From Cacti to Coconuts: A New Wave of Alt Water-Based Beer Is Here

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The official Texas state plant is the prickly pear cactus, which poses a hidden hazard to anyone operating a weed whacker. Accidentally strike the succulent, and you’ll likely get sprayed with water that tastes kind of like a watermelon Jolly Rancher.

“You’re just going, ‘I’ll be dipped.’ It’s amazing how much water that plant retains,” says Tom Fiorenzi, the director of brewery operations at the Gambrinus Company, which owns Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. (It brews Shiner beers.)

The Texas resident will sometimes cut open a wild prickly pear to quench his thirst. More commonly, he’ll make a refreshing Shiner lager packed with prickly pear fruit, which Shiner first introduced in 2012. In January, the company deepened its succulent commitment with the trio of TexHex IPAs — including the hazy Desert Mirage and pineapple-scented Bruja’s Brew — that feature trippy witch artwork and a spiky signature ingredient: cactus water.

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“You wouldn’t believe the number of cacti down here,” Fiorenzi says. “It’s kind of like fishing in your own pond.”

Beer is more than 90 percent water, and its varying mineral makeup has helped create beer archetypes. Pilsners sprung from the Czech Republic’s soft, mineral-free waters, while the gypsum-rich hills surrounding Burton upon Trent, England, heightened calcium and sulfate levels that boosted clarity, magnified hop bitterness, and paved a path to the modern pale ale and IPA.

Brewers today are less dependent on geology, and they can make minute mineral adjustments or use reverse-osmosis technology to strip a water’s profile before rebuilding it to spec. But for some breweries, that’s water under the bridge. They’re infusing low-calorie white ales with coconut water, giving goses a briny edge with seawater, and exclusively brewing cream ales, stouts, and more with just-tapped maple sap, all of which supply beers with a singular sense of place and a local taste.

Treating Natural Resources as Liquid Assets

From squid ink to bull testicles, countless quirky ingredients have been written into beer recipes for pure shock value, but that’s grist for another listicle. Distinct water sources, however, can transcend gimmickry to deliver both compelling flavors and storytelling.

As tart and salty goses started taking off in the mid-2010s, Nathan Sanborn felt that interpretations of the centuries-old German ale missed the historical mark. “These beers weren’t salty originally because of the addition of a ton of salt,” says Sanborn, the director of brewing operations and a founder of Rising Tide Brewing in coastal Portland, Maine. “It was because of the water’s extreme mineral content.”

Sanborn wondered about Maine seawater. What would that give a gose? He brewed test batches — one with local seawater, one with extra salt — finding that seawater imparted greater depth and complexity, perhaps owing to plankton, algae, and more microscopic critters. “Seawater is more than just salt,” says Sanborn.

Rising Tide canned Pisces in 2016, and the gose remains a summertime staple. To brew a batch, employees pilot a boat to deeper waters around Maine and harvest seawater in small kegs. During brewing, the salty water is incorporated later in the brewing process, when it’s sterilized. “I want all of the seawater’s goodness in the finished beer,” he says.

Coastal breweries elsewhere are also brewing oceangoing goses, including Seawater Gose by Your Mates Brewing in Australia, and Makai Pier Gose from Hawaii’s Aloha Beer. (Additionally, Hawaii’s Ocean Organic Vodka is made with mineral-rich local waters.) By contrast, Wooly Pig Farm Brewery in Fresno, Ohio, makes Maple Sap Cream Ale with 100 percent maple sap, the lightly sugary liquid that’s later boiled and condensed to make syrup.

When sap starts flowing, typically in February, founder and brewmaster Kevin Ely buys bulk sap from a nearby Amish neighbor, then trucks it to his brewery. “That’s my water for the day,” Ely says. He uses Ohio malts to brew a lightly hopped cream ale, letting the sap’s earthy sweetness remain front and center. The beer is typically tapped on St. Patrick’s Day, a new drinking tradition dictated by nature.

Beards Brewery of Petoskey, Mich., usually releases its annual Tree Blood Maple Sap Stout in the spring, and customers might find the stout served in June. “We like to provide a variety that really reflects the four seasons out of the year,” says sales and marketing director Emily Hengstebeck.

Beards has brewed Tree Blood since 2013, sourcing from local producers, but the sappy stout still requires explanation. “Our customers immediately think of syrup” and sweetness, Hengstebeck says. “We tell them that it’s tree water. This isn’t the syrup that’s concentrated afterward.”

Maple sap is only around 2 to 3 percent sugar, says Sean Lawson, a co-founder of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, adding that 40 gallons of sap will reduce to one gallon of syrup. Early in his homebrewing career, which began in 1990, Lawson was intrigued by replacing water with maple sap. He tried some commercial examples, but sap alone didn’t add a big maple pop. As luck had it, a neighbor operated a traditional wood-fired evaporator used to boil sap into syrup. At the end of the sugaring season, his neighbor would dump out any remaining partly boiled sap, which had more color, flavor, and sugar content.

Lawson began rescuing the waste, using it to create the richly potent Maple Tripple Ale. A few years after going pro, Lawson won a bronze medal at 2010’s prestigious World Beer Cup. (The beer has since won two additional WBC medals.) “It was brewed on a one-barrel system,” he says. “That’s like a homebrew competing on the world stage.”

The Waitsfield, Vt., brewery is now a regional powerhouse, making widely distributed maple syrup beers such as Mad River Maple, but Maple Tripple remains a limited release of around 100 cases annually. Then as now, “that’s because of the scale of the sugar maker,” Lawson says.

Using Water to Communicate a Message

Any grocery store’s beverage aisle contains countless waters touting purported health benefits. Cactus water is rich in antioxidants, while coconut water contains electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and sodium. Breweries can’t legally associate alcohol with anything healthy, but the right ingredients can implicitly spread an intended message.

Several years ago, New Holland Brewing was looking to create a low-calorie beer that might appeal to fitness-minded folks. New Holland created the 86-calorie Lightpoint, a “functional white ale” flavored with orange peel, raw honey, and coconut water. The ingredients “are obvious touchpoints for people who are interested in their health,” says Justin Rito, the marketing project manager for the Holland, Mich., brewery.

Non-alcoholic beer producer Athletic Brewing built its juggernaut brand around the idea of “brew without compromise,” delivering big flavor without booze. Even then, the government “doesn’t let us say anything that even makes you think of health,” says co-founder John Walker, the head brewer.

Runarounds exist. Back in 2020, Athletic developed Maple Brown as a fall seasonal that incorporates nutrient-rich maple water from Drink Simple. The maple water “carries the feeling of goodness,” Walker says. “You’re inferring benefits.” These days, Athletic brews massive 100-barrel batches of Maple Brown. Instead of arranging for tankers full of tree water, Drink Simple supplies a concentrate that Walker adds to the finished beer. “We treat it more like a dry hop,” he says.

Using offbeat water sources will never be as simple as opening a faucet. Breweries must account for chemistry when adding ingredients such as cactus water, says Fiorenzi of Gambrinus. “If we’re going to make a major change in the pH, obviously we have to adjust for that,” he says.

Rising Tide has paperwork requirements for harvesting its seawater, and it keeps a close eye on weather before heading out to sea with empty kegs. If it rains, collection is off due to the potential of contaminated runoff.

Nonetheless, going beyond the tap can help breweries connect to their audiences and community. People celebrate local ingredients like they do sports teams, a distinct taste of place that breweries can treat like a liquid asset.

“What is more authentic to Rising Tide than the sea?” says Sanborn.