Like a lot of craft beer enthusiasts, I appreciate the hops that go into the brews I drink, and am proud to know that a lot of the hops I consume are grown in my home state. So picking up a book about the early days of hop farming in Washington wasn't a tough sell.
But with Hop King: Ezra Meeker's Boom Years, you get a lot more than a blow-by-blow history of how hop fields came to the state, although you get that, too. The book, by historian Dennis M. Larsen and available now from WSU Press, sheds light on one of the most colorful and accomplished men from the early days of the Washington Territory, and the subsequent infancy of our state. He was like the Evergreen State's Forrest Gump — seemingly a part of every big moment in our early history.
Meeker came to the area on the Oregon Trail. He was unsuccessful initially as a farmer and also failed in other business ventures before obtaining some hop roots from the United Kingdom. He planted the crops on his farm in Puyallup and oversaw a booming enterprise, serving as the supplier for legendary Portland brewer Henry Weinhard. When a global hops shortage struck, Meeker thrived on the high prices that resulted, amassing substantial wealth and becoming an evangelist for the hop industry, which was thriving in the Puget Sound area.
You won't find many hop farms on that side of the state these days, mostly due to the aphid infestation that knocked out the crop and ended Meeker's hop empire. But his influence led to the boom of hop growing in the Yakima Valley — the world's most prolific hop-growing region. Meeker would go on to have a few more outlandish chapters in his life, including during the Klondike gold rush, which Larsen describes in his earlier book, Slick as a Mitten: Ezra Meeker's Klondike Enterprise.
Larsen's history is colorful but also deeply investigated and researched. He paints a picture of an early Washington full of wide-eyed folks like Meeker who were intoxicated by the possibility found in the new corner of the country. The section about Meeker's efforts to bring women's suffrage to Washington is both fascinating and inspiring.
If you go into this book hoping to gain some knowledge to enlighten your drinking buddies, you're going to find what you need. But be sure to drink up the rest of the Meeker story while you're at it.