Eberhardt says he and co-founder Andrew Markley homebrewed for a decade before starting Hoplark, happily observing, "We're a lot better at making HopTea than we are at making beer."
Before starting Hoplark, Eberhardt decided he wanted to lose weight, make healthier life choices. He stopped drinking beer for a month, but Eberhardt missed the taste of it. That's when the idea came to him for HopTea. Now when Eberhardt takes breaks away from beer (which he's occasionally done for one to four months at a time), he still gets to enjoy those hop flavors that beer drinkers find so pleasurable, in addition to carbonation -- yet there's "zero sugar" and no calories, he notes, in each can of HopTea. Caffeine, yes (in most of them, at least); but alcohol, no.
As it says on Hoplark's cans, "HopTea is what happens when you brew iced tea like a craft beer."
In Hoplark's "The Green Tea One," Eberhardt describes the Mosaic hops as imparting "a lot of fruit, a little bit of smoke to it -- which kind of enhances the green tea in a nice way. The first time I tried the combination of green tea and Mosaic [hops], I was like, 'This is amazing. This is just going to work.'" The "White Tea One" incorporates Simcoe and Lemondrop hops into organic white tea, leading to a lemony "candy sweetness without sugar." And the "Really Hoppy One" combines black tea with Simcoe and Citra hops; Eberhardt describes the combination as "a little bitterness-forward, a little hop-forward. It's meant to be the beer drinker's version." There's also their caffeine-free chamomile brew "The Calm One," which is dry-hopped with Citra hops. Eberhardt calls it his "go-to, at night" before bed.
Eberhardt says of Hoplark, "We're beer geeks, we're tea geeks, we're hop geeks -- and we're hop-tea geeks. And, just generally, beverage geeks."
Evidently, Hoplark's teas have been delighting fellow beverage geeks and, yes, even beer drinkers.
Eberhardt says HopTea was well received at the Boulder Craft Beer Festival: "The response was incredible. We were afraid that the beer snobs were going to kind of raise their noses to us a little bit. If anything, it's been the exact opposite: Our most intense fan base is beer people." Markley and Eberhardt even received helpful advice along the way from folks in the beer world at Odd13 Brewing and nearby Twisted Pine Brewing Company.
Then, HopTea won the BevNET-hosted New Beverage Showdown in December. "I thought HopTea was the most innovative thing that we saw," BevNET quoted one of the judges as saying in its article on the event, and another judge, a marketing vice president at Coca-Cola, called the tea "refreshing."
And at the 2019 edition of Natural Products Expo West, Hoplark HopTea won a Nexty Award as the "Best New Ready-to-Drink Beverage." The awards website says, "Innovating an upscale tea experience is timely, what with the rise of consumers seeking classy yet low- or no-alcohol options."
Not bad for a company that only began in May 2018.
Still, Eberhardt says, "At the end of the day, you can win all the awards in the world, but if people don't buy it, it doesn't matter." That doesn't seem to be a problem for Hoplark: Without spending anything on marketing so far, the teas are "selling like crazy in the stores that we're in," says Eberhardt. "We're not going for huge numbers as far as how many stores we're in. We're much more interested in how those stores that we're in are doing [in terms of sales of our products]."
Whole Foods was an early supporter; presently, HopTea can be found in select Whole Foods stores in Colorado, Utah, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Idaho. Eberhardt adds, "We're weeks away from launching in Chicago with a distribution partner." It's easy to imagine that the teas might eventually find receptive markets on the West Coast, especially in beer hubs like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Give that time. It was only at the beginning of December that Markley and Eberhardt took possession of their brewing space in Boulder, which previously housed an ice cream factory. (Before that they operated out of a friend's coffee production facility.) Markley and Eberhardt are still building out their "taproom" -- a novel term for tea makers to be using -- for the customers who will eventually visit.
According to Eberhardt, he and Markley operate a "30-barrel brewery." But, unlike at beer breweries where the canning line is sometimes out in the open somewhere in the space, here it's cordoned off, and one needs to enter through protective slats that keep contaminants out. Eberhardt says, "Even though we look like a brewery, we're a food company." In the production area, there are tanks where dry-hopping takes place. And a large 1,000-gallon wine fermenter used for brewing: "We use it as a big cup of tea, basically."
One thing Hoplark doesn't use is extracts. "The vast majority of teas on the market are made with extracts, whereas we actually brew our tea," Eberhardt says. "We care about making it ourselves [as opposed to using contract manufacturing]."
Before embarking on his "journey to health" and losing 50 pounds, Eberhardt says he spent more than a decade hoping to open a brewery and make beer. In the end, Eberhardt says he's glad that he and Markley (originally, college friends at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh) opted for creating what just might be "a new beverage category," instead of competing in already crowded field.
"Honestly, this is so much more fun," Eberhardt says.
Challenges: Fast-paced change for Hoplark versus the slow-moving retail world. Eberhardt says, "The traditional, food-retail-world grocery stores move incredibly slowly. They go on these annual review cycles where they look at new categories. We have a product that's working right now, and [that] people want and people love. So the question is, How do you get [the brand] to grow faster than normal food companies [operate]?" He adds, "It's a challenging industry to move super fast in, but I try to break the mold. We're working to make that happen."
Opportunities: The "wow!" factor that's been at play: "General excitement and enthusiasm for the product. Like the look on any person's face who's trying it for the first time, and has an actually new experience -- which is so infrequent anymore in food," notes Eberhardt. "Being able to build a business around that experience and getting the product to more people [are the main opportunities]."
Needs: Partnerships that will grow the brand: "I've learned the value of great partnerships, over the years. And even in just launching this business, we've had a great partnership with Whole Foods so far. So, finding great partners to help us achieve our vision of getting this product to our biggest fans is [our] number one priority. Because we can't do it all ourselves, and there's a lot of great companies out there that are super excited about this. So, choosing and finding the right partners to go to market with."