The Best Hoppy Alcohol-Free Drinks Aren't N/A Beers

Did you know that Firestone Walker Brewing, the most decorated craft brewery in the history of the Great American Beer Festival with most of its medals commending hop-forward pale ales and IPAs, was an offshoot of Firestone Non-Alcoholic? Offshoot isn't the right word, but before Adam Firestone co-founded the brewery, his father, Brooks Firestone, produced near-beer with all the hops and none of the alcohol.

Today, most of the larger American craft breweries are tripping over themselves to introduce a lower calorie, lower carbohydrate beer in the vein of macro light beers, just with the hallmark of more hop flavor. But at least one, Brooklyn Brewery, has already released a fully non-alcoholic beer. What's more, at last year's Great American Beer Festival (GABF), I sampled a dozen such beverages from upstart non-alcoholic brewing companies. Yet, taste being subjective, my personal favorite wasn't even an N/A beer at all. The most delicious, hoppy alcohol-free beverage was a carbonated, dry-hopped iced tea: HopLark HopTea out of Boulder, Colorado.

Some HopTea consumers never liked alcohol in the first place; some are newly sober. Some simply participated in #dryjanuary. For many non-alcoholic beer drinkers, it's all about having something to order at a bar that looks and feels as much like beer as possible. But sparkling HopTea meets all those criteria and then some: The color is amber like a great pale ale. It's bubbly. The hops provide the bitterness and floral bouquet hopheads crave. And while full-flavored beers commonly pack around 200 calories and non-alcoholic craft beers tiptoe around 100 calories, most HopLark teas pack the nicest, roundest of numbers: zero. Which is equal to its carbs. In this Certified Cicerone's opinion, it's certifiably tasty.

Andrew Markley, HopTea's co-founder, described the product as "a healthy tea brewed from real plant-based ingredients that just happened to have the complex flavor profile of a craft beer." Borrowing naming conventions from Friends, The Green Tea One features Mosaic hops while The Hoplemousse One (one of the few with any sugars) relies on Lemondrop and Simcoe hops, plus enough organic grapefruit juice to give grapefruit IPAs a run for their money. The Calm One plays off the sedative properties of hops and chamomile.

So is it a tea for hopheads or, erm, something like beer for tea-heads? "We intentionally launched in the tea aisle and have only recently started adding liquor store and bar accounts after seeing customer demand there," Markley explained. "Our customers have shown us that they drink HopTea regardless of whether they are sober or not." He went on to add that his product has an enthusiastic following among the "sober-curious" community as well. What began in May 2018 as a drink sold at a Boulder farmer's market became nationally available at Whole Foods stores by the following summer.

And you're likely to see other similar products hit store shelves soon, because HopLark isn't the only hoppy product giving N/A beer a run for its money. The timeline overlaps with the introduction and coast-to-coast distribution of Hoppy Refresher, an "IPA-inspired sparkling beverage" from the hop fiends at Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, California.

Hoppy Refresher features 75% of beer's ingredients: water, yeast, and hops. It's the absence of the fourth ingredient, malted barley, that deprives the yeast of any fermentable sugars, and therefor makes the drink a big zero, as in calories, carbs, gluten, and alcohol. But the taste is more similar to, say, a session IPA than other products that veer toward malted sodas or yeast-flavored seltzers. Hoppy Refresher probably isn't for everyone, but in some sense, the citrusy-hop water smacks more of natural grapefruit flavor than a can of the leading seltzers.

That's because instead of using cheap, artificial or "natural" flavoring, head brewmaster Jeremy Marshall didn't merely dry hop a keg of carbonated water, but engineered the beverage via biotransformation. When brewing beer, the telltale hoppiness is extracted during a process called hop isomerization that occurs during the boiling phase. With Hoppy Refresher, since there's no boil, there are no bitterness units (the actual, if imperfect, measurement used to tell how bitter a beer is). "But," adds Marshall, "there is perceived bitterness. It's almost like an IPA where the brewer was super forgetful." One thing Marshall did not forget to add was hops, and lots of them: four pounds per barrel consisting of cherished varietals Citra, Centennial, and Eukanot. The brewers yeast helps assimilate the hop terpenes into the sparkling water's more rounded flavor, but again, since there's no sugar source, there's no alcohol.

Incidentally, Hoppy Refresher serves as the base liquid for another non-alcoholic drink with a Lagunitas logo on the label called Hi-Fi Hops, infused with both THC and CBD. Whereas Hoppy Refresher is distributed nationally, Hi-Fi Hops (made by CannaCraft near the Lagunitas brewery) can only be found in California and Colorado, and only in cannabis dispensaries. But this is a story about hopped beverages that are safe for pregnant women and those operating heavy machinery, so we won't go into it here.

Citra hops, the darling of the craft brewing world, also shine in Citra Hopped Kombucha by Reputation Beverage Co. near Lansing in Central Michigan. It was founded by Eric Elliott, whose 15-year career in the beer industry began as a MillerCoors wholesaler. Elliott co-founded the Ellison brewery in Michigan before divesting himself in order to live a healthier lifestyle.

"I absolutely still love and enjoy beer," said Elliott. But one fateful day, "My wife introduced me to kombucha. I was confused about what it was, but after learning it was fermented, I was hooked." Reputation Beverage Co. began in his basement last March and is now growing across the Midwest. "I wanted to blend craft beer with kombucha. Most people love IPAs." Citra Hopped Kombucha is "like beer," but non-alcoholic, containing only 2 grams of sugar and carbs per 12-ounce can, and "customers can drink it during the work day." Elliott is currently developing more hopped booches.

N/A beer sales are definitely increasing in America, but I can't fathom they'll ever reach the 10% market share they enjoy in Europe—yes, the same continent that used to mock the U.S. for our watery beers. As recently as last decade, the late, great beer writer Fred Eckhardt devised the "Fred Eckhardt Lite Beer Method." His foolproof plan to turn any beer into light beer was twofold. One was to simply add water (preferably sparkling) to beer wherein a 50-50 split reduced all 12-ounce portions to half the caloric intake. The other groundbreaking idea was to simply drink one glass of your favorite beer followed by a glass of water. "You get the full, rich taste of your favorite craft brew and, better you, you feel fuller and hence, have less inclination to overindulge." But the crux of his argument was this: "It gives you the full feeling of drinking without altering the great aftertaste of a really fine brew."

And that's exactly what these hoppy non-N/A-beer drinks have to offer. For those seeking to avoid the negative effects of beer—whether it's carbs, sugar, gluten, or alcohol—there are drink options that have the full, rich taste of a hoppy beer, and the best ones aren't even trying to be beer facsimiles.