With more than 200 breweries operating in the state, beer is big business in Oregon. But the Beaver State’s relationship with beer starts before the brewing process and reaches into the very soil. In addition to its profusion of breweries, Oregon is the breadbasket of the world’s beer industry, supplying hops—the flavorful flower that gives beer its bitter bite—to brewers around the world. Now, Oregon State University (OSU) is making a place for the state’s storied history in the brewing world at the newly minted Oregon Hops & Brewing Archive (OHBA).
“For an archivist, this is a fabulous opportunity to work with industry, as well as the social and cultural community, to document a statewide identity,” said Tiah Edmunson-Morton, the OSU archivist who has made it her mission to get the OHBA off the ground.
The university has a history as a home to decades of USDA-sponsoredresearch on hops—a notoriously temperamental crop that is susceptible to agricultural hazards like pests and bad weather, turning the school the—and the state—into a laboratory for new commercial strains of hops(including the Cascade hop, which remains one of the most commonly used craft beer ingredients to this day). The university also hosts a PhD program in Brewing Science, which combines traditional brewing with elements of chemistry and microbiology.
“The first hops were planted on OSU’s campus in the 1890s,” Edmunson-Morton said. “There’s lots of amazing history that was already part of our collection in the form of departmental research.”
The project is only nine-months-old. But it’s already attracting attention from contributors like Peter Kopp, an agricultural historian at the University of New Mexico (UNM) who is working on a scholarly history of America’s hops industry. Because the heart of that industry is the Pacific Northwest, which produces almost a third of the world’s hops, he spent years culling details on the history of hops farming from the archives of small town historical societies, and is excited to have a dedicated collection serving scholars in his field.
“The challenge for rural historians is that rural people didn’t tend to leave behind many records, so there’s this rich history going back to the 1850s, but you have to piece the info together,” said Kopp who has lent his assistance as a researcher to the OHBA and spoke at their recent launch party event on how the archive will be used by scholars, to Library Journal. “What we’re trying to do in the archive is put together the pieces of that story.”
For Edmunson-Morton’s part, her biggest job right now is getting the word out about the archive and getting brewers, hop farmers, and other stakeholders to buy in. An outreach archivist by training and temperament, she told Library Journal that that part of the gig suits her just fine. She’s travelled to breweries, farms, and beer festivals across the state, working her way into the community one handshake at a time. “We’re educating people on the importance of saving history,” Edmunson-Morton said. “Not just about having items they can donate, but thinking more holistically about the things they’re leaving behind.” She says she’s frequently asked whether she’s drinking on the job all the time in the course of that outreach; the answer is no.
While the archive is still in its infancy, Edmunson-Morton has already collected a wide variety of items detailing the history of hop farming and brewing in Oregon, from scientific data from the OSU/USDA hops collaborations to artwork celebrating local craft breweries like McMenamins, which owns and operates dozens of pubs, hotels, and concert venues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She’s also working on longer term projects, like developing an easy workflow for people to be able to contribute their own photographs and other pieces of Oregon beer history to the archive online. While the OHBA is meant to be a resource for scholars interested in the technological and scientific developments that turned Oregon into a hops powerhouse, Edmunson-Morton is just as interested in recording the personal stories associated with the industry, which employs more than 29,000 Oregonians, according to the Oregon Brewing Guild. She’d especially love to see the OHBA become a repository for the stories of communities whose contributions to the industry may be under represented, such as women and immigrant laborers.