Is the No-Alc space ripe for hop water? November 2022

As the brewing industry comes to grips with changing consumer habits around alcohol, there are early signs of a new no-alc trend to target hop lovers: hop water.

Hop water is not a new category, but signs out of the influential US market may be signalling a growing focus on hop-infused sparkling water.

In addition to increasing numbers hitting the shelves, leading US-based drinks industry design firm, CODO Design, has noted an increase in hop water branding projects from startup businesses and smaller breweries.

While acknowledging that one swallow does not a summer make, the agency believes it’s a category that deserves attention.

“As of November 2022, Hop Water is not a trend in the you-see-it-everywhere-and-everyone-is-talking-about-it sense,” the agency noted in a recent newsletter.

“But, as hard seltzer loses steam – or at least, as the newness that drove seltzer’s wild ascendency continues to wane – and the non-alcoholic category continues to expand, I think Hop Water is in a perfect position to flourish.

“There are enough on-trend and compelling value props that could make Hop Water a decently-sized category in its own right, and something that any brewery that is producing beyond beer products might want to consider.”

It noted that the category plays to the sparkling water trend that has been growing in the US.

“What this means for Hop Water is that you don’t have to work to educate your consumers on what this product is,” the company noted.

“They already have familiar drinking experience cues to pull from when being introduced to your brand, particularly in off-premise, where they will likely encounter your Hop Water for the first time.

“Consumer education is an ongoing issue for the kombucha category, for example.”

It also noted that the trend follows a broad cultural shift.

“Hop Water has no alcohol, no calories, no carbs, no sugar, no sodium, no gluten, no adorable bunnies harmed during the brewing process. Nothing.”

“This means that it’s healthy to drink, which follows a broad cultural shift towards balance, wellness and overall fitness.”

The report noted that hop water was well-suited to smaller breweries that struggle with the technical requirements to make zero-alcohol beer.

“Hop Water could hit a sweet spot for (the growing number of) brewers who are interested in releasing a non-alcoholic beverage but aren’t set up to properly make NA beer,” it said.

“In its base form, Hop Water can be high margin (similar to hard seltzer) and relatively easy to make (compared to NA beer). However, the COGS can increase significantly depending on what additions go into your final beverage.”

Water or seltzer?

Sunshine Coast-based Heads of Noosa was a pioneer of the category in Australia, launching its hop water in late 2020. It noted at the time that it saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market for a versatile drink offering advantages as a healthier option over sugar-laced soft drinks and most flavoured waters.

“We saw it as a good point of difference to non-alc beers that were popping up, whilst definitely not a beer we like to have a point of difference in what we do,” co-founder Craig Masterton told Brews News.

“We have definitely spoken about non-alc beer, but the Hop Seltzer ticks the boxes for us, for now.”

“We often sit next to non-alc beers on the shelf, however plenty who don’t ‘drink’ definitely enjoy it just as much.”

While he said it was performing well, education had provided challenges resulting in the product changing names from Hop Water to Hop Seltzer.

“We wanted to make it as clear as possible from looking at the label what is inside the bottle,” he said.

“Uptake has been good but challenging to educate the consumer on what it actually is.

“Everyone who tries it loves it but it’s often confused for a beer.

“Being in a bottle as well compared to our peers in cans, we feel we stuck out more as a ‘beer’ and needed to work extra hard at this.”

“[Barefoot Invester] Scott Pape did an article on it touting it as his favourite non-alc when he quit drinking and we saw his follower base get stuck in and now we ship cartons all over the country.”

Local trend in the making?

As CODO Design noted, hop waters aren’t a you-see-it-everywhere trend, though Heads of Noosa’s Hop Seltzer has recently been joined by Wilde Guru Sparkling Hop Water from Tribe Breweries. Bridge Road Brewing has played with the category and currently sells a Lemon, Lime & Hop bitters made with Enigma hops.

The emerging category has also been a focus for hop grower BarthHaas with hop water and hop tonic water being showcased in its Innovation Range as a way to showcase alternative uses for its advanced hop products.

Showcasing the range at DrinkTec earlier this year, Hop Product Australia‘s Sales and Marketing Manager Owen Johnston said that as a natural flavouring, it had benefits for producers.

“One of the things that we like about hops across different innovative product categories or segments next to beer is that often they’re not required to change anything on the label,” he said.

“So there are labelling laws for food ingredients but you still have no labelling requirements for hop water.”

The Hop Water was created with Spectrum, a liquid hop product that the company says mimics dry hopping while increasing yields and reducing tank turnover time.

The Hop Tonic Water utilised the company’s Redihop, a solution of pure rho-iso-α-acid replacing iso-α-bitterness. Johnston said this worked for drinks such as hop water that often come in clear bottles.

“To replace the quinine bitterness we have used a product called Redihop, which is pre-isomerised product that’s light stable because it’s going to go into flint glass and you don’t want the hop characters staling,” he said.

“That takes care of the bitterness element of tonic water, and then we use pure hop aroma for that top note hop aroma.

“There is no alpha in that, so it’s light stable by its very nature, and this provides that little bit of hop note on top because these would be marketed as a hop tonic water with that Cascade aroma.”

Johnston said alternative uses for hops was an important focus for growers.

“As growers and sellers we literally have one type of customer: brewers,” he said.

“In a longer timeframe we need to try and stimulate the role of hops across different categories into closely aligned segments because we’ve got the macro health trends that are putting pressure on beer consumption.

“Beer itself is under attack by other alcoholic beverages and so it’s sensible to look at how we can introduce hops and hops flavours through other products.”

CODO Designs agrees, saying that a key challenge for hop water as the category matures will be in reaching beyond a traditional beer-drinking audience who is in search of a more wellness-focused beer-ish option.

“Though with an aging Millennial cohort (seeking more beer alternatives), and more growth across NA beverage in general, there may be plenty of runway (or at least, opportunities for incremental growth) with a traditional beer drinking audience as is,” the report said.

“We should think of Hop Water as a platform for experimentation. There’s the immediate angle of exploring different hops, and dry hopping and overall level of carbonation.

“But I think Hop Waters are a perfect chassis to accept other macro beverage trends. Consider the litany of better for you, functional ingredients, the more emergent and esoteric the better.”

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