New Water Technologies for Hops Growing and Brewing

By: Kimberly Fontenot

If there is one thing craft beer growers, all brewers and drinkers can agree on it is that beer is made up to 95% water.  The link to hops growers is water is also an essential component needed to grow the hops and barley .  Water allows the hops to be turned into a beer that is rich and aromatic which may be one of the reasons why in 2019, the craft beverage market just keeps on growing.

However, there has recently been changes in the environment and climate that is grabbing the attention of both the hops growers and brewer industries because some of those changes are creating higher prices for hops which means there is a reduction of hops availability overall and some brewers and growers are even going out of business because they cannot compete when prices skyrocket, if a growing season is decimated by the weather or if a technologically enhanced competitor enters their market and is able to do more sales with less overhead costs.

Today brewers and growers are moving forward together to find environmentally enhancing technologies and systems to help grow hops and brew them effectively and efficiently.  Working together has taught them much and allowed them to start moving forward in ways they never even thought of previously.  One of those forward movements includes utilizing public and private funding which is now available to find innovative ways to configure water irrigation for hops growing and waste water used by brewers to treat and process the hops.

HOP GROWERS AND BREWER WATER USAGE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES

In the past hop growers worked with the knowledge that since hops are deep-rooted plants and their feeder root system they had to be kept moist during very vital growth and development time frames.  Therefore, access to dependable and plenteous water for irrigation purposes is one of the most important assets needed for healthy hops to grow.

Brewers on the other hand, understood that any wastewater they created after treating the hops was usually discharged to a municipal treatment center and most do not have any pre-treatment installed at their facility to treat the wastewater prior to the municipal discharge.  What’s more a lot of them pay an extra surcharge based on the wastewater strength (BOD and TSS).

To find out if growers and brewers were trying to eliminate some of these ongoing issues by implementing innovative technologies which may help them create more plentiful hops and better tasting craft beverages, we found one of the main sources for hops information through the Hops Growers of America/US Hop Industry Plant Protection Committee’s Executive Director, Ann George.

The main query revolved around if there is new technology which uses the best water data or science tools for premium hop growing and Ms. George stated, “Yes, soil profile moisture monitoring ensures precise application of water as needed by the plant, based on soil condition, plant growth stage and weather.”

Something else Ms. George asserted is that there is a sense of pride in helping the environment by using drip irrigation systems in hops growing as “runoff is not an issue due to its use which benefits the plant and soil and ultimately the environment. What’s more leaked water loss on-farm is minimal”

Proper irrigation is always critical when growing hops and at this time, most seem to be utilizing the drip irrigation system.  However, there are still some who are committed to using and keeping the overhead sprinkler system which is understandable as both do offer advantages to hops grower. However, for environmentally conducive systems and overall efficiency, drip irrigation is usually recommended because overhead irrigation can result in hops which have downy mildew and or powdery mildew ratios.  This occurs more frequently with overhead sprinkler systems which leads to diminished hops growth, viability, taste and can even destroy an entire crop.

Brewers on the other hand, have other types of water issues which originates in their malting and lautering practices and procedures.  To try to eliminate some of their waste water issues,  some brewers have built onsite water treatment plants which pretreats the biological and organic matter.  This enhances and improves the water they conduct to the municipal treatment plant lowering their overall costs.  There are some craft brewers that are now enabling anaerobic digestion which removes up to 90 percent of pollutants in their water, which in turn lowers their overall waste water costs when transported to municipal treatment centers.  Some breweries are even extracting useful substances from their waste water torrent and either use it or send it off to be used in fuel cells.  One brewer funded by a $1 million dollar grant to improve nitrogen reduction in their community wastewater, used hops weak wort to remove nitrate-nitrogen from the wastewater and after successful testing and results are now paid for their brewing wastewater as it provides the community a sustainable and cost-effective wastewater solution.

Ultimately, brewers have to decide for themselves, how best to compete both with other brewers and how to present themselves to customers in a way that highlights their competitive assets and advantages over other brewers.  In today’s market if you want to build your business, it is important to offer unique customer experiences and display business decisions that are based on fiscal and environmental responsibility.  Since, growers and brewers understand that their competition will keep searching for a competitive edge, they need to be diligent in finding ways they can become matchless in their technology improvement programs.

HOPS GROWERS AND BREWERS  ARE ALIGNED IN UTILIZING TECHNOLOGY FOR MARKETING

In 2016, the number of breweries grew to over 5,000 according to the Brewers Association.  The industry keeps growing yet within the United States there is some ongoing seasonal periods which are affecting both hops growers and brewers which consist of the environmental factors-draught or water deluge depending on what area of the country you reside.  To combat the unknown of the next season’s weather pattern, growers and brewers are learning how to do more with less water or are using more effective and efficient water technologies to help keep the hops crop plentiful thereby allowing for business profit.  These new technologies even come with the added bonus of giving back to the environment.

For instance, Pure Water Brew  is currently marketing craft beer made from reclaimed water in a pilot program which is designed to show proof of concept therefore the next step is to reproduce their success at a mass consumption level.  However, consumers may not take to it easily even with the environmentally friendly brewing technology, but it is a step in the right direction.  It also goes to show there are currently monetary competitions where brewers and growers can compete or apply to be awarded funding for trying new technologies that are innovative, adaptable and progressively based in water usage.

NEW WATER TECHNOLOGIES AND FUNDING FOR HOPS GROWERS AND BREWERS

Growers who wish to develop and apply new ways to utilize water technologies for hops growing and brewing can look to the U.S. Government.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) announced nearly $89 million in available funding in 2019-2020 to support specialty crop growers which strengthen local and regional food and water systems and explore new market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

Previously, one of the above grants offered through the above program, was for a grower who developed hops hydroponically.  Hydroponics to develops hops utilizes a method that doesn’t use soil at all while concentrating the hops flavors.  As an ultimate benefit it also saves water.  The end result means hops can be grown anywhere, no matter the environment or weather.  This assuages the hops shortages which happen year to year because of the unpredictability of weather and conditions.

To make sure that brewers were not left out of the funding equation additional resources have been created that provides new technological programs and assets that can be used to expand and enhance hops.

The Brewers Association (BA) recently awarded more than a half a million dollars in research grants to brewers of small and independent craft beer companies if they found a way to “further the development of a healthy and sustainable raw materials supply chain.”  This resulted in some very progressive and competitive breweries who began to look past their old ways and means of utilizing water for hops brewing to find ways they can increase water conservation and lower their water footprint.  One of the biggest advantages unexpectedly found in some of federal, state or privately awarded funding projects is that if hops wastewater is treated, it becomes an almost perfect medium for a brewer to use and create any taste or essence they want for their craft beverage creations.

Which goes to prove that some of the most flavorful beer can now be linked to new water technology which is environmentally accountable.  That is a win for the land, water, growers, brewers and all craft beer consumers.

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