The Art of Harvesting Hydro Hops
Hydroponic hops aren’t new, but growing them in nutrient-rich solutions is. As demand from the beer industry for reliable and fresh hops increases, efforts are being made to produce hydro hops that are as good and more reliable than field hops.
The old “From Our Field to Your Fork” slogan has some competition—“From Our Greenhouse to Your Glass”—as the concept of growing hops hydroponically gains industry traction.
While the Pacific coastal states of California, Oregon, and Washington were early trendsetters in field production because of favorable climate, good soil, and a supply of irrigation water, other growers, hydroponic hop farmers, are appearing in several new states following the path of the first commercial hop production in Massachusetts in 1648.
The folks at Beer Advocate note that while hydroponic growing techniques have been around since the early 17th century, the growing of hops in a mineral-rich nutrient solution is a recent endeavor, one they think will impact the beer industry, especially the craft beer brewers.
“In the world of beer, one ingredient reigns supreme,” they report, “and that’s hops.” Getting them fresh and frequently from the field has been problematic, but the harvesting of hydroponic hops, grown under species-specific horticulture techniques, can be done in perpetual production according to HydroHop Farms in Colorado.
“We have designed and developed methodology to overcome the single hop harvest per annum in field-grown conditions. Our Hoponics research model of perpetual production allows the ability to grow three to five crop cycles per year.”
HydroHop harvests several varieties for wet-hop brewers using fresh product, hops that have been harvested less than 24 hours before. One brewer lauded the indoor efforts, noting the fresh hops were sticky and smelled great with no leaf burn found on outdoor-grown hops.
Colorado State University horticulture professor, Dr. Bill Bauerele, leads that university’s research program focused on controlled environment hydroponic hop production. “January 2016 was our first crop. Now we’re doing five to six crops a year,” he says.
Housed in a 40x80-foot greenhouse, Bauerele has some 3,200 square feet of growing space to experiment with an initial six or seven species of the 130 cultivars that are currently commercially-available.
“There’s some funding for hops breeding, but USDA has no federal grant monies for hops production, and at one point in our set-up, we ran out of money. As an army of one, we moved forward slowly and after a year and a half, have built a nice system with environmentally-controlled watering and individual plant nutrient injections.”
As an open-field farmer before becoming a researcher, Bauerele says, “People don’t realize how much work is involved here. Hops are a physically demanding plant and I’ve never worked this hard in my life.”
A common problem to the handful of hops adventurers taking a leap into the unknown is exactly that, the unknown. “Much of the available literature dates back to the 1950s and 1960s and the growing techniques described pertain to field production.
Hydroponics isn’t going to replace that, but wet hop beers that are brewed directly off the vine within 24-48 hours, breeders are interested because of the multi-cropping freshness. They’ll pay a premium price and that helps offset the capital costs of setting up the necessary infrastructure to conduct research and production.”
The newest kid on the block is a 90-day-wonder named Myles Lewis, owner of Arizona Vegetable Company and a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) in Tucson—known for its vertical-grow tomato production.
In June, Lewis got the opportunity to build a short-term, low-cost, what-do-we-have-to-lose 90-day hydroponic hops experiment. “We knocked out our first product in short order, pondered some of our lessons learned, then planted a second crop in September with the intent of moving forward beyond that,” he says.
Although the interest has been there for some time, “A whole bunch of variables came together at the correct time and we said, we’ve got critical mass, let’s do it.” Utilizing a mere $18,000 in start-up funding, Lewis and two Plant Science students moved forward. “It was challenging because none of us had ever grown hops and although we received a lot of informal advice, we were basically flying blind.”
While growing hydroponic greens is his usual forte, Lewis says:, “In my mind as a grower, hops production is just another crop offering and the way we’re growing them is very similar to growing traditional high-wire tomatoes using Tomahooks, tomato clips, gutters, and drippers. It’s reminiscent of tomato production in a large-scale greenhouse, not reinventing the wheel, but adapting known technology, inserting a new crop into an existing system, and figuring out the variables that play into that.”
Working out of an 1,100-square-foot-greenhouse, the trio got to explore what was, for them, the unknown. Selecting some 15 different varieties of hops, 100 plants found new homes in peat substrate and the race was on.
“Let’s just say there were a couple of malfunctions that will become more humorous as time goes by,” Lewis admits. “Like operator error that almost destroyed the project on day one by over-watering the crop. Then, a mechanical failure of some of our pumps. And toward the end of the first harvest, a pest management problem involving some severe white fly and spider mite infestations.”
Initially, the pilot project had to establish whether or not it would even get off the ground. “We needed to determine if this dog would hunt,” is the way Lewis describes it. “We sat there day by day, looking at the flowers, wondering if they would flower, cajoling them to do so. Like a lot of research, it’s all a crap shoot.”
The initial harvest in mid-August bagged up 3.7 pounds of aromatic hops and the expectation is that the Phase II yield will be much higher.
“The neat thing about these plants is that they’re a multi-year plant, not a one-shot like an annual where you get one crop and it’s done. Hops are like a fruit tree where every year you get a bigger harvest. We’re working under the assumption that production increases dramatically after the first year and that drives the importance of keeping the program going now that we have an established library of plants. We’ll continue to seek industry support to continue it, but this train is rolling and I have no intention of stopping now.”
Lewis’ predecessor at CEAC, Colin Clark at HydroHops, says, “My first attempt to grow hydroponic hops was in the University of Arizona CEAC club greenhouse where we wanted to see if we could get a handful of plants to survive. They did and I took that experience with me to Colorado and scaled it up to over 2,000 plants in a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse.”
As co-owner and head grower, Clark set out to provide beer brewers with a quality of hop higher than that of traditional growing methods, a variety of strains providing wet hops offered in an extended growing season.
“Hydro Hop Farms LLC is currently harvesting its fourth season, proving that hops can be grown successfully in a hydroponic greenhouse using artificial off-season lighting to produce hops of superior quality and oil content. Going into current season five, our main challenge is to make this a more profitable venture.”
Drawbacks to Hydroponic Hops
Labor and harvesting equipment are two of the major cost factors to be considered and resolved. “It currently takes someone about an hour to harvest just over a pound of dry hops and while hard harvesting is OK for small niche growers, scaling things up for greater production requires mechanical harvesting as well as some tweaking over the way we space and grow our plants,” Clark says.
Like many startup operations, many hands make work lighter and Clark says hydroponic hop greenhouse growers need to help each other.
“We need to share research, share knowledge, and share our passion. Our company motto is, ‘We’re not here to make a dollar, we’re here to make a change’. The future holds good things for controlled environment growing, we just need more educated workers, enthusiastic entrepreneurs to keep the ball rolling, and prove to the consumer and the investors that controlled environment agriculture can and should be a respected part of the commercial agricultural industry.”
Adds CSU’s Bauerele, “Despite the setbacks we’ve encountered in our research experiments, I’m not giving up on this because it’s doable and the growing commercial interest from a number of large North American growers supports that theory.”