Editor’s Note: Our Gather column, which typically appears in this space every other week, is taking a little break. Cheers! will fill in weekly until Gather returns in June.
I CONFESS: I do not like IPAs. This is not a knock on IPAs as a thing — their already-widespread-yet-somehow-ever-increasing popularity suggests there is a definite appeal.
IPAs, or India Pale Ales, were brewed hoppy to help them withstand the long voyage between England and India during the British Raj, and these days there is a certain gusto among brewers resulting in more and more hops added to IPAs, making them brisk and bitter and bracing as salt spray at sea.
Back when people were still clutching their pearls about hemp products, hops — ubiquitous in beer since the Middle Ages — flew under the radar of cannabinoid alarmists everywhere despite the fact that the plant is a member of the cannabaceae family (genus humulus, closely related to cannabis). Hops are the flower of a plant that grows on long snaky vines that climb scaffolds like ivy, and the little green scaly torpedo that is a hops bud looks a lot like a cannabis bud’s better-groomed cousin.
Until recently, the primary use of hops (besides as a digestive aid in cattle feed) has been as a bittering/flavoring agent and preservative in beer. Despite their eventual wholehearted adoption of the practice (see above, re: IPAs), English brews up until the medieval period did not contain hops at all, and were flavored (if they were flavored) with other aromatics and herbs, like wormwood and dandelion. For centuries thereafter, in England, hopped brews were “beer,” and unhopped brews were “ale” — a distinction that seems to have been important to King Henry VIII, who apparently did not care for them and banned his brewer from using them in his royal ale home-brew. In continental Europe, however, hops have been in use in beer-brewing since at least the ninth century, and, having found their niche in human society, this humble bud has stayed in its lane for hundreds of years, quietly making our cold ones a little more crisp.
Recently, however, hops have jumped from beer into other realms of drinkables, perhaps as part of a recent trend toward the development and marketing of artisanal nonalcoholic beers and alcohol-free spirits (even as alcohol sales have shot through the roof since the onset of the pandemic). After all, many of the complex tasting notes and nuances in small-batch brewed beer come from the specific strains of hops used, and a hop soda, or hop water (even hop tea), delivers all those flavors, sans alcohol. For those of you who don’t drink IPAs because they usually have a higher ABV per dollar than other beers, this concept might well appeal.
Though I do not like IPAs, I rather like many of these alternative hops drinks, which straddle the line between a soda and something more like a fancy LaCroix. (And no; LaCroix is not inherently fancy! I don’t care if the name is French!) The hops lend a slightly vegetal, floral note to these drinks, a taste that is not so much “bitter” as it is vaguely punitive in a way that one associates with things meant to appeal to adults.
Most of them pair the fruitier, flower-forward Citra hops strain with fruit flavors, making them appealing mixers if you, say, want to add the booze back in. Also, despite being kissing cousins with cannabis, hops will not get you high, so drink away.
Many of these drinks are marketed to appeal to beer drinkers. One, Chicago-based Hop Pop, is marketed as having an “IPA aftertaste” without the alcohol. Lagunitas has its Hoppy Refresher, which is arguably a near-beer, since three strains of hops and yeast approximate the flavor of a beer without any of the booze.
Moving away from the “beer concept” is HopTea, a fizzy, hops-forward alternative to, say, Arizona Iced Tea, and even H2OPS, which is simply water flavored with hops (This, I think you can make at home.). In the PNW, we have Aurora Elixir’s Hop Soda, which pairs hops with fruit flavors such as Yuzu Orange Blossom and Pomelo Sage. And, because Washington state’s own Yakima Valley produces 71% of the nation’s hops, almost any of these hop drinks could rightly be considered a “local” product, anyway.