Getting Into Hop Water
Could it succeed where hard seltzers couldn’t?
One is a fizzy boozy water designed to taste of…. often, not much at all. While the other is a non-alcoholic water chock full of bold hop flavors. Liquid-wise they’re polls apart, and yet they’ve been launched to do exactly the same thing; bolster the fortunes of beleaguered brewers. But whereas hard seltzers failed to make a splash in the UK following runaway success Stateside, could hop water stand a better chance?
There’s something in the water. In this case, it’s hops. If you’ve never heard of this latest iteration from the beer world, let us acquaint you. Designed to scratch an itch for a full-flavoured hoppy hit, but minus the calories or booze, hop waters are a carbonated water, infused with the flavour of hops. In short, they’re supposed to offer the flavour of a beer, but minus the booze. And with the full hydration of a water, they’re a healthier way to scratch an itch.
In fact, digging a little deeper, they’re inspired by the flavour profile of an IPA. First emerging in the US a few years ago, some of the brewers who have launched one so far include Lagunitas, Snake River and Sierra Nevada. Most use aroma hops rather than bittering hops, to achieve the full and complex citrus flavours you’d associate with an IPA. And some even use a little yeast to bio-transform the hops.
However, this genre of liquid – sometimes nicknamed a hop spritzer – is not a non-alcoholic beer. There’s no malt used, it’s not brewed and there’s never any alcohol content to be removed. All of these things mean it’s both lower in calories (most hop waters are zero calories) and better for the environment; both increasingly powerful motivators for consumers.
A category on the rise
And of course, with it being ‘Dry January’ still, a number of new non-brews are joining the already burgeoning category in the US. The brand new launch from Iron Hill Brewery uses Azacca, Jarrylo, Cascade, Chinook, Cashmere and El Dorado hops, said to give a combined citrus and pine flavour. Director of Brewery Operations Andrew Johnston, said: “I’m a brewer, which means I love beer and everything about it, but I was excited when we made the decision to create a beverage with beer attributes and zero alcohol. As a beer drinker myself, I often drink water while I’m drinking beer for added hydration.” Austin Beerworks has also just added its own hop water, made with Citra, Centennial and El Dorado hops, designed to allow customers to enjoy the hop-forward quality of its drinks, more of the time.
There are a myriad of other new launches. But, they are broadly similar and brewers are largely aiming for the same prize; to win back lapsed customers and tap into broad lifestyle shifts that are seeing more consumers moderate, abstain, or else choose alcohol without associations of bloating etc.
And aside from the taste profile – which unlike hard seltzers stands apart from anything else on the market, both with and without alcohol – the appeal technically is easy to see. Hop waters don’t require new, expensive machinery to create, nor do they require technical processes like de-alcoholisation. So, both better for the consumer, easier for the brewer and less impactful on the environment… it’s easy to see why many brewers think they may be the answer to their dwindling sales.
And neither do hop waters feel like a betrayal of everything the craft beer movement promised it would be. Whereas hard seltzers felt like many brewers had backtracked on their pledges of full-flavour against the backdrop of watery, tasteless, mass produced liquids, hop waters actually seem to align with the values consumers have spent years buying into.
Is UK success likely?
So, could they be successful in the UK? There’s at least one brewer already keen to find out. Northern Monk launched its Hop Water last year. In fact, it’s had two iterations of the liquid. First up came its Holy Hop Water. Packaged in something more resembling an energy drink with gothic font and skull imagery, it promised an “amped up” sparkling water with Citra hops, designed to refresh body and soul. It’s fair to say though, that the packaging design screamed rebellion rather than refreshment.
Its newer product is H2OP, which again focuses on the fruity character of the Citra hop. And it’s here you can see a notable shift to the clean white packaging cues more commonly associated with hard seltzers. Unlike US audiences, UK drinkers are not au-fait with what a hop water actually is. So leading on the purity of water in its name and its branding is a key move.
Will other brewers join in? Should they? It’s likely many who were quick to join the hard seltzer trend – of which there were many – may be feeling a little burned. The products did not culturally land here in the UK, where the fast track of launches left consumers confused and unengaged and the perceived lack of flavour left little for drinkers to remember or set them apart from competitors.
Do hop waters stand a chance then? That very much depends on how brewers choose to market them. We are entering the era of the hard water, where brands are looking to piggyback on the purity of water and its health-halo with boozed-up products that straddle the line between naughty and nice (look out for a raft of hard still waters coming from the US). Hop waters are not that. And brands need to be careful to distance themselves from them.
The key strength of hop waters lies in their ability to tap into a number of trends and patterns of consumer behaviour. Their full flavour, water base and lack of any alcohol whatsoever, puts them in a unique position to pitch themselves as suitable for a number of occasions that even alcohol-alternatives have never been comfortably able to do, from post gym to afternoon in the office.
Making them a first choice
Quality perceptions are key too. Whereas hard seltzers felt like a compromised choice, consumers educated by the craft beer movement understand hops. These building blocks of flavour have become a key way for them to navigate the plethora of new brews over the years. And their use here, in a way that arguably more fully displays their flavour versus a beer, is both intriguing and comfortingly familiar.
The key to their future UK success will be in brewers that do adopt them presenting them as the first choice in a consumer’s daily repertoire and leading on refreshment and flavour, rather than a compromise for when consumers are not drinking. Non-alc beers already answer that need quite neatly and very successfully.
No, instead – and perhaps counter intuitively – brands will have to present hop water as something distanced from, and quite unique from beer, if consumers are to understand the need for them, the moment to consume them and why they might be a choice above and beyond a non-alcoholic beer.
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