After a long day on the canning line, sometimes the last thing a brewer wants is a beer. Enter hop water, a zero calorie, zero-ABV alternative that is becoming the refreshment of choice for brewers like Jerry Gnagy at Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse in Louisville, Kentucky.
Gnagy began making hop seltzer for the brewery workers as an alcohol-free alternative to beer. Gnagy adds dry hops and sometimes a little hop oil to seltzer water. “There’s no alcohol, malt or sugar, just the hop flavor,” he says. “We add a bit a caramel color so it looks like a beer.”
Until now, Against the Grain has only served its hop seltzer to its employees but Gnagy plans to test it out at the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston on February 1 and 2. Gnagy has considered putting it on the menu at the brewery. “This is the first time we’ll have some feedback and then who knows,” he says. “It’s possible.”
Against the Grain isn’t the first brewery to serve a non-alcoholic hop beverage. Lagunitas Brewing Company, in Petaluma, California, began making Hop Water because brewery employees were drinking beer then getting too tired to work, according to head brewer Jeremy Marshall. He explored making a non-alcoholic beer, but removing alcohol from beer requires a lot of water and electricity. Plus, most non-alcoholic beers still have 80 to 100 calories and gluten. “It has all the bad stuff and none of the good stuff,” Marshall says. So he decided to see what would happen if he just dry hopped water.
To make Hop Water, Marshall starts with sterile, deaerated water, meaning all the oxygen is removed from the water. The water is then heated and yeast and hops are added to allow for what Marshall calls “biotransformation,” which he says occurs when “the perfect amount of brewer’s yeast is used to transform and bring out the flavors” of the Citra, Equinox, and Centennial hops.
“We’re hopping [the water] as much as a regular IPA,” Marshall says. “But we’re careful not to add any sugar, because we want to be respectful of the gluten-free claim.”
Initially Lagunitas only served Hop Water to the staff, but eventually Marshall started serving it on draft in the taproom. Initially, Marshall gave the drink away for free to staff and customers, but then decided to charge customers a few bucks for a pint. “Then kids were drinking it,” Marshall says. “I started to wonder about that. Are we teaching kids to like IPAs?” So Marshall spoke with the parents purchasing the Hop Water and decided, if they were okay with it, he wasn’t going to stop them, especially since the beverage doesn’t have any alcohol in it. Last summer, Lagunitas began bottling Hop Water. Its version has a distinct pale green tint.
Marshall is quick to point out that Lagunitas wasn’t the first to bring hop water to the market. “H2OPS were the pioneers,” he says. “They were the first to commercialize the concept.” But Lagunitas tweaked the flavor of its Hop Water a bit to give it a slightly sweeter taste.
“Ours is a more earthy beverage,” says Paul Tecker, founder and managing member of H2OPS LLC in Anaheim, California. Tecker first made H2OPS sparking water in 2013. “I was homebrewing beer and using some fresh hops that I grew in my backyard,” he says. “After finishing the batch, I had some hops left over and decided to brew a batch using only the hops.”
Tecker liked what he tasted, so he brewed up another batch and brought it a few local craft breweries to see what the brewers thought. They liked it so much that Tecker brought it to several local beer festivals, where it also received positive reviews. “That set in motion a long process of refining the recipe and commercializing the product,” he says. Now the beverage is sold by Whole Foods in the Midwest, Rocky Mountains and western states. In 2018, H2OPS received a beverage innovation of the year award from Beverage Industry Magazine.
Tecker doesn’t mind that Lagunitas entered his niche market. “It’s great to have a major brewer in the category to build awareness and credibility for the idea.” He says. “It’s really flattering actually.”
Meanwhile, Marshall says he’s heard rumblings that AB InBev is working on a similar product. “You know you’ve done something successful when people copy you,” he says.
Hop Water is also gaining popularity with bartenders as a mixer in cocktails—such as a Paloma made with tequila, grapefruit juice, lime, and hop water—but Marshall doesn’t expect it to ever be as successful as something like coconut water. If demand increases, then Marshall says Lagunitas would create variations of hop water with different hop varieties to show off their unique flavors. For now, “It’s an acquired taste,” he says. “A niche product, and a small portion of our overall business.”