Nonalcoholic cocktails have been regularly appearing on menus the past few years, and now, local brewers are getting in on booze-free drinks as well. That doesn’t mean nonalcoholic beers — options from local brewers are still hard to find — but a few local breweries are going beyond the realm of regular fermentation to offer hoppy sparkling water, barley tea, and CBD elixirs that will keep you level while still entertaining your palate.
Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Hoppy Refresher
About 18 months ago, “hard seltzer” was just a glint in White Claw’s eye, though LaCroix was already a fixture in home fridges. Around the same time, Lagunitas saw a wide-open space for something sparkly and nonalcoholic but still in line with their hop-crazy ethos.
Enter the Hoppy Refresher. You’ve probably seen it on shelves in the liquor section, despite being zero-ABV (and zero-calorie). The carbonated beverage is made with Citra, Centennial, and Equinox hops, plus a pinch of brewer’s yeast. The result is bracingly sharp and a bit sweet, like Sprite with a blast of spruce pine. It sounds like a novelty, but it’s surprisingly good.
The Hoppy Refresher turned out to be a multifaceted creation. It serves as the base for the company’s Hi-Fi Hops CBD-infused beverage, and it’s also something at-home drinkers can play around with as an ingredient.
“A couple drops of bitters in there, and that’s my hangover cure,” says Lagunitas senior PR manager Max Wertheimer.
Produced at the company’s Douglas Park brewery as well as the original Petaluma plant, four-packs are available nationwide. And yes, Lagunitas is also experimenting with hard seltzer: They’ve already served a few on tap in Petaluma.
Bungalow by Middle Brow’s Barley Tea
After spending the last few months experimenting with a house kombucha (including a Koval gin-barrel-aged option), Middle Brow recently rolled out a lightly hopped, gently fizzy barley tea. It’s made with steeped Vienna malts — usually used in pilsners — plus Centennial and Chinook hops to add some bitter notes.
The drink has caught on quickly. “We’re turning a keg a week,” says brewer Bryan Grohnke. “If there’s such a thing as carbonated cold tea, it basically resembles that.” He notes that the malts give it a toast-like character, backed up with a light homebrew-style sparkle.
The beverage is “kind of in its infancy now,” Grohnke says. There’s plenty of other experimentation to be done with the tea, including different hops or malts, malt blends, and fruits and flowers. But he sees its promise. “It’s a hyper-refreshing drink. Sometimes you just don’t want a beer.”
Shrubs, Yerba Mate, and More from Marz Community Brewing
Joe Guzzo, Marz Community Brewing’s nonalcoholic beverage brewer, is at the forefront of Chicago’s booze-free beverages. After starting out behind the bar and seeing inventive nonalcoholic concoctions balloon in popularity, Guzzo started experimenting on equipment at Marz’s Bridgeport facility. He began with a tea- and hop-infused canned coffee in 2018; since then, he’s created over a dozen packaged drinks including “shrub” sodas (vinegar-infused drinks), kombucha, seltzers, tea, and even yerba mate.
In fact, he’s produced so many different options that there’s now a spinoff division, Life on Marz. Its most recent focus — especially in newly cannabis-friendly Illinois — is CBD “elixirs,” which range from sparkling tonics infused with juniper, spruce, and vanilla to an apple-cinnamon and cascara bean shrub, both dosed with 30mg of CBD.
“Curiosity is the driver,” Guzzo explains. “All the beverages explore a new ingredient or a new style. A lot of this is driven by my personal wants, and then I try to extrapolate to that to the general public. It’s worked thus far.”
What’s next? Recent deliveries to the Marz facility include amaro botanicals, freeze-dried and powdered fruits like mandarin oranges and lychees, barrel-aged kombucha, and “kombucha-parallel” beverages. Unlikely? Soda and other super-sweet drinks.
“Nobody wants 20, 30 grams of sugar in a drink,” Guzzo said. “It makes you feel bad.”