On any given day, you can scroll through Instagram and find brewers adding all manner of odd, yet flavorful, ingredients to the mash. These processed foods, from marshmallows to Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereal to fried chicken to dozens of donuts, are gimmicky, yes, but also usually provide some flavor to the overall beer.
And just when you thought we might be nearing the end of this creative deluge, a brewer comes along and grabs our attention anew. In this case, it’s Imprint Beer Company, a still-small, relatively new operation northwest of Philadelphia, that has kicked the creative can a bit farther down the road.
Rather than add a special ingredient to a traditional mash, Ryan Diehl, the owner and brewer at Imprint decided to use “a yummy fruit-flavored drink” (as described by the manufacturer) known as Little Hug as the only source of brewing and sparge water.
You might remember Little Hug juice from your childhood (or your kid’s lunch box)—brightly colored sugar water packaged in 8-ounce barrel-shaped plastic bottles with a pullback foil lid. In certain parts of the country, it’s known as “quarter water” because that’s what it costs you at the local deli.
The inspiration for the Imprint beer came from the brother of one of Diehl’s business partners. After seeing a post about brewing with popsicles from Barrel Culture Brewing and Blending in Durham, North Carolina, the Imprint folks started thinking about what they could do in a similar vein. A call back to childhood brought them to the Little Hug idea, and a trip to a nearby Walmart secured half of what they would need to complete the beer.
Imprint opened its doors in January 2018, brewing on a 1-barrel system. Beer releases at the brewery were often limited to one crowler per person, and the batches were what you’d expect from a brewery cut from today’s cloth: New England–style IPAs, kettle sours, and pastry stouts. Over the past few months, as they began the construction and transition to a 7-barrel system, ten cases of Little Hug Fruit Barrels Blue Raspberry sat on shelves waiting to be used.
Diehl figured he’d need about fifty gallons of the bright, light blue liquid (each container contains no fruit juice and 1 gram of sugar, per the manufacturer), and the problem was that he bought out all of the local Walmart’s stock. Each week he’d go back to the store and search for more, and each week he’d leave sugar-water-less.
As the new system was getting ready to come online, the plan was for Imprint to decommission its 1-barrel system and sell it to another brewery. The plan and hope for an all-Little-Hug-brewing-water beer was fading fast.
However, Ninkasi (goddess of beer, not the Eugene, Oregon-based brewery) answered a prayer, and on a recent trip to the store, Diehl found a fresh shipment of the antifreeze-colored beverage. He snatched up the entire batch and headed to the brewhouse.
In all, he used about 800 of the little bottles to create the ale. The drink was designed to be the star of the recipe, so he used a light touch on all the other ingredients: 2-row, a little oat and wheat, 4 ounces of Saaz (“you’ll never taste it,” he says) and fermented it with Chico yeast.
“We had gloves and knives and were slashing the tops and squeezing them two at a time into the kettle,” says Diehl. “It was an interesting day, and we filled a couple of garbage bins. This beer isn’t environmentally friendly.”
The brewhouse smelled like Lucky Charms cereal while brewing, and the resulting mash was gooey and had turned slightly green in the process. Diehl called a local farmer who collects the spent grains for feed and warned him that this particular batch might not be to the barnyard residents’ liking.
“He said the animals loved it,” Diehl says.
Fermenting the beer was a bit of a challenge. Fermentation wasn’t robust but a slow, steady one that seemed to keep stalling, something Diehl chalks up to the sodium benzoate in the liquid. But, eventually the beer was ready for release.
The brewery calls the ale Little Hugs, emphasis on the plural. It’s a 3.4 percent ABV green-tinted beer that is slightly sour, Diehl says, thanks to the sucralose sugar substitute.
Because of the light touch on the other ingredients, the blue raspberry sugar water is the star of the pint, which is “obnoxiously sweet” but “still drinks pretty well on its own.” The brewery served it on its own and also mixed with lemonade to make a shandy.
As of this writing, 115 people on Untappd have given the beer a solid 4 rating.
Diehl is honest when he acknowledges the “ridiculousness of making these crazy beers, but with 6,000 breweries, it can be tough to stand out, and at some point every brewery needs to differentiate itself. This beer was that for us.”
Diehl is already brewing on the 7-barrel system and has been fielding the obvious question of whether he will make Little Hugs again. To that, he answers that the brewery plans to wait at least a year before making any beer a second time. But, obviously, he says, they’d need to find a way to source larger quantities of the liquid.
Tickled by all the attention this beer has received, Diehl says that he is ready to get back to brewing more traditional styles. In fact, he was “just about to mash in [their] first Pilsner” when last I talked to him.
This article first appeared on Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine’s website.