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Spanish scientists are growing hydroponic hops to help 'save' climate-threatened beer

The start-up says this could be the best way to futureproof the supply of a key ingredient in the world's most popular alcoholic drink.
The start-up says this could be the best way to futureproof the supply of a key ingredient in the world's most popular alcoholic drink. Copyright REUTERS/Juan Medina
Copyright REUTERS/Juan Medina
By Lottie Limb with Reuters
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The flowers are a key ingredient in beer. With crop yields falling, can vertical farming help future proof their supply?

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“Saving the world's beer” sounds like the kind of mission you might dream up for yourself when you’re already a few pints down, picturing craft empire glory.

But for Ines Sagrario, chief executive and co-founder of Spanish start-up Ekonoke, this ambition is based on a sobering reality.

Hops are one of many crops suffering under the burn of climate change. The plant which produces the bitter flowers used in beer is known for its ‘goldilocks’ requirements: long summer days and mild temperatures.

Germany's Hallertau, the Czech Republic and the northwestern United States, for example, have traditionally provided the temperate climes hops need to thrive.

We're on a mission to save the world's beer.
Ines Sagrario
Chief executive, Ekonoke

But research shows more frequent droughts and plagues due to global warming are driving down both yields and quality - a growing headache for the beer industry.

According to growers' associations, US production was down 12 per cent year-on-year in 2022, while German output saw a 21 per cent decline and Czech yields fell by more than 40 per cent due to abnormally hot and dry growing conditions.

Spain's Ekonoke is seeking a solution by cultivating the water-intensive vines indoors through renewable-powered hydroponic systems that use nearly 95 per cent less water than traditional outdoor farming.

How do hydroponic hops grow?

In warehouses outside Madrid, twists of hop vines grow under LED lights and close supervision.

Ekonoke’s small team of agronomists, chemists and biotechnologists tinkers with different combinations of light and fertigation - the blending of fertilisers and water - at the test facility. They’re seeking the "secret sauce" that best suits each variety.

The ultimate goal is to maximise production of alpha-acids and essential oils that impart the bitter and fruity aromas so cherished by craft beer enthusiasts.

JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS
Ana Saez, Chief Operations Officer at Ekonoke controls the plantation of hops, in Alcobendas, Spain, March 2023.JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS

Dozens of sensors hooked to the leaves, roots and stems of the tall-growing climbers measure every parameter, from humidity to CO2 levels. While changing wavelengths from LED lights give the repurposed warehouses a nightclub-like feel.

"These hops have never seen any sunlight, only our own light show," says Javier Ramiro, Ekonoke's co-chief scientific officer.

Strict hygiene measures such as protective clothing for staff ensure the space remains pest-free, taking the pesticides on which traditional farming often depends out of the equation.

Closing the loop from plants to brewers

To fund its research and expansion plans, Ekonoke has partnered with the Hijos de Rivera group, makers of the popular Estrella Galicia brand. The company has developed a limited edition IPA using Ekonoke's hops that is already on tap in a bar in Madrid's hipster Chueca neighbourhood.

Their next step is to upscale production to three rooms of up to 400 plants each from the current several dozen at a 1,200 square metres pilot facility in northwestern Galicia.

There, they plan to test automated post-harvest processes.

JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS
A waitress pours a beer made using hops cultivated by Ekonoke in Madrid, March 2023.JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS

Sagrario explains that in the future, indoor plantations could ideally be set up next door to brewers, acting as a carbon sink by reusing the CO2 emitted during fermentation to speed up the plants' photosynthesis.

Growers could also use filtered water residues left over from the manufacturing.

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What are the obstacles for indoor beer farming?

The challenge for “very promising” ventures like Ekonoke is whether they can grow and sell premium hops that are able to compete against over 1,000 years of history in a sometimes conservative sector with conservative consumers.

That’s according to Willy Buholzer, director for global hops procurement at industry giant Anheuser Busch inBev (ABI), which supported the start up as part of its sustainability accelerator programme.

"You should not underestimate traditional [outdoor] hop growers. They always come up with new ideas," he says.

The most obvious challenge indoor farming faces, he adds, is its high energy cost.

But Bulholzer is optimistic that soaring energy prices will normalise, while the added value of a secure supply of special varieties and more frequent harvests resulting in higher yields per acre could make indoor farming competitive in pricing.

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"Demand from breweries is quite inelastic; you can't make beer without hops and they don't want to produce less," Sagrario says.

Ekonoke's endgame, she adds, is to set up indoor plantations all across the globe. "This can be grown anywhere: Madrid, Sevastopol or Timbuktu."

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