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Looking Back to When Hops, Not Wine, Ruled Sonoma County

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A rusty scale sits against a green background, next to a sign that reads "Hop Pickers Wanted"
An installation view of 'On Tap: Sonoma County Hops & The Beer Revolution.' The clashes between underpaid migrant laborers and the hop-growing industry in Sonoma County resulted in a mechanized picking machine — and a notorious tarring and feathering incident. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Ask any random old-timer in Sonoma County about their summer job as a teenager, and it’s not likely to have been working as a lifeguard at Ridgeway Pool or driving the train at Howarth Park.

Many locals of a certain age will tell you they picked hops.

These days, wine grapes are Sonoma County’s dominant, near-monoculture crop. But for many years in the early- to mid-20th century, the region’s most popular crop was hops: those funny-looking pinecone-shaped buds used in making beer.

On Tap: Sonoma County Hops and the Beer Revolution, a new exhibition at the Museum of Sonoma County, chronicles the rise, fall and recent renaissance of hop growing in the county. It also documents the breweries, both fledgling and nationally known, that loom large in Sonoma County’s beermaking history.

‘On Tap: Sonoma County Hops & The Beer Revolution’ at the Museum of Sonoma County includes stories of the migrants and Dust Bowl refugees who worked as hop pickers in the early 20th century. (Museum of Sonoma County)

The exhibition includes scenes of early hop picking, done mainly by poor families, Chinese immigrants, Indigenous people and young students. It covers these underpaid workers’ 1935 hop strike, and the infamous tarring and feathering of two labor organizers that resulted.

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It was a farmworker strike, in fact, that inspired one local hop grower, Florian Dauenhauer, to invent a mechanized hop harvester. Dauenhauer’s company is still active in Santa Rosa, and his invention remains in use today as the industry standard. His original patents are on view in the exhibition, as well as a modern version of his hop harvester.

Also on view is a wide-ranging collection of bottles, cans and other artifacts from Grace Brothers Brewing, one of the rare breweries to survive Prohibition. Grace Brothers, which operated for decades in central Santa Rosa, distributed its beer all over the country and has since attracted a cult following among beer fans.

By the 1945 harvest, Sonoma County hit its peak hop production, which generated $2.6 million from 25,000 bales. But mildew, aphids and cold weather soon set in.

“It faded away so fast,” said the museum’s curator of history Eric Stanley. “Literally within a couple of years, it nosedived.” By 1961, Sonoma County’s hop production was so low that the Farm Bureau stopped including it in its annual reports.

‘On Tap: Sonoma County Hops & The Beer Revolution’ shows the machinery, packaging and distribution of legendary breweries such as Santa Rosa’s Grace Brothers Brewing, as well as early microbreweries like New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Later, in 1976, New Albion Brewery started making beer in the town of Sonoma, becoming what’s now recognized as the first modern microbrewery in the United States. The exhibition includes photos, boxes and other ephemera from New Albion, a spiritual godfather to the county’s explosion of craft beer, and outfits like Mendocino Brewing Co., Moonlight Brewing Co., Russian River Brewing Co. and Henhouse Brewing.

When you have that much brewing going on, you need hops. Enter the new breed of Sonoma County hop growers, small in scale but dedicated to quality and innovation. The exhibition’s large photos show their new operations scattered around the county, tended to with care and innovation.

And who knows? In Sonoma County, there may yet be a victorious future for the small but mighty hop.


‘On Tap: Sonoma County Hops and the Beer Revolution’ is on view from April 20–Sept. 1, 2024, at the Museum of Sonoma County (425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa). Details here.

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