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For the last 4 miles to the Road’s End trailhead in Kings Canyon National Park, all I could think of was how good a cold beer from the camp store would taste.
But as I contemplated my 7-hour solo drive down a windy mountain road, I questioned whether beer was the safest decision. Plus, beer is a diuretic, and wouldn’t do any favors for my already-dehydrated body. Back at the car, I attempted to satiate my beer cravings with a sparkling water.
It didn’t cut it.
I knew there had to be a better way. I like my water, malts, hops, and yeast almost as much as I like hiking—I’ve even designed multi-day hikes that stop at every brewery in cities as diverse as Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bend, Oregon, and Denver.
Like many self-proclaimed beer snobs, I was skeptical of the non-alcoholic beer trend. But I knew that drinking beer after (or on) hikes didn’t always work for me. That’s why I set out on a mission to find near-beers and hops-flavored sparkling waters that would hit the spot after a long hike.
Why Hikers Want Beer
There’s a reason why we crave beer after a long hike. “Beer has super clean, wholesome ingredients: water, hops, barley, and yeast. It has a lot of great things like electrolytes, potassium, and calcium,” says Bill Shufelt, co-founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing, one of the largest non-alcoholic craft beer manufacturers in the US.
But alcohol can be a diuretic, which interferes with the recovery process after a workout. In order to capture the most benefits from physical activity, athletes need to rest, stay hydrated, and avoid diuretics.
Outdoor athletes also love beer because of ritual and routine. “Humans have been drinking beer for thousands of years. The combination of the smell of malt, hops, the taste … I think that brings people immediately to a place of relaxation and celebration. It tells you, ‘I’m with friends’,” Bill says.
In fact, the way the body digests alcohol means that many of the positive feelings we associate with drinking aren’t necessarily from booze at all. Our immediate reaction is to the smell, taste, and surroundings. It takes 60 to 90 minutes for alcohol to reach peak levels in the blood—and brain. “Alcohol hits the body more down the line. It’s kind of a byproduct you deal with rather than the enjoyment of the immediate moment,” Bill says.
Because of this, non-alcoholic beverages provide much of the same satisfaction as their boozy counterparts, without the hit to recovery. We sampled 33 of the options on the market and found these favorites.
NA Beverages to Keep on Your Radar
When looking for an NA brew, I stuck to cans, which are more packable as summit beers.
I discovered this spritzed up seltzer water on a hot urban hike in Southern California. It changed my day and also was the first drink that made me consider that a non-alcoholic beverage could feed a post-hike beer craving. With big effervescent bubbles balanced with hops and citrus, the Blood Orange HOPWTR felt like drinking a beer—but without the heaviness. I brought it on a backpacking trip recently and it was a game changer for a friend who is gluten-free and hadn’t been able to enjoy post-summit beers for years. HOPWTR comes with adaptogens and nootropics like ashwagandha and L-theanine to boost mood and cognitive performance. Although not technically a beer, HOPWTR was a great intro for me to explore what is possible with hops sans malts.
Wisconsin-based Untitled Art brews up NA goses and pastry stouts that rank up there with some of the best beers I’ve had (including those with alcohol). Untitled Art is more expensive than other NA beers, comparable in price to nicer craft beers with alcohol. Still, the S’mores Dark Brew beats real s’mores as a way to celebrate a long-awaited summit or a great crew on your backcountry lake trip.
Athletic Brewing Co
The biggest brand in non-alcoholic craft beer these days and the most widely distributed near-beer you can find, Athletic offers 45 different flavors and monthly one-offs. These are true NA beers, with the mouthfeel, fullness, malt, and hops of a traditional beer, but without the alcohol. That means a 12 oz can of their Run Wild IPA is 65 calories, which is great for avoiding the beer belly after your workout. Athletic is a certified B-Corp, meeting the highest independent standards of social and environmental impact. With their Two Percent for the Trails grant Program, they’ve given $2.5 million to support trail work and park clean-ups over the past four years. That gives you even more to feel great about after making the summit. My favorites are the Free Wave Hazy IPA and their Pina Colada with Lactose.
Hoplark’s HopTea has three things I love: hops, caffeine, and crisp bubbles. Although it has no calories (or gluten), HopTea’s taste is fuller and more satisfying than sparkling water—almost like a beer. There’s decaf and herbal tea bases for those avoiding caffeine. The brand has expanded to sparkling water with limited edition monthly brews that would excite any hophead. Their single-hop Simcoe, Citra, or Mosaic waters let the hops shine through without the malt, calories, or alcohol. They even have a zero calorie NA beer called Hoplark 0.0 that takes the hop quality to a whole new level. The Hoplark brand is a great beer alternative if you’re avoiding gluten or the 0.5% alcohol content of NA beer. Plus, HopTeas were the only beverage in the category I could find in kegs.
WellBeing Brewing Co
One of the things I appreciated the most about Wellbeing is how explicitly they focus on mental health, which can be a challenge for many outdoor athletes. The brewery’s values state it’s easier to be present without alcohol. In collaboration with St. Louis-based 4 Hands Brewing, Wellbeing Beer brewed Liquid Rain IPA to support the Hope for the Day non-profit mental health movement. Another plus for outdoor athletes is their Victory Wheat Sports Brew with added electrolytes, which turns a beverage that is normally a diuretic into one that aids in hydration. Their Wandering Islands Tropical Pale Ale has among the best pine and fruit aromas of NA beers I tasted and won gold at the US Open Beer Championship.
This Scottish multinational brewery (with US operations based in Ohio) does both NA beer and traditional beer. While occasionally I’ll find a brewery that has one or two NA offerings, BrewDog has so many that they opened a NA beer taproom in London (unfortunately for the longevity of the idea, right before the pandemic). Their summery Faux Fox strawberry rhubarb sour was so on point, I didn’t even realize it was non-alcoholic. What impressed me is that everything I tried—from their Hazy AF to their Grapefruit IPA—was all only 20 calories with 2.3 g of carbs. It really made me wonder what magic they used to create this beer. BrewDog is a registered B-corp and is the world’s first carbon negative brewery. When I want more than a hopped sparkling beverage but want less than a full beer, these BrewDogs really hit the spot.