The return of Hop ‘n Gator

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BEFORE THIS WEEK, the last time I tasted Hop ‘n Gator, the fruit-flavored beer from the makers of Iron City, it was spewing the wrong way over my teeth. I know that doesn’t speak well of the malt beverage, so let’s just say that I was young and Pittsburgh Brewing was ahead of its time.

It was 1974.

I can’t remember all the details of that era. Miller Lite either tasted great or was less filling, but Nixon was definitely a crook.

And Hop ‘n Gator, well, that was a bizarre mixture of beer and citrus. It was America’s first malternative, a precursor to everything from Bacardi Silver to Zima.

The stuff was introduced in 1969. It was invented, according to a report in the New York Times, by Robert Cade, the University of Florida professor who brought us Gatorade. Supposedly he fermented his famous sports drink in his own lab and served it for happy hour.

In 1969, Cade licensed Hop ‘n Gator’s production to Pittsburgh Brewing. It was a good match: Pittsburgh Brewing was always known as an innovator. It produced the first snap-top can, the first canned draft beer and, of course, the first can with a photograph of a lovely model who could arc-weld (Old Frothingslosh).

But beer and Gatorade?

The sports drink was designed for Florida’s football squad, the Gators, to refresh sweating athletes and replace lost nutrients. Cade, a renown cocktail meister whom Sports Illustrated once dubbed “the absinthe-minded professor,” apparently felt there was a need to apply the same technology to inebriation.

Like I said, I don’t remember all the details. But I do recall that two cans of Hop ‘n Gator was all I could handle.

I probably wasn’t the only one. Pittsburgh stopped making the brew in 1976.

Thirty years after my last taste, a sixpack of Hop ‘n Gator arrived on my desk, courtesy of Pittsburgh Brewing veep Tony Ferraro. (It’s almost impossible to find in Philadelphia because the company doesn’t have a formal importing distributor these days.) His company reintroduced it this summer, with a nod toward nostalgia and hopes of grabbing a piece of the malternative market.

I confess, despite my last go-round, I actually sought it out. I was curious. Was it really as foul as I remember?

Ferraro said it was the same recipe as the original.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel by coming up with a new product,” Ferraro explained. “We still had the formula, we had all the approvals. We made an initial run of 10,000 barrels.”

I asked him how it’s selling so far.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “We’re not putting a lot of dollars behind it. It’s mostly word-of-mouth. We’ve got 12 interns helping us with it this summer.”

You mean, they’re drinking it?

Nah, he said, they’re running sampling sessions in the Alleghenys.

So, what’s Hop ‘n Gator taste like?

Ferraro described it as having “an interesting flavor.”

That was pretty much the response here in the newsroom, too. It’s crisp and yellowish and fizzy but lighter than Coors. The Movie Reviewer, who remembers the beer from all the roadside cans he saw growing up near Pittsburgh, described the flavor as a puckish mix of Sprite and Listerine.

The Muckraker, who will try anything once, remarked, “At first, it’s like tasting beer and soda at the same time. But that disappears quickly.”

And thankfully, I’d add.

Me?

Ferraro’s right. It’s the same taste as 1974.

One sip and I was back on the lawn, face down in the grass. Memories like that last forever.

 Calendar

TOMORROW: Great Eastern Invitational Microbrewer’s Festival at Stoudt Brewing (Route 272, Adamstown). Philly area’s longest-running beer fest (13 years) featuring, as always, German wurst, a jug band and suds from 50 area breweries. This event usually sells out, but often visitors scalp extras at the gate. Two sessions, at noon and 7 p.m., $25, 717-484-4386.

WEDNESDAY: Beer and cheese tasting at General Lafayette Brewery & Inn (6461 Germantown Ave., Lafayette Hill). Cheese from Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, England, Ireland and America paired with brewer/owner Chris Leonard’s excellent range of ales. Taps open 7 p.m., $45, 610-941-0600.

AUG. 13: Friday the Firkinteenth at the Grey Lodge Pub (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair). Last time, barman Scoats thoughtfully entertained a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd with video of a raging Olney gas explosion; this time, with 90 degree temps and 100 percent humidity, it’s the inside of his jam-packed tavern that will be on fire. No problem. Cool off with the bar’s traditional Friday the 13th selection of cask-conditioned “real” ale (cellar temperature, no artificial CO-2), including Brewers Art Saison, Sly Fox Pete’s Peerless Ale and Heavyweight Black Ocean.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of General Lafayette Weizen-heimer.

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