Whether you’re doing Dry January, Sober October, or just want a refreshing alcohol-free drink, it’s hard to deny the greatness of hop water. It’s like beer-flavored LaCroix—what’s not to like?
But how come the stuff from the store tastes so much better than the sparkling hop water I make at home? What’s the trick?
I plan to crack the code by testing several recipes and putting them head to head to find once and for all the ultimate hop water recipe to rule them all.
Hop water doesn’t sound complicated. It’s just water and hops mixed together with some bubbles, right? Well, I bet if you go to your home brewery right now and toss a hop pellet into a cup of water, I guarantee you’ll have a hard time putting that back. There’s more to it than that.
For one, it’s not about how bitter it is. Hop water is first and foremost a refreshing sparkling water that has the essence of hops. If the hop water is super bitter, it won’t be enjoyable. Bitterness works in beer because the sweet wort balances it out, but in water, there’s nothing to balance it.
So hurdle one is trying not to extract too much astringent bitterness, and the hop character that comes through should be more fruity and juicy, or at least in my mind. I want a citrusy and tropical-tasting hop water as opposed to a floral and woody one, but if that’s your jam, then go for it.
So, when choosing hops, you should be picking one that has flavors you like. Don’t expect Fuggle hop water that tastes like pineapples. Citra, Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Mosaic, and really any hop that you like in a hazy IPA are great choices.
Then let’s talk about the water. I think this goes without saying, but the best-tasting water will make the best-tasting sparkling water. But is there anything that can be done to heighten the experience? Well, we can look to beer salts to see how they might be able to amplify the hop character.
Using something like gypsum or calcium sulfate should really make the hops pop, at least when we brew beer and add this, it tends to promote hop character and prominence.
Adding some acid, either in the form of lactic acid or even some citrus, should make the water even more refreshing and quenchable, at least in theory. All food theory, sorry, wrong show. Anyway.
If you’re not familiar with either of these, you can easily get them at any homebrew store for a few bucks or find a link in the description to pick some up online if you want to test them out yourself.
Many of the popular hop water recipes online look pretty similar and they infuse hops into warm water around 170 degrees, then chill, add gypsum, sometimes even calcium chloride, and add some form of acid, then carbonate in a keg and syrup.
This is how I did it for a long while since it seemed like this was the only way it could be done, but then I tried a pro-brewed hop water, and my idea of what a good hop water should be started to change.
If we stop and take a quick look at the pro versions, we can gain some insight into how they do it. Two of the most popular ones near me are Sierra Nevada’s Hop Splash and Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher.
Sierra Nevada’s version is made with Citra and Amarillo, which they say gives a medley of peach, mango, and grapefruit flavors. On their site, they have a segment about the recipe. They start with carbon-filtered, pH-adjusted water and say they dry hop the water for a brief amount of time, which is interesting. I haven’t really seen any recipes online that mention this.
Lagunitas version is made with Citra, as well as Equinox and Centennial Hops, and they also dry hop the water. They even add a pinch of brewer’s yeast to biotransform the hops. Wow, that certainly sounds cool, although I’m not sure how that technically works.
So, maybe that’s why their products are smoother and more fruity. I had to find out if this was indeed the best way to make hop water and, not only that, I would also test whether or not you need to add those salts and acids to finally get to the bottom of this.
To start, I made separate one-gallon batches. The first one would be the dry hop method and the second one would be the hot steep method. I did both without adding any salts or acids.
For the dry hop method, I collected one gallon of filtered water and then added four grams of Cascade into a hop sock and added it into the water. I also played with adding yeast, but I’ll save you some time.
I tested W3470 Lager yeast and later I tested a Verdant IPA strain, as well as not using any yeast at all. To be honest, I could never tell a difference. I’m not sure why this would work to release more terpenes out of the hops in the short amount of time that I plan to dry hop and with no fermentation.
So for now, let’s just cross off adding yeast and don’t worry about it. If you know more about why Lagunitas uses yeast in their hop water, let me know in the comments.
Anywho, I dry hopped the 4 grams of Cascade for six hours, at which point I pulled out the bag and added the hop water into a mini keg to carbonate.
For the hot steep version, I heated up some water to a boil and then cooled it to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, I added 2 grams of the Cascade and let it steep for two minutes. I’m loosely following the Claw Hammer recipe, if you’re wondering.
Also, I’m using Cascade for both methods and keeping the hops in a hop sock for both recipes to level the playing field. After 20 minutes, I chilled the water and then added it into a container with more cold water, up to the one-gallon mark, and then carbonated it.
I’m using a keg and force carbonating with CO2, which is the quickest way to do it. But you could certainly try carbonating by bottle conditioning, just adding a little bit of yeast and sugar. Doing it in a keg turns it around much faster, and if you want to know more about kegging, I’ve got a video all about it.
Next, I split the sparkling water into four bottles. Each one bottle would be kept plain, as I made it. One bottle would have a pinch of gypsum, one bottle would have a dash of lactic acid, and the last would have a bit of both gypsum and lactic acid.
If you don’t have lactic acid, you can totally try using some citrus, like lime.
And once I had all eight bottles filled, it was time for some serious taste testing. With a notepad in hand, I took some time to compare them, comparing all the dry hop ones against each other, then the hot steeped ones, then comparing all of them against each other.
Now, this wasn’t a blind triangle test, but to me, it was pretty clear that there was a difference.
Right away, I noticed just how much softer the hop bitterness was in the dry-hop version. The hot steeped had a sharpness that made it stand out, almost an astringency, and I was curious to see how they compared visually.
So, I placed the unadjusted versions in a glass: dry hop on the left, hot steep on the right. At first, it doesn’t appear like there’s much of a difference. Maybe you could say the hot steep has a slightly more yellow tint.
But then when I flip them around to be backlit, you can really notice what’s going on. The hot steep version had a bunch more hop matter floating around, probably what led it to have a bit more of that harshness.
Then, comparing each of the gypsum, acid, and both addition versions, the changes were not as drastic. I did notice that the gypsum versions added a bit of minerality and a bump up on the crispness of the water, just a tiny bit.
The acid, though, really didn’t impart much at first, but with continued tasting and comparing, I felt that it did get just a touch of zip to the finish that made it a little more thirst-quenching. So, with the water test complete, I gathered my notes and prepared to design what I believed was the ultimate hop water recipe.
Hop Water Recipe
And here’s what I determined: start with one gallon of filtered water, and I’m going to bypass the gypsum. I feel like it added too much minerality, which kind of distracted from the hop flavor.
And instead of using lactic acid, I actually like the way lime adds a bit of citrusy punch that complements the fruit flavor in the hops. It adds an acidic bite that makes the drink more refreshing.
I’m really going for a tropical flavor, so I’ll be using two grams each of Simcoe and Amarillo, a total of four grams, infused for six hours. I’ll then transfer it to a keg and carbonate.
I like it quite fizzy, around 20 psi, and once it’s bubbly, usually after a few days, it should look something like this.
Whether I’m trying to limit my drinking or just want something crisp to sip on during the day, I reach for this every time. There are so many ways to customize this to your preference, not only in the hops you choose, but you can even start to get creative with flavor combinations.
Maybe try something like lime and Motueca for a Sprite-like flavor, or even blackberry extract and Mosaic for a super berry-flavored one. Get wild with it! Let me know if you try this out and what you think.
And if you’re looking for another sparkling non-alcoholic drink, you’ve got to try this fermented lemonade made with ginger bug. It’s the best way to stay hydrated!
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