New Jersey burdens breweries with a wheelbarrow load of restrictive rules. Garden State breweries are legally forbidden from hosting food trucks or operating kitchens, running more than 25 events annually, having TVs larger than 65 inches, offering coffee, or selling soda produced by another beverage company.

“I would have to physically make soda,” says Jamie Queli, the owner of Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing in Cherry Hill, N.J. Creating knock-off Coke for the NA drinks list didn’t appeal to Queli, who cares little for caloric soda. “If I’m going to make something, I’m going to make something that I specifically want to drink.”

That meant hops-infused sparkling water. The Forgotten Boardwalk team trialed different varieties of hops, running about 25 test batches, before settling on citrusy Sultana. This January, the brewery released Hopped Water! in 6-packs of 12-ounce cans with striking illustrated labels touting the absence of sugar, calories, and alcohol.

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“It’s our NA option,” says Queli, who sees hop water as another “widget” to help broaden her brewery’s portfolio.

Gone are the days when craft breweries could skate by on making beer alone. To meet the varied needs of today’s drinkers, breweries are producing wine, spirits, and alcohol-free beer and sparkling water spiked with everything from CBD to hops. In particular, the fizzy offspring of an IPA and LaCroix is becoming a popular NA option, helping breweries add familiar branches to their dry-hopped family trees.

“The hop water space was a natural extension for us,” says Justin Nix, the brand manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, Calif., and Asheville, N.C. Last year, the brewery debuted the sparkling Hop Splash that’s flavored, like many of its IPAs, with Citra and Amarillo hops. “It’s another opportunity to highlight bright hop flavors.”

The Hop Start

Trends in the brewing industry tend to spread faster than a zombie outbreak. Novel ideas beget imitators, be it hazy IPAs, hard seltzers, or side-pour pilsners. Hop water, however, has been particularly slow to bubble up.

The category began taking shape long before “sober curious” entered today’s drinking lexicon. Looking to temper his beer intake, beverage entrepreneur Paul Tecker tried creating an alcohol-free alternative by infusing water with the Columbus hops growing in his Southern California backyard. His first batch of grassy, floral, and not-so-bitter hop water “was like nothing I had ever tasted,” he wrote in an email. “It was not beer for sure, but something entirely different.”

In 2014, Tecker released his first commercial batches of H2OPS Sparkling Hop Water, packaging the alcohol-free beverage in green glass bottles. Knowledgeable beer drinkers might wince given that sunlight striking beer in clear or green bottles can cause skunking. “I learned that if you don’t have yeast, that chemical reaction can’t happen,” Tecker says. (He now uses a blend of Mosaic and other hop varieties.)

He built his marketing plan around attending beer festivals and doling out endless samples to drinkers. Tecker began selling H2OPS at select beer stores and breweries, and then Whole Foods began carrying the brand. The 4-pack carriers lean into brewery lingo by listing the low levels of IBUs, a measure of bitterness, and labeling the product as an IPW — India pale water.

Tecker more or less had the market to his lonesome till 2018 when Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, Calif., debuted its Hoppy Refresher brand. Lagunitas might be an IPA specialist, but fine-tuning production methods for Hoppy Refresher required a recipe rethink. Heating hops brings out their bitterness, and “people don’t want to drink bitter water,” says brewing innovation manager Bryan Donaldson.

Hops also harbor microbes, and simply adding them to water can invite unwanted bacterial growth. “We had to dump batches,” Donaldson says. “It turns out alcohol is really good at killing bugs.” Lagunitas embraces stringent sanitation protocols and a quartet of fragrant hops (Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Chinook) to create Hoppy Refresher, which now includes berry lemon and blood orange versions. (Many companies pasteurize hop water or add preservatives such as citric acid.)

“We’ve changed how we formulate and do things to make it a lot safer,” Donaldson says, adding that Hoppy Refresher expands the brewery’s reach to people who might otherwise thumb their nose at beer. “It’s a good base for cocktails because it brings that dimension of hops.”

In 2021, Métier Brewing in Seattle developed its juniper-infused Sparkling Hop Water as a counterweight to excessive pandemic imbibing and all those virtual happy hours. CEO Rodney Hines also discovered that his hop water proved to be an excellent alcohol mixer. “That kind of defeated the purpose of it, but it does make a good gin cocktail,” he says, laughing.

Following the advice of bartenders, Métier began packaging its Sparkling Hop Water in 8-ounce cans — a great size for mixing drinks. Over time, though, Hines realized that taproom customers were consuming it like a typical sparkling water, creating a compelling option for anyone avoiding alcohol for any reason.

“I love the fact that we can have beverages for everyone enjoying our space,” says Hines, who will soon switch Sparkling Hop Water to 12-ounce cans.

Stocking Hop Water on Shelves Is Tricky

Slotting beverages at grocery stores was once a breeze. The beer goes there, the soda in another aisle beside seltzer and sports drinks. Now grocery stores are besieged with kombuchas, adaptogenic waters, CBD seltzers, and plant-based protein shakes, not to mention NA beers. What’s the right home for hop water?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Victoria Pustynsky, the founder and CEO of Lolo Hops, a line of hops-infused beverages sold in flavors including yuzu orange blossom and pomelo sage. (It debuted in 2021 and was originally known as Aurora Hops.) “I feel like we have redesigned our merchandising guidelines a jillion times,” she says.

Selling Lolo Hops alongside standard NA seltzer highlights the price disparity. A 12-pack of store-brand seltzer might sell for $5 or $6, while Lolo Hops runs around $20 per 6-pack. Mailing cans directly to consumers isn’t the solution. “Sometimes our shipping costs exceed the value of the goods,” Pustynsky says. “We can’t compete with the Amazon mentality.”

Sierra Nevada sees the optimal placement for its Hop Splash, which might sell for $9 or $10 per 6-pack, in the NA beer section. “That is where fans of hops are shopping,” says Nix, the brand manager.

Selling hop water can also open up new opportunities. Unlike alcoholic beverages, hop water need not navigate the knotty three-tier distribution system. “There’s just way less regulation of an NA product,” says Forgotten Boardwalk’s Queli. “I’m six miles from Philadelphia. I can just drive into Philadelphia with my trucks and hop water and salespeople.”

Since hop water is booze-free, breweries are also legally permitted to discuss hops’ healthful attributes — a longstanding governmental no-no with alcohol. “There’s a lot of medical research on the benefits of hops,” says Michael Graham, a cofounder of Texas-based Austin Beerworks, which will debut its hop water in $6.99 6-packs this March. By highlighting health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory and sedative properties, Austin Beerworks might be able to position its hop water “as a legitimate wellness product,” Graham says.

Let’s not hop to conclusions about the category’s future growth. Producers must overcome the apprehensions of beer-averse drinkers, or folks burned by bitter IPAs. During tastings for Lolo Hops, people often tell Pustynsky that they don’t like beer. “I’m like, ‘It doesn’t taste like beer,’” she says. “There’s a ton of education that needs to be done.”

There’s a sloshing pool of beverages for every mood, earmarked for every time of day. The clock, though, could work in hop water’s favor. Drinking an NA beer at 10 a.m. on a workday feels weird, while people crush seltzer whenever thirst strikes. If it’s priced right, hop seltzer has the potential to become a brewery’s a.m.-p.m. option, writing a new set of rules for dry-hopped hydration.

“It’s what I’m drinking all day long,” says Hines of Métier.

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