Spanish start-up grows hydroponic hops to help 'save' climate-threatened beer


MADRID, April 12 (Reuters) - In warehouses outside Madrid, twists of hop vines grow under LED lights and close supervision in what their guardians say could be the best way to futureproof the supply of a key ingredient in the world's most popular alcoholic drink, now threatened by climate change.

Due to their need for "goldilocks" conditions of long summer days and mild temperatures, hops are traditionally grown in temperate climes found in areas like Germany's Hallertau, the Czech Republic or the northwestern United States.

However, 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, U.S. production was down 12% year-on-year in 2022, while German output saw a 21% decline and Czech yields fell by more than 40% 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% less water than traditional outdoor farming.

"We're on a mission to save the world's beer," Ines Sagrario, chief executive and co-founder of Ekonoke, told Reuters.

The start-up's 11-member team of agronomists, chemists and biotechnologists tinkers with different combinations of light and fertigation - the blending of fertilisers and water - at its test facility near Madrid, 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.

Dozens of sensors hooked to the leaves, roots and stems of the tall-growing climbers measure every parameter, from humidity to CO2 levels, as 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," said 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.

To fund its research and expansion plans, Ekonoke has partnered with the Hijos de Rivera group, makers of the popular Estrella Galicia brand, who have 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 (13,000 feet) pilot facility in northwestern Galicia. There, they plan to test automated post-harvest processes.

Sagrario said that in the future, indoor plantations could ideally be set up nextdoor to brewers, acting as a carbon sink by reusing the CO2 emitted during fermentation to speed up the plants' photosynthesis and recycling filtered water residues left over from the manufacturing.

The start-up is also part of industry giant Anheuser-Busch InBev's (ABI.BR) 100+ sustainability accelerator programme.

ABI's director for global hops procurement, Willy Buholzer, said the key question 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.

"You should not underestimate traditional (outdoor) hop growers. They always come up with new ideas," he added.

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

But he is optimistic 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.

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

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

(This story has been corrected to say 'three rooms of up to 400 plants each', not '400 plants', in paragraph 13)

Reporting by David Latona; Additional reporting by Marco Trujillo and Michael Gore; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Madrid-raised German-American breaking news in Spain and Portugal. Previously covered markets in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with a special focus on chemical companies and regular contributions to Reuters' German-language service. Worked at Spanish news agency EFE (Madrid/Bangkok) and the European Pressphoto Agency (Frankfurt).