First cannabis, now beer: LEDs helping to grow hops

April 14, 2023
A Spanish vertical farm is raising vines completely indoors. No sun involved, just spectrally tuned lighting.

It’s well known that LED lighting plays a prominent role in helping to grow cannabis. Now, it’s starting to shine on an even more popular recreational substance: beer. Or, to be precise, the hops that go into it.

Reuters recently featured a story about a Spanish vertical farm near Madrid that is raising hop vines indoors using spectrally tuned LEDs as part of the nourishment that also includes the water-based mineral systems of hydroponics.

Startup grower Ekonoke has outfitted the test facility with sensors to monitor lighting, carbon dioxide levels, temperature, humidity, and photosynthesis. On its website the company also claims to be using machine learning and internet connections to optimize the the conditions. Ekonoke also says the environment is pesticide free and uses much less water than does outdoor growing.

It’s a notable exercise in controlled environment agriculture, given that hops tend to grow well only in certain temperate climates. Much of the world’s beer hops come from the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, the Hallertau area of Germany, and Žatec in the Czech Republic. Over the last year, production in all those regions fell as climatic conditions deviated to hotter and drier. There is a perception that hops production could be under threat from climate change, which could hamper the ability of beer makers to use the flower to craft bitterness and flavors into their brew.

Ekonoke is fighting back. 

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

As that noble campaign carries on indoors, LEDs are playing a vital role.

"These hops have never seen any sunlight, only our own light show," Ekonoke's co-chief scientific officer Javier Ramiro said in the story.

At the moment, Ekonoke is farming hops at its 13,000-square-foot site in San Sebastián de los Reyes, about 12 miles north of the capital city. It hopes to expand to a much larger site in Galicia, Spain. Funding has come in part from Spanish beer group Hijos de Rivera makers of the the Estrella Galicia brand which has developed a limited-edition IPA beer on tap at a bar in Madrid, using Ekonoke LED-nurtured hops.

Reuters did not delve into the details of the lighting supplier or the recipe, but, for a general interest audience, gave ample attention to the spectral aspect.

"Changing wavelengths from LED lights give the repurposed warehouses a nightclub-like feel," the news group reported.

Ekonoke CEO Sagrario envisions LED-lit indoor hop farms eventually located next to breweries, using CO2 emitted during the brewing process, and recycling brewery water for growing purposes.

Meanwhile, back on the cannabis front, the lighting industry is hoping for a rebound in what had been a fast-growing sector.

MARK HALPER is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.