Hop Harvest

Hydroponic Year-Round Fresh Hops Could Change Everything

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A recently ended successful Kickstarter campaign “Round Table Hops: Where Beer Grows” could revolutionize the beer and hop farming industries with an innovative new approach to growing hops. This small group of four friends in Minneapolis has successfully raised $25,147 on Kickstarter to prove their concept that you can grow hops year-round in a hydroponic garden for off-season fresh hop harvests. If this works out–and so far it is working–then hops could be grown all over the country, with fresh hop beer available throughout the year.

There is a reason why 40% of the world’s hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest–about 74% of all hops grown in America are grown in Washington and 97% between Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Hops love our moist climate–our long wet rainy season coupled with day long hot summer days makes for perfect weather. Hops enjoy the same growing conditions as potatoes, though not all potato growing regions (such as Canada) have the right soil for hops. Also, with more movement towards organic food and drink, organically-grown hops are in demand but hard to come by because of the need for pesticides to control disease and bugs.

Could indoor hydroponically-grown hops be the answer to both region- and season-specific hop growing and sustainable organic hops? And if so, why has no one thought of this before? After all, hops are a cousin of marijuana, which is very successfully grown hydroponically year-round. The folks behind Round Table Hops asked all of these questions to brewers, hop growers, and enthusiasts, and were met with skepticism ,but no evidence it could not be done. Doing some of my own research on the viability of this project, I asked Oregon-based Indie Hops owner Jim Soldberg for his take. “Yes, I’ve fielded the question a few times from folks wondering why hops aren’t grown like pot, for multiple harvests. As is often the case, what can be done on a small scale doesn’t make so much sense on a large scale. Hop plants take so much more space than pot that I cannot begin to imagine the energy costs required to fool the plants on a year-round basis, let alone the up front costs.” Oregon hop farming legend Gayle Goschie, President of Hops & Winegrapes and Goschie Farms, was far more optimistic, though. “It’s doable. I don’t know that’s it’s been done before. At OSU and WSU Prosser, hop plant growth has been manipulated for research purposes, but looking at year around production and hydroponically, not that I know of. ”

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With just a hunch and a bit of drive, the team decided there was no evidence it was impossible, and thus set out on designing and building their own prototype green house. After building, then rebuilding a greenhouse, they completed the project just in time for winter. The first hops were harvested just eleven weeks after going into the greenhouse. Round Table Hops’ Ben Vaughn believes a three times a year harvest is realistic. They have already had a winter and a summer harvest of seven different varieties of hops, all tested for quality and coming back at high acid levels. Round Table Hops has already provided fresh cones to a local breweries Barley Johns Brew Pub and Hammerheart Brewing who made off-season fresh hop beer and were very pleased with the results. So, the answer seems to be yes, hydroponic year-round hops are possible! But how viable are they for large scale production and offering them at a reasonable price? Marijuana is economically viable because it demands a far higher price tag by volume. Lighting, heat, water, and temperatures must be controlled, and especially on a large scale the costs could be enormous. Even Vaughn admits this is a problem: “There are a lot of indoor hydro operations and 4-season greenhouse around the country. The problem is many of them consume large amounts of energy, which drastically reduces their financial viability.” For now they will focus on expanding, keeping costs in check and growing just Cascade hops which have been the most requested variety.

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The recently successful round of Kickstarter funding will allow Round Table Hops to build a new 3 acre greenhouse capable of producing 200,000 pounds of hops each year with room to expand. It will also have its own processing, packaging, and distribution center on site. To successfully complete the project, they need to hire a designer and build the new greenhouse, make it sustainable through the winter, and prove to possible investors that the project is sustainable and viable investment. 

In tackling the problems of cost and sustainability, Round Table Hops began studying new and innovative technology being used by larger Dutch greenhouses and some small hydroponic growers. They first thought growing all indoors would solve the problem of heating costs, but quickly learned that the cost of lighting indoor would negate any heating savings. With some natural light allowed in a greenhouse, they decided it was the best method of moving forward but needed heating and cooling costs addressed.

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The team came up with a process called subterranean heading and cooling, or SHCS. The process begins with insulating the insides of the greenhouse about 4 feet down on each side. Buried underneath the soil is a network of tubes with an intake on one side of the greenhouse and an output on the other. A fan keeps the air circulating under the greenhouse at a rate of about 1 full exchange every eight minutes. Warm days make hot humid air pump underground, where it meets cool soil and creates dew. The air in the greenhouse absorbs the water vapor and condenses it into liquid, and all the heat energy is released into the soil. Ben Vaughn says, “The air then re-enters the greenhouse cooler and dryer. That heat energy is stored all summer and during winter months, the exact opposite happens.” 

Round Table Hops has basically created a large heat battery under the greenhouse that is powered by a 6″ fan. The system should reduce heating and cooling costs by about 70% as compared to a traditional 4-season greenhouse.

They are trying LED lights for photoperiod rather than photosynthetic. However, this process is still tentative as large scale LED lights are more expensive upfront.

A benefit and a negative of the greenhouse setup is they can space each hop plant closer together to get 10 times more plants per acre for an “average size/volume” biomass of hop bines. Traditionally hop plants are spaced further apart to get adequate sunlight for each. The Round Table Hops method uses artificial light along with natural light, and the tighter spacing for more crops in a smaller space increases energy savings per pounds of hops yield.

A negative of the tighter, smaller space is the aisles between hop plants are too narrow for a traditional hop harvester to come down and cut the hop bines. But the smaller acreage to cover makes using a lift designed for greenhouses feasible and a conveyor belt to transport those to the hop picker.

Growing the hops essentially indoors also reduces the need for pesticides to prevent bugs and disease while also making the process natural and sustainable. Growing organic hops would be much easier in this climate and more cost effective. The scarcity of organic hops and the costs associated with growing them could change drastically. This is just another way that hydroponic hops may revolutionize hop farming techniques, affecting everything from bine to pint.

Follow the progress at http://www.roundtablehops.com

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Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

2 Comments

  1. Ronald hackbarth

    September 27, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Hello, I live in Brazil and I was very interested in the subject because I am developing a similar proposal in Brazil.
    I would contact these two young men, who are greenhouse to exchange some information and experiences with them.
    You would contact them to pass me?
    Or you could ask for them to contact me via email:
    hackbarth_ronald@hotmail.com

    • Samurai Artist

      September 27, 2016 at 11:26 pm

      I dont want to drop any contact info in my comments but you can easily google them, click the link, go to their page and contact them. Pretty easy.

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