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

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

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

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

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

Hops are one of many crops that suffer under the burn of climate change. The plant that produces the bitter flowers used in beer is known for its “Goldilocks” demands: long summer days and mild temperatures.

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

Our mission is to save the world’s beer.

But research shows more frequent Drought and global warming plagues are reducing both yields and quality – a growing problem for the brewing industry.

According to growers associations, U.S. production fell 12% year-on-year in 2022, while German production fell 21% and Czech yields declined by more than 40% due to abnormally hot and dry growing conditions.

SpainEkonoke di is looking for a solution by growing water-intensive vines indoors through renewable energy sources hydroponic systems that use nearly 95% less water than traditional open-air agriculture.

How do hydroponic hops grow?

In warehouses outside Madrid, hop vines grow under LED lights and under close surveillance.

Ekonoke’s small team of agronomists, chemists and biotechnologists tinker with different combinations of light and fertigation — the mixing of fertilizers and water — at the test facility. They’re looking for the “secret sauce” that best fits each variety.

The ultimate goal is to maximize the production of alpha acids and essential oils that impart the bitter and fruity aromas so prized by the craft beer passionate.


Ana Saez, Chief Operations Officer of Ekonoke checks the hop plantation, in Alcobendas, Spain, March 2023. – JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS

Dozens of sensors attached to the leaves, roots and stems of tall vines measure everything from humidity to CO2 levels. While changing wavelengths of LED lights give the repurposed warehouses a nightclub-like feel.

“These hops have never seen the light of the sun, only our light show,” says Javier Ramiro, co-scientific director of Ekonoke.

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

Closing the circle from plants to brewers

To fund its research and expansion plans, Ekonoke has partnered with the Hijos de Rivera group, creators of the popular Estrella Galicia brand. The company has developed a limited-edition IPA using Ekonoke hops that are already on tap at a bar in Madrid’s trendy Chueca neighborhood.

Their next step is to scale up production to three halls with up to 400 plants each from the current several dozen in a 1,200 square meter pilot facility in northwestern Galicia.

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


A waitress pours a beer made with hops grown by Ekonoke in Madrid, March 2023. – JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS

Sagrario explains that in the future, indoor plantings could ideally be set up next to brewers, serving as a carbon sink reusing the CO2 emitted during fermentation to accelerate plant photosynthesis.

Growers could also use the residual filtered water left over from production.

What are the barriers to indoor brewing?

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

That’s according to Willy Buholzer, director for global hop sourcing at industry giant Anheuser Busch inBev (ABI), who backed the startup as part of his sustainability acceleration program.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the traditional [outdoor] hop growers. They always come up with new ideas,” he says.

The obvious challenge indoors agriculture faces, he adds, is its high energy cost.

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

“Demand from breweries is pretty inelastic; you can’t make beer without hops, and they don’t want to make less,” says Sagrario.

Ekonoke’s ultimate goal, he adds, is to create indoor plantations around the world. “This can be grown anywhere: Madrid, Sevastopol or Timbuktu.”

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