Bartles & Jaymes and Zima seem to get all the credit for introducing “coolers” to the world, but there was an earlier player in the game: Hop’n Gator, an electrolyte-enriched alcopop launched by Gatorade in 1969. The drink debuted with grandiose advertisements touting its profound thirst-quenching potential.
“Kicks up taste buds you never knew you had. Quenches like liquid lightning. Nose to toes. Right down to your nerve endings,” one vintage ad read.
Originally billed as a “Lemon-Lime Lager,” Hop’n Gator was a pioneering product — a flavored malt beverage before the category had a name. Albeit, the early ‘70’s saw the launch of National Brewing’s Malt Duck (beer and Concord grape juice), Lone Star Brewing Company’s Lime Lager, and Hamm Brewing’s Right Time, all of which fell into the general category of flavored malt beverages, but just didn’t market themselves as such. What separated Hop’n Gator from other alcopops, coolers, and would-be malt beverages of the time, however, was its supposed combination of a quasi-energy drink and alcohol.
From the sound of it, Hop’n Gator was everything a drink could hope to be. So why didn’t it take off? Was the world simply not ready for it? Was it mismanaged? Or were those “taste buds we never knew we had” ones we didn’t want to discover in the first place?
The Electrolyte to Malt Pipeline
The original Gatorade formula was patented only a few years before Hop’n Gator launched. It all started in 1965, when Dewayne Douglas, assistant coach of the Florida Gators football team, was searching for a way to combat the high Florida heat and the effects it was having on his players’ performance. After recruiting Dr. Robert Cade to help out, Cade and a team of research doctors went to work on a new, electrolyte-enriched beverage. Roughly a year, and many experiments, later, Cade settled on a formula and patented it, and began producing and selling Gatorade.
On top of being a renowned scientist, Cade was a known mixology enthusiast among his peers. A Sports Illustrated article from 2001 even refers to him as the “absinthe-minded professor,” going on to mention how Cade would mix up “Daiquiris, Mint Juleps, and Whiskey Sours” for all those in attendance at his Friday afternoon symposiums. Rumor has it that Cade first produced Hop’n Gator by fermenting Gatorade in his lab, but the theory doesn’t totally add up if the eventual Hop’n Gator had beer in it.
Regardless, Cade sold the Hop’n Gator recipe to Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Brewing Company (formerly Iron City Brewing Company) in 1969. Being the first brewery to put both draft beer into cans and “snap-tops” on cans, Pittsburgh Brewing Company had a reputation for running with innovative ideas, so its purchase of the Hop’n Gator recipe was far from out of character. Unfortunately, mere months after the first commercial batch of Hop’n Gator hit the market, Gatorade — the brand — sued the brewery.
As it turns out, Cade was already wrapped up in a lawsuit over the Gatorade formula in the midst of the Hop’n Gator recipe sale. When Gatorade sales took off, the Florida Board of Regents — on behalf of the University of Florida, which provided the grant for Cade’s research — took him to court for a share of his profits, arguing that the university’s contributions were crucial in Gatorade’s creation. The dispute lasted for nearly three years, ending in 1972 with the university obtaining 20 percent of the stock in Cade’s company.
It’s not totally clear who at Gatorade HQ initiated legal action against Pittsburgh Brewing Company, but the case was settled in early 1970. The brewery carried on pumping out the new electrolyte-packed alcopop, but the road ahead only got rockier.
The Gator Bites Its Own Tail
A big struggle for Hop’n Gator was its branding. While the can art was clean, simple, and admittedly pretty cool, the “Lemon-Lime Lager” tag was blamed for slow sales. Plus, it was initially advertised as having “25 percent more alcohol than regular beer,” which sounds good on paper, but in reality that’s only a difference of 1 to 2 percent ABV.
So the brewery ditched the whole notion that Hop’n was a beer, and rebranded it as a “Tropical-Flavored Malt Liquor.” Sales immediately rebounded, particularly in Black communities in Georgia, South Carolina, and Detroit.
As the drink caught momentum among African Americans, Pittsburgh locals began to take notice of the fact that the Pittsburgh Brewing Company didn’t have a single Black employee on staff. Suspicions of racism swelled, and soon the NAACP stepped in, accusing the brewery of pitching to Black people, but not hiring them. In 1971, a Hop’n Gator boycott ensued, and NAACP flyers were posted in taverns all over Pittsburgh, urging customers not to drink the malt beverage.
The boycott was short-lived, ending in early 1972 after the brewery vowed to rectify its biases. Nonetheless, Hop’n Gator’s reputation was heavily tarnished, and any momentum the beverage had started to run out.
Flavored Beer, Malt Beverage, or Neither?
There’s limited info available as to what exactly was in Hop’n Gator, but most sources seem to suggest that it was just beer and actual Lemon-Lime Gatorade mixed together — something akin to a Shandy or a Radler.
If that’s not the case, though, could it have actually been fermented Gatorade? A lager with electrolytes? Gatorade and grain alcohol? Or just a good old flavored malt beverage? In a sense, it was like an early, PG-13 version of Four Loko or a Redbull Vodka, but Hop’n Gator ads called it “a bold new drink thing,” so even though someone knew what was going in those cans, they weren’t necessarily sure what to call it.
Whatever the recipe was, it wasn’t enough to keep Hop’n Gator alive. The “lemon-lime lager” turned “tropical-flavored malt beverage” was discontinued in 1975. Since then, Pittsburgh Brewing brewed a one-off 10,000-barrel nostalgia batch in 2004, but that’s where the story ends for now.
One would think that an alcoholic beverage made by a brand as famous as Gatorade would have made it into the “cooler” cannon, but ,alas, this aluminum-clad memory seems to have vanished with little trace. But if Sunny D can come out with a vodka seltzer in this day and age, there’s still hope for Gatorade.
*Image retrieved from Mdv Edwards – stock.adobe.com