Spanish Company Aims High with Indoor Growing Plan for Beer Ingredient

    19 April 2023

    In large buildings outside Madrid, Spain's capital, hop vines grow under special lights and close supervision.

    A small company believes growing the vines will be important to ensuring a supply of an ingredient in beer, the world's most popular alcoholic drink.

    Hops are traditionally grown in areas like Bavaria, Germany, the Czech Republic, or the northwestern United States. That is because the plants need a climate that has long summer days and mild temperatures.

    Javier Ramiro, Co-Chief Scientific Officer of Spanish indoor hops farming start-up Ekonoke controls the plantation of hops in Alcobendas, Spain, March 23, 2023. (REUTERS/Juan Medina)
    Javier Ramiro, Co-Chief Scientific Officer of Spanish indoor hops farming start-up Ekonoke controls the plantation of hops in Alcobendas, Spain, March 23, 2023. (REUTERS/Juan Medina)

    However, research shows environmental changes are driving down yields and quality of hops. It is a growing problem for the beer industry.

    Industry groups say U.S. production was down 12 percent in 2022, while German production decreased by 21 percent. Czech yields fell by more than 40 percent because of unusually hot weather.

    Spain's Ekonoke is a kind of small business known as a start-up. Ekonoke is growing hop vines indoors to solve the problem. The company uses nearly 95 percent less water than traditional outdoor farming systems.

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

    The start-up's 11-member team of scientists experiments with different groupings of light and fertilizer and water mixtures.

    The goal is to increase production of substances such as alpha-acids and essential oils. These give hops the bitter and fruity smells that are enjoyed by beer lovers.

    A large number of sensors are attached to the vines to measure water and carbon dioxide levels. Special LED lights change colors in the growing area.

    "These hops have never seen any sunlight, only our own light show," said Javier Ramiro, a scientist with Ekonoke.

    To finance its research and growth plans, Ekonoke is working with the Hijos de Rivera group, makers of the popular Estrella Galicia beer.

    The growers said the next step is to increase production to three rooms of up to 400 plants each.

    Sagrario said that in the future, indoor growing areas could be set up near beer makers. These growing areas could reuse the carbon dioxide released during fermentation.

    The company is part of Anheuser-Busch InBev's (ABI) 100+ sustainability accelerator program. This program aims to give financing to companies that offer improvements in environmental and social problems.

    ABI's Willy Buholzer called the business "very promising." But he said it remains to be seen if it can grow and sell hops that are able to compete with traditional producers.

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

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

    But Buholzer believes high energy prices will return to normal. He added that special varieties and more harvests could make indoor farming competitive in pricing.

    "You can't make beer without hops, and they don't want to produce less," Sagrario said.

    Ekonoke's plan, she added, is to set up indoor growing areas around the world. "This can be grown anywhere: Madrid, Sevastopol or Timbuktu."

    I'm John Russell.

    David Latona reported this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    hop – n. a kind of plant whose dried flowers are used to make the alcoholic drink beer

    vine – n. a plant that has very long stems and that grows along the ground or up and around something

    ingredient –n. one of the things used to make a food product

    yield – n. the amount of something that is produced by a plant, farm, etc.

    fertilizer – n. a substance (such as manure or a special chemical) that is added to soil to help the growth of plants

    ferment – v. to go through a chemical change that results in the production of alcohol