Brewing: hops soon to be supported by artificial intelligence to combat drought

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura, ČRo

The project called For Hops has the stated aim of helping farmers to optimize the irrigation of hops, used in the production of beer. Head to the hop fields of the Žatec region to learn more about it.

If you were worried that global warming could alter the refreshing taste of Czechia’s flagship drink, you will be happy to learn that the country’s largest beer manufacturer and exporter is currently working on an innovative project that will allow the beer to retain its precious aromas. In addition to water and barley, one of the main ingredients of beer, which gives it all its taste and character, is hops. A climbing herbaceous plant from the Cannabaceae family, it causes the bitterness of beer but is also very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Hops seem essential to obtain the famous alcoholic drink. Ivan Tučník, responsible for sustainable development and integrated projects at Plzeňský Prazdroj, illustrates this need with an experiment he conducted himself:

Ivan Tučnik | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura, ČRo

“Last fall, we brought two types of beer in identical glasses, one with hops and one without. We did a little social experiment where we asked people to taste both and say what they thought. 85% of respondents said they preferred the one with hops and they were able to say why. The reason was the lack of bitterness. Indeed, we are able to brew a liquid similar to beer without hops but it will not be the beer we know because it will not be bitter and will not have the same taste. »

Cameras and time capsules

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura, ČRo

Hops are so crucial in the preparation of a good draft that simply changing the type of hops and the amount used can drastically alter the flavors of the final brew. In the Czech Republic, the cultivation of these plants is also very important. The country is the world’s third largest producer and exports all over the world, as far as the United States and Japan. The conservation of crops in good condition is therefore a major economic, environmental and social issue, as we are going to underline the For Hops project. Ivan Tučník presents it to us:

“What we have learned is that hop cultivation in the Czech Republic is very sensitive to climate change. There is less and less water available for cultivation. It is not that there is less rain, it is rather that the precipitation is now irregular throughout the year. In fact, we no longer get the humidity when it is needed for the plants to grow. At the same time, 80% of hop growers do not have access to a water source to irrigate their fields. They must therefore build a reservoir to collect water throughout the year in order to have a large stock of water. But they have to be very careful when they use it because they only have one, two, or three tries and then the water supply runs out. This is where we want to help them. We want to help them use water more efficiently through data and predictions. »

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura, ČRo

For Hops thus gives farmers the opportunity to know the quantity needed and the date on which it is the most judicious to water the hop crops. To obtain its information, it is first necessary to collect a certain amount of data thanks to numerous technologies installed in the fields, which are operational for the first time this year. Ivan Tučník talks about the process to get all his data:

“We selected six farms in the region which were chosen so that we had several different microclimates to study. In each of them we have installed different types of devices. We have water stations that measure different indicators on water such as temperature, rainfall, etc. Then we have stations that study the soil. They allow us to see soil humidity and temperature 120 centimeters deep, with 10 centimeter intervals. We have installed cameras called ‘time capsules’ which follow the growth of the hops from outside the ground throughout the season. On some plants, we have installed special sensors that allow us to indicate the stress level of the plant and see how it reacts to this. For example, if there is a cold night or showers, you can immediately see how she reacts. »

Artificial intelligence

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura, ČRo

The next step in this great project: to develop software that growers can use. Along with collecting data this year, Plzeňský Prazdroj is working with other firms and start-ups around the world, and in particular the digital giant Microsoft, to develop this software. The latter will work thanks to artificial intelligence, and will itself analyze all the data gathered in order to inform farmers about the state of their crop. It will also indicate whether watering is necessary and if so, how much water should be used. Next year, this software will be tested on the six farms where the measuring devices are already installed, and in 2025, it should be available to all hop growers in the Czech Republic who wish it, and perhaps even export abroad.

Photo: maatcheck, Pixabay, Pixabay License

For Hops wants to be a project that brings stability to farmers, a certain guarantee to the beer producer and that allows to adapt to climate change and even to fight against it by avoiding wasting too much water. It should be noted, however, that these water savings remain limited, beer being a very water-intensive production. However, Plzeňský Prazdroj is working on various projects to reduce its environmental footprint and has received two medals as part of the ‘Top Responsible Company 2021’ award. Its goal for 2030: achieve carbon neutrality for all its breweries to be able to enjoy a truly sustainable beer.

With an average of 135 liters of beer per person per year, the Czechs are the biggest consumers of beer in the world according to recent studies. The “gold of Bohemia”, even if more durable, should be consumed in moderation.

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Brewing: hops soon to be supported by artificial intelligence to combat drought

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