Art & Museums

A Beer Named Ella: Celebrating a 19th Century Hop-Picker at the Beer Culture Summit

Ella Seymour was a hop-picker in 19th century Wisconsin. Now there’s a beer named after her.

This past Friday night scholars, educators, industry professionals and assorted beer lovers gathered at Metropolitan Brewing on the Northwest Side of Chicago to celebrate the life of the young woman from Sauk County, Wisconsin, as part of the first annual Beer Culture Summit.

A four-day conference organized by the Chicago Brewseum in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and held at various locations around the city, the Summit featured some of the biggest names in the industry, from John Hall, founder of Goose Island Beer Company to such prominent beer experts as Randy Mosher and Ray Daniels. Friday night’s program at Metropolitan welcomed ERIS Brewery and Cider House, located in Old Irving Park, and the Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based 3 Sheeps Brewing Company.

ERIS collaborated with 3 Sheeps to create Ella, in honor of the 19th-century women who labored in the Midwest hop industry. Ella is a wet hopped harvest ale made with Cluster hops. Cluster hops were once harvested in 19th century Wisconsin by women like Ella and are some of the oldest U.S. hops grown in North America.

The speakers on this historic night were Julia Herz, Brewers Association craft beer program director, who gave an overall history of the U.S. beer scene and the state of craft brewing today (according to Herz, there are 229 craft breweries in Illinois); Dr. Jennifer Jordan, professor of sociology and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; Michelle Foik of ERIS; and Grant Pauly of 3 Sheeps.

Ella was inspired by historical research conducted by Jordan, whose areas of specialization include the sociology of food as well as beer and brewing, and who is currently working on Before Craft Beer: The Lost Landscapes of Forgotten Hops, for the University of Chicago Press.

Ella, the beer, pays tribute to the young women who labored on Midwestern hop farms during the mid-1800s. This was during a time when hop blossoms were picked by hand. These seasonal workers traveled throughout the countryside harvesting Cluster hops by day and sleeping in farmhouses at night. Foik and her ERIS business partner Katy Pizza describe these women “as the migrant workers of their day.”

Ella is the first beer in a new collaboration series called Voices. The Voices series, produced by the Chicago Brewseum in partnership with breweries and cultural organizations around the United States, pays tribute to the unseen pioneers, including women, who helped make American beer.

“Women have always been in the beer industry,” says Pizza. “We’re just starting to talk more about it now.”

Alana R. Jones, in The Oxford Companion to Beer, writes, “For most of recorded human history, women have been responsible for supplying the world’s beer. From the brewing goddesses of the ancient near east and the disenfranchised brewers of medieval England to the ladies fighting on both sides of the Temperance Movement and the women asserting themselves in every aspect of the modern brewing industry, the story of women’s role in brewing is as long and complex as human history itself.”

When asked the reason for the recent resurgence of women in the industry, Foik and Pizza have their own opinions, attributing it to several factors, “from Hillary to the #MeToo movement.” They named their brewery and cider house after Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and the daughter of Zeus and Hera. (ERIS’s motto is “May you always embrace the chaos.”) Eris was a paradoxical figure. According to Greek myth, she was notorious for causing mayhem, but she also celebrated creativity and thus became known as the patron saint of chaotic creation, an image that appealed to the two women.

Liz Garibay, founder and executive director of the Chicago Brewseum, wanted to put a face on the women of the beer industry so she reached out to ERIS. When 3 Sheeps got involved, a historic brew was in the making.

The brew masters at ERIS and 3 Sheeps may have collaborated to create the beer, but Jordan was the one who helped bring Ella Seymour’s backstory to life.

“I never imagined my research could turn into something you can drink,” Jordan admitted with a chuckle before a mellow crowd who gathered at Metropolitan surrounded by brewing equipment and sipping half-liters of Ella. Some people stood, others sat on bags of German Pilsner malt that were mounted on beer pallets.

Like her fellow hop-pickers who worked in the hop-growing fields of Wisconsin, Ella Seymour picked the hops by hand, “pulling each blossom one at a time,” says Jordan. It was tedious, backbreaking work.

Almost all of the women who picked the hops were from nearby farms. Some came from out of state, from Illinois and “maybe” as far away as St. Louis, says Jordan, to work for a few days or weeks. Typically the pickers stayed in the homes of the farmers’ families: women and girls slept in the house while men and boys slept on bales of hay in the barn. In 1869, she notes, Wisconsin grew some 4.6 million pounds of hops, second only in the United States to New York.

In Madison’s Wisconsin Historical Society, Jordan found the family papers of the Seymour family. Ella’s family dairy farm was located in Dellona, Wisconsin, near the Wisconsin Dells. She kept a sporadic diary of her life, which Jordan shared with the audience. Ella wrote about ordinary things from the weather to mundane chores to the daily routine of life on a Midwestern farm. “We arranged beds, cleaned windows, and Ida [her sister] mopped some,” she wrote. She washed and ironed clothes. She baked. And one day she recorded that she herself picked 1-½ boxes of hops. After the season ended, Ella wrote, with evident relief, “We can breathe more freely.”

Now through the collaboration of ERIS and 3 Sheeps the story of these unsung and invisible women come to life, in a bottle of beer. As for the beer itself, Ella is a brown-colored beauty, a flavorful combination of aromatic sweetness with touches of toffee and caramel. A real crowd-pleaser.

“You taste the hops. You smell the hops. That’s what we tried to squeeze into the beer,” offers Pauly.

“It’s made for everyone,” said Foik.

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