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Hydroponics to rescue famous drink from climate change

Hydroponics to rescue famous drink from climate change

Javier Ramiro, Co-Chief Scientific Officer at Ekonoke controls the plantation of hops. Photo credit: Reuters / Juan Medina.

By Anders Lorenzen

Hydroponics, the vertical-farming technology which uses water and not soil to grow plants, and which is primarily used for growing plants indoors, could come to the rescue of one of the most popular drinks in the world; beer. 

Recent research has indicated that hops, the key ingredient for beer production, are struggling to adapt to a world in which the impacts of climate change mean more frequent droughts and plagues. These impacts are driving down both yields and quality. They have been giving headaches to the beer industry, and not the kind of headaches associated with too much alcohol consumption.

Due to the fact that hops require long summer days and mild temperatures, they’re traditionally grown in temperate climates. According to the growers association, US production was down 12% year on year in 2022, while output in Germany and the Czech Republic witnessed a decline of 21% and 40% respectively.

Vertical beer

But now, a Spanish start-up believes they have engineered a solution for this decline.

In warehouses outside Madrid, the company Ekonoke is cultivating water-intensive hop vines under LED lights. They believe this is the best way to futureproof the crop vital to the world’s most popular alcoholic drink. The system is powered by renewable energy and uses 95% less water than traditional outdoor farming. Its chief executive and founder Ines Sagrario said about the project: “We’re on a mission to save the world’s beer.”

The start-up’s 11-member team with diverse expertise, including agronomists, chemists and biotechnologists, tinkers with different combinations of light and fertigation – the blending of fertilisers and water. The start-up says its goal is to maximise the production of alpha acids and essential oils, which contribute to the bitter and fruity aromas so cherished by craft beer enthusiasts.

Dozens of sensors are hooked to the leaves, roots and stems of the tall-growing climbers, in order to measure every parameter, from humidity to CO2 levels.

The next step for the ambitious company is to upscale production to three rooms of up to 400 plants each from the current several dozen, at a new 1,200 square metres pilot facility in northwest Galicia. There, they plan to test automated post-harvest processes.

Sagrario explained that her vision for the future is that indoor plantations could ideally be set up next door to brewers.  They would act as a carbon sink by reusing the CO2 emitted during fermentation, to speed up the plants’ photosynthesis while also recycling filtered water residues left over from the manufacturing.

The long-term vision of Ekonoke’s is to set up indoor plantations all across the globe.

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