Wet-Hopped American Winter: Round Table Hops’ plan for a year-round hydroponic harvest

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Harvest time for the Round Table Hops crew // Photo courtesy of Chelsea Reeck Photography

While hops are hardy plants, they are still susceptible to wind, storms, flooding, and pests when grown in the field. By bringing the plants inside, the environment can be better controlled. But harvest in a greenhouse isn’t like harvest in the field: you can’t just drive a thresher down the greenhouse aisles. Instead, when the three acres of hops are ready for harvesting, they will be hand-picked, then fed through a mechanical thresher. The bines will be also grown on a rotating schedule, making the process more manageable than the two-week long mad-dash harvests common at  traditional hopyards.

While the feasibility of production-scale hydroponic hop growing remains to be seen, Angela Orchinsky, a University of Minnesota plant pathologist and researcher, believes that Round Table’s concept will work. “For the most part, if it is done right, growing crops in a greenhouse could reduce diseases by providing a physical barrier from the pathogens and reducing plant stresses by providing an optimal growing environment,” she says.

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Hops from a Round Table Hops harvest // Photo courtesy of Chelsea Reeck Photography

Orchinsky studies hops and works closely with hop growers to help them better manage and identify diseases associated with the plants. She has personally seen the problems and benefits of growing hops at the university’s research greenhouse. If a greenhouse doesn’t have proper humidity control, she says, common diseases like downy and powdery mildew can still harm the hop plants due to moisture buildup. And then there are spider mites, which feed on leaves and cones.

Despite these threats, Vaughn says Round Table’s pilot greenhouse has flourished. Onions and garlic were planted alongside the hops to combat two-spotted spider mites and replace the need for pesticides. Because plants grown via hydroponics get nutrients from a water and chemical solution rather than directly from the soil, nutrient solution is needed to feed them. Instead of throwing excess solution down the drain, the Round Table Hops team converts it into fertilizer. Vaughn says they have plans to install solar panels to reduce energy costs once the three-acre greenhouse is up and running.

Round Table Hops’ dedication to reducing their carbon footprint doesn’t come at the expense of quality or flavor in their hops. They will eventually grow seven different varieties, including popular standbys like Cascade and Chinook, as well as a unique wild strain called Neo-1, which has “a lemon citrus aroma, and, towards harvest, has more of a black pepper flavor,” Vaughn says.

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Mike Michurski at Big Wood Brewery // Photo courtesy of Chelsea Reeck Photography

Brewers have expressed both excitement and skepticism in the venture so far. Vaughn says the brewers he’s talked with want to take part in Round Table Hops’ model—if Vaughn and his team can pull it off. But even if they aren’t immediately on board, local brewers’ interests are definitely piqued.

“Brewers are experimenters,” Vaughn says. “Their eyes light up at the prospect of a fresh-hop beer in the spring. Especially because no one else out of state would be doing it.”

While there’s still a long road ahead, Round Table Hops is a labor of love. Vaughn is supported by engineer Erin Kayser, horticulturist Mike Michurski, and retail wine and spirits expert Ted Reeck, who are not only business partners, but good friends. All share a love of homebrewing and a passion for their new venture.

“Even before we had the pilot greenhouse, people said it was impossible,” Vaughn says. “And yet we had fresh hops in April. If we go with our gut and stick to the plan, it’s possible.”

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