hop kiln at Milano Family Winery in Hopland, California picture

The hop kiln of the Milano Family Winery.

Hopland, Calif.: With the hops gone, maybe they should call it Grapeland

Road Journals Blog—Following the leads of neighboring Napa and Sonoma, much of southern Mendocino County is striped with lucrative vineyards, with every second barn, it seems, converted into a wine tasting room. But that wasn’t always so.

Stay alert as you pass through the tiny Hopland on Highway 101 and you’ll spot two unusual barn-like buildings topped by cupolas.

The smaller one sits downtown, behind a recently shuttered pub; one several times larger is on the property of the Milano Family Winery on Highway 101, a half-mile south of town. Ask around and you’ll learn that the two old buildings are telltale remainders of the town’s rich history.

They are not barns, but hop kilns.

From the 1870s to the mid-1950s, much of the region’s economy turned on the growing and drying of bitter hops, a key flavoring and preservative in beer. In Hopland, generations of families worked the fields for several weeks in late summer to help harvest the grain, then dried it in these kilns and others like them. The industry was so vital that the town was named after it.

"I first picked hops along with my stepmother and stepbrother, beginning in 1934,” longtime resident Dave Sagehorn recounts in an interesting collection of oral histories published by the Mendocino County Historical Society. (I happened upon the booklet, Mendocino County Hop Industry, up the road from Hopland at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah). “We picked Monday through Saturday,” he said. “People needed Sunday to do laundry and go into town for supplies and try to get a little rest.”

Sagehorn’s family lived close enough to the hopfields to return home each night, but many other families, some from San Francisco and beyond, lived in temporary camps through the entire picking season, from mid-August through the end of September.

“During lunch we joined other pickers to visit and tell stories,” Sagehorn recalled. “I liked to hear all the stories of the elders. Kids in those times were seen but not heard when adults were visiting. Pickers who lived at the camp walked into camp to eat. Some camps had a grandmother who watched the toddlers and had lunch made by noon and did the breakfast dishes, and dishwashing before the campfire went out.”

Seasonal hop-picking helped many families survive through the Great Depression.

By the mid-1950s, a burgeoning hops market in Washington State and Oregon, plus a shift in preferences toward milder beer, effectively killed the hops industry in Northern California.

But you can still step inside an old redwood-clad hop kiln dating back to the 1940s (it replaced one that burned down in the ’30s after a bootlegger’s still caught fire) at the Milanos' 35-year-old winery. The kiln’s original curing room is now the winery’s tasting area, and the kiln’s drying room now houses stainless steel fermenting vats.

Call the winery to arrange a tour of the kiln to accompany your wine tasting.

Q: Do you have a favorite relic of the past that's available for public viewing? Maybe even something that's been repurposed for a different use entirely?

Hopland is a stop on Deborah Franklin's tour of the Redwood Highway, which she covered in February for VIAmagazine.com.

This blog post was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.