Are high-quality hops the new strawberries of vertical farming?

“When growing hops hydroponically, it is difficult to be competitive on price. Today we are not competitive on price because we are not comparing the “fully loaded” price of outdoor hops… If you add the costs associated with the pesticides used, excessive fertilizers in underground water, heavy packaging, distance traveled, etc., then the comparison is different. However, we can certainly be competitive on the criteria of the brewers: uniform quality, reliable supply, and specific traits of the hops,” says Inés Sagrario, CEO at Ekonoke.


Inés (left) and her colleague checking on the crops

Ekonoke is a Spanish vertical farming company that began with lettuce and microgreen production in 2018 but has since transitioned to hops production. Ekonoke is currently based in Madrid but will be building a 1.000 square meter pilot facility in Galicia, which is northwest of Madrid. As Inés explains, Ekonoke plans to then expand to 10.000 square meters. The move to Galicia was prompted by Ekonoke’s partnership with Cosecha de Galicia, the agricultural innovation group within the Hijos de Rivera Corporation, which owns the famous beer Estrella Galicia.

“We’ve teamed up with Cosecha de Galicia, and right now, production is dedicated to covering their needs. We want to be close to the brewery, as fresh hops are very expensive to transport per pound since they are so lightweight. Besides that, fresh hops are rarely used in beer making as most use dry hops. The closeness to the brewery allows us to eliminate supply chain disruptions that have been so frequent in the past 2-3 years,” says Inés.  

Hops a climate-threatened crop
“The main hop-producing regions are becoming very hot and dry[1], which has a direct impact on the yield of hops. For brewers, there is a lot of insecurity around their key ingredients being subject to climate change,” Inés explains.

By moving hop production into an indoor, fully controlled environment, Ekonoke removes those risks and produces a consistent product with every cycle. While the production costs are still higher than those of conventional methods, Inés explains that brewers are intrigued by the reliability and sustainability of Ekonoke hops.

“We are obsessed with sustainability. We are introducing a lot of automation to optimize as much as possible per square meter. We only use renewable energy, part of it is solar that we produce ourselves, and the rest we source from an energy cooperative that distributes only renewable energy. Our water footprint is 20 times smaller than outdoor production, and we don’t damage the groundwater,” says Inés.

Making the leap from leafy greens to hops
As Inés explains, pivoting from leafy greens to hops was not an easy transition as hops are a completely different crop than lettuce or microgreens. She credits Ekonoke’s strong multidisciplinary team for combining their knowledge, technology, and experience to develop a growing system adapted to hops.

“I see a lot of potential for what we are doing, but it is difficult. Hops aren’t like leafy greens, which you can figure out within a few crop cycles. We’ve been perfecting this for over 2.5 years,” explains Inés.

Footnote: 
[1] Royal Meteorological Society, The vulnerability of hop-yields due to compound drought and heat events over European key-hop regions, https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/joc.6836   

For more information:
Inés Sagrario, CEO
Ekonoke
www.ekonoke.com 




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