the harvest,” says Clayton. “It takes about 20 people a day to harvest half the plants.” And since they had only a small kiln for drying hops in small batches for local home brewers, they gladly rushed some of their fresh hops over to Eight Bridges for brewing on harvest day.
All in all, it was not a bad outcome for the first year of hop growing, especially given that hop fields typically take three years to mature to maximum-yield capacity. “What I learned about hop farming is that you have to be very patient,” says Clayton.
In 2017 (year two), they supplied hops to Walnut Creek’s Calicraft Brewing Company for their fall-brewed Wobblies Wet Hop IPA. Calicraft founder and head brewer Blaine Landberg describes the addition of freshly picked cluster hops as imparting flavors of fresh plum, pine, and citrus to the brew. It was a big hit at the taproom. “Lines of people formed during the first few days of release,” says Landberg.
The Wobblies Hop Company is expanding to new projects. Dave Read, a native of New Zealand, is leading an effort to crossbreed New Zealand hop varieties with cluster in hopes of creating new hop varieties that produce unique flavors and aromas. Meanwhile, Clayton is in discussions with the City of Pleasanton Planning Commission for a community hop farm on a few additional acres in the southern part of the city. It’s taking time, but hops are slowly reclaiming territory within the vicinity of Hopyard Road and giving that exit sign on I-580 some honest meaning. But hop growing is not for just anyone looking to jump on the latest farming bandwagon: As Clayton describes, “It’s a labor of love and a patience thing.” ♦
*In fact, 75% of the hops grown in the United States come from a single county: Yakima County in Washington State.
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on the blog “Ramblings of a Beer Runner” at beer-runner.blogspot.com.