What Is Hop Water Trying to Be?

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Not quite a seltzer, not quite a beer, the hop-infused sparkling waters are having a moment—and an identity crisis. We tasted nearly 30 examples to try and get to the bottom of it.

When nonalcoholic beer was first hitting the market, it had its fair share of detractors. As Regan Hofmann wrote in Punch in 2015, Americans were too confused about what the category was, and N/A beer still held the stigma of its origins in Prohibition, marked as “a product of deprivation” rather than a category worthy of consideration. “Non-Alcoholic Beer Inventor Unveils New Non-Adhesive Glue,” joked the Onion. “What’s the point of nonalcoholic beer?” asked the people of Reddit. But years later, having entered the golden age of N/A beer and a better landscape for those who choose not to drink, the “point” is not only obvious, but much more accepted: Sometimes you want a beer without the alcohol.

As Kate Bernot reported last fall in Good Beer Hunting, hop water, or hop-infused sparkling water, has grown from just three brands in 2019 to 27 in 2023, and sales have gone from around 50,000 cases to about 500,000 cases in that time. But the category finds itself similarly misunderstood.

Nonalcoholic products tend to fall into two main categories: analogues, like nonalcoholic beer or wine, that seek to replicate the flavor of their full-proof counterparts; and a looser, freewheeling mix of offerings that have no obvious alcoholic equivalent but are meant to fulfill the same vibe as drinking (think Ghia). Hop water straddles the line. Made with hops—the same ones that make beer beer—infused into carbonated water, they’re not explicitly a 1:1 match for an IPA or a lager, though by nature of their makeup, they sometimes, but not always, taste like an extra-light take on beer. Many come from brand-new, hop water–specific upstarts, but they are also increasingly available from existing breweries, like Lagunitas and Port City Brewing Co. And nonalcoholic beer juggernauts like Athletic Brewing Co. have thrown their hat into the hop water ring, too. So if they’re not a beer, not an N/A beer, not a hard seltzer, what are they? And—sorry to sound like a 2010s-era forum, but—what’s the point of drinking them?

In our recent tasting of hop waters, the ones we liked most were those that could best answer the question. That is, those that one would reasonably reach for instead of the bevy of existing N/A products out there.

As with any growing market, for the producers, the motivations are mixed. For breweries wanting to add a nonalcoholic option to their lineup, hop water, which typically is steeped like tea and sometimes flavored with citric acid and other adjuncts, is relatively easier to make compared with cracking the nonalcoholic beer code. Others position themselves as healthier alternatives to other N/A options, boldly marketing the fact that they have zero calories and zero sugar. And some see themselves as simply hop-flavored sparkling waters fit for any occasion, like LaCroix or Waterloo. 

When trying nearly 30 options, we looked for hop waters that were delicious and refreshing, that actually tasted like hops and that we could envision ourselves wanting at a gathering or while winding down at home. There were more that didn’t fit the bill than did. But there were a few standouts that, in addition to tasting good, made the growing category make a little more sense to us. Here are our favorites.

$42 for an 18-pack

While many hop waters declined to specify which hops they’re flavored with or relegate that information to the back of the can, Hoplark’s Sparkling Waters, clear frontrunners in the category, are each designed as a showcase for a specific type of hop. Mosaic, for example, is piney and green, while Sabro tastes like apricot, tropical fruit and West Coast IPA. Citra, our favorite of the bunch, is crisp and citrusy. Hoplark’s take on hop water brings up another reason to drink this category: to better understand what different hops taste like, isolated from a brewed beer. That’s why it’s worth picking up a variety pack.

$24 for a 12-pack

Sierra Nevada makes one of our favorite nonalcoholic beers right now, Trail Pass IPA, which tastes convincingly similar to West Coast IPA. Hop Splash, the brand’s hoppy sparkling water, is a much lighter nonalcoholic drink, infused with Citra and Amarillo hops. Many hop waters we sampled were made with citric acid, which sometimes read too much like scented essential oil, but Hop Splash is citrusy and refreshing without the artificial taste. Sierra Nevada also makes a grapefruit and blood orange–infused hop water, but stick to the original for the most hop flavor. This is the pack we’d bring to a party or picnic.

Lagunitas: $11 for a 6-pack; DayPack: $10 for a 6-pack

Open a can of hop water and you’ll be hit with an unmistakable gassy, earthy, damp aroma—most of the time. The signature smell of dank hops was present in many of the sample cans, often presenting stronger in smell than in taste. But a few hop waters were more like seltzers, especially a number of flavored takes that came in varieties like black cherry, ginseng and lemon-lime, where the hoppiness was reduced to just a whisper. For around the same price as a six pack of LaCroix, Lagunitas’ Hoppy Refresher and DayPack’s Mango Sparkling Water (our favorite flavor made by the creators of Athletic Brewing Co.) are worth it as an everyday refresher if you’re not looking for a beer-adjacent drink.

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