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An odyssey of hops: Wild Meadowbrook hops survive 100 years, go back in beers again
Above, hop pickers gather at the Snoqualmie Hop Farm, what is now Meadowbrook Farm, in the late 19th century. The annual harvest drew in Native American tribes from across the Northwest in an economic and social melting pot.
Hops from the fields of today’s Meadowbrook Farm once traveled the globe and enlivened European beers.
But a century after time and trouble all but erased the Snoqualmie Hops Farm from the Valley, beer is once again being flavored with the wild descendants of those original Meadowbrook vines.
In September, volunteer pickers collected hops from vines preserved at the farm’s interpretive center. Those flower buds were used to flavor a special, limited edition dry-hopped Meadowbrook Farm Ale, now on tap at Snoqualmie Brewing Co. in downtown Snoqualmie.
Tasting the ale, “It captures the sort of golden fall Snoqualmie Valley weather,” says Mary Norton, president of the Meadowbrook Farm board.
The farm hops, and Meadowbrook farm itself, have had a long odyssey.
The coincidence that hops have maintained themselves, wild for the most part, for more than 110 years, only to come to fore again thanks to a local beer-brewing operation, is fun, exciting even, Norton says.
“It’s coming full circle,” she said.
Hops aren’t native to North America. But early farmers quickly discovered that the valleys of Washington and Oregon were ideal ground for transplanted vines.
“It’s a European vine that loves it here,” says Snoqualmie resident and historian Dave Battey. “Once you planted a field, you never had to replant it. Every year, the vine comes up.”
The place we call Meadowbrook today was, in past ages, an important gathering place for tribes from Puget Sound and Eastern Washington. Caucasian settlement began when an adventurer named Jeremiah Borst hiked there in 1858, deciding it looked like a good place to start a farm. He brought in supplies, married a Snoqualmie tribal woman and homesteaded.
In 1882, he sold much of the property to the Hop Growers Association, who created what has been described as the world’s largest hop farm at Meadowbrook.
When the crop failed in Europe, hops boomed here. At Meadowbrook, some 900 acres were planted, and a ranch arose with hop kilns for drying the picked product, camps for the workers, barns and a three-story summer hotel.
The annual harvest drew some 2,000 pickers to the Valley, about 1,200 of whom were Native Americans. They came from the Puget Sound, from across the Cascades, and as far as the Fraser River in Canada. The tribes camped on the island defined by the circular slough next to Mount Si Golf Course.
“It was a big deal,” Battey said.
The harvest was a major gathering, in which the tribes would mix socially, gamble, and sometimes intermarry.
“The international sale of hops was such a big deal that German beer was being made with Snoqualmie hops,” Battey said. Yet, “so many people grew them in Washington and Oregon that it destroyed the market.”
Falling prices and pests ended the boom, causing a local recession. By 1900, hop farming was finished here. Farmers plowed under their vines, but the hardy hop lingered on in the fencerows.
Twenty years ago, one of Battey’s jobs was to mow the fields of the future Meadowbrook Farm.
He had been hired by the Snoqualmie Valley Land Company, a group of investors who were trying to guide the farm into a new era.
After the crash, hops growing operations moved from western Washington and Oregon to New York, and eventually, back to eastern Washington, where they thrive today.
Here, a first attempt to grow potatoes at Meadowbrook failed. But the dairy that followed that, succeeded for more than 50 years, closing in the 1960s. Battey said it was done in by new regulations that made it tougher for small milk handlers to compete.
The farm was sold to a group of local investors, who marketed the property for the next 30 years, selling parcels for schools and businesses, while leaving the core intact.
When a prospective buyer came along, Battey mowed and get things ship-shape. On the job, he noticed wild hop vines in a spruce grove on the farm. Battey asked for permission to dig up a few and plant starts. He received permission, drove out in his pickup, and collected starts on a wet day.
He grew Meadowbrook hops on his own farm at Indian Hill, and later at the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum in North Bend.
Meanwhile, the new incarnation of Meadowbrook Farm was being created. Several development proposals had been floated, and Meadowbrook came within a single North Bend City Council vote of becoming a mall.
But a new vision had emerged: To keep the remaining farm as public open space, complementing recent public purchases at Three Forks Natural Area, the Mount Si Conservation Area and Rattlesnake Ridge.
In 1996, Meadowbrook Farm was bought for the public by the cities of Snoqualmie and North Bend. The 460 acres are now managed by the non-profit Meadowbrook Farm Preservation Association as a public space for wildlife viewing, hiking, limited agriculture and community gatherings.
After the public Interpretive Center was built off Boalch Road, Battey planted vines there. The hardy hops are still there, growing on some of the vertical timbers outside the building.
Home brewers have known about, and picked, wild Meadowbrook hops for years. The hops have survived in out-of-the-way spots on the farm, and at the Interpretive Center, they’re protected—elk can’t push over the timbers, so the vines freely climb.
“They’re growing very strong,” Battey says. This year saw a bumper crop, one of the best for hops that Battey’s ever seen.
To Battey, who led a group of Meadowbrook volunteers in picking hops at the center on a sunny Friday in September, the historic nature of the occasion was clear.
“It’s wonderful to be making beer with those 1882 hops,” says Battey.
“It’s good,” he pronounces the brew.
• You can learn more about Meadowbrook Farm history, nature and public events like hikes and classes at http://www.meadowbrookfarmpreserve.org. The next Meadowbrook guided tour is Saturday, Oct. 27.