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To Make Dank Beer, Brewers Forced to Get Creative

Published on May 30, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
friends drinking beer at the oktoberfest

Of all the nontraditional ingredients America’s craft brewers have imbued into beer—from squid ink to pizza dough to goat brains—the one with the closest natural harmony to hops teases brewmasters and riles federal regulators the most.

That oddball ingredient is Cannabis sativa, the scientific name for two controversial plants—marijuana and hemp, hops’ closest botanical cousins.

Most parts of Cannabis sativa plants are illegal to brew with, but select elements of marijuana and hemp are allowed, including terpenes, essential oils brewers have begun using to engineer cannabis aromas, flavors, and effects in craft beer, which, thanks to heaps of herbaceous hops, bursts with complementary floral, citrus, pine and earth notes that enhance beverages and influence drinkers’ noses, palates, and bodies.

But brewers can no longer use one of Cannabis sativa’s most popular compounds— cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid known to have many healthful benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and pain-relieving properties. A federal appeals court ruled last month that cannabidiol extracted from hemp is, like any cannabinoid extracted from marijuana, a Schedule I drug the Drug Enforcement Administration says has no medicinal benefit and high potential for abuse.

“When we first brewed Toke Back Mountain IPA, the illegality of CBD wasn’t quite clear.”

The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has authority over all brewed and distilled beverages in the US, sent letters to craft brewers this month advising them that CBD, like other nontraditional ingredients, cannot be used in beer without TTB approval.

The agency followed up its cautionary correspondence with an update on its website clarifying that it defers to the DEA on drug matters and, therefore, CBD will not be approved for inclusion in any commercial beer, even if that beer is brewed and distributed only in states where cannabis is legal medicinally or recreationally.

“We’re less than thrilled,” said Jim Furman, CEO of Black Hammer Brewing, a San Francisco microbrewery that received a cease-and-desist letter last week for Toke Back Mountain IPA and other beers containing CBD. “We weren’t aware that we had to seek approval.”

Furman said Black Hammer will quit brewing Toke Back Mountain, Blucid Dream, and Hippie Hill and will seek TTB approval for tweaked recipes that contain heady amounts of terpenes.

“CBD was a niche that was presented to us with cannabis being legal in San Francisco,” Furman said. “It seemed like a natural match for beer. A year ago, when we first brewed Toke Back Mountain IPA, the illegality of CBD wasn’t quite clear, given you could buy it on Amazon.”

To date, only one brewery, Dads & Dudes of Denver, had received TTB approval for CBD—and that permission was quickly rescinded after a yearlong approval process. Dads & Dudes’ CBD beer, in fact, was at the center of the lawsuit the 9th Circuit just decided.

“Any time we become aware of an industry member doing something they’re not supposed to be doing, like producing a product that requires formula approval without our approval, yeah, we do typically reach out and let them know what they need to stop doing and what they need to start doing,” TTB spokesman Thomas Hogue told Leafly.

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While many craft brewers believe hemp will be fully legalized this year by a farm bill recently introduced in the United States Senate, cannabis-inclined brewers still have a few legal ingredients they can use to create many aromas, flavors, and sensations of hemp and cannabis that complement and enhance identical qualities in hops, the dominant ingredient in many of today’s popular craft beer styles and itself containing humulene, the woody terpene known to possess appetite-suppressant and anti-inflammatory properties.

In addition to non-intoxiating terpenes—either extracted from marijuana, hemp, or natural food sources containing identical compounds—allowable ingredients include sterilized hemp seeds, hempseed oil, and mature hemp stalks. Brewers in the United States and Canada say beers brewed with these nontraditional ingredients toast the gustatory and sensory similarities between beer and cannabis, a combination they call a logical mashup of botanical kin, not a novelty product riding the coattails of legalization.

“Because of the way chemistry works, the terpenes are virtually indistinguishable,” Furman said. “Many plants produce all these different terpenes. That’s why a lot of hops smell like pot.”

GRAS in a Glass

One beer that reeks of cannabis is New Belgium Brewing Co.’s The Hemperor, a hopped-up IPA brewed with toasted hemp seeds and fortified with terpenes whose chemical fingerprints were mapped from outlawed hemp flowers. The terpene profile was matched to that of hemp using gas chromatography technology, but the terpenes themselves but were extracted from the essential oils of orange peel, coriander, pine sap, and other so-called GRAS ingredients—plants, fruits, and seeds the Food and Drug Administration classifies as “generally regarded as safe.”

“We applied some sophisticated techniques to get to that flavor, but our end goal is to use flower.”

Hemp seeds impart high herbal notes. GRAS terpenes add pungent whiffs and an earthy pucker. Taste for yourself; The Hemperor is on sale in six-packs and on tap in 49 of 50 states, excluding Kansas, which bans all hemp products.

“We’re certainly targeting people who are cannabis curious,” said Ross Koenigs, New Belgium’s director of research and development. “We’re certainly speaking to IPA drinkers. We’re trying to bridge the gap for cannabis users who don’t drink enough craft beer.”

The Fort Collins, CO, brewery is also trying to slingshot around the sun, using legal stand-ins until hemp flowers are removed from Schedule I.

“Flower is what we really want to brew with,” Koenig said. “We started doing this in 2015. We applied some sophisticated techniques to get to that flavor, but our end goal is to use flower.”

The Hemperor had no trouble getting TTB approval for hemp seeds and terpenes. Hemp flowers, however, proved impossible.

“We went to TTB saying we would like to brew with hemp flowers,” Koenig said. “We provided analytical proof we were not transferring any cannabinoids. TTB said, ‘Nope. Hemp flower is Schedule I.’”

Part of The Hemperor’s marketing is New Belgium’s push for full hemp legalization. A partnership with the advocacy group Hemp 4 Victory earmarks $1 for legalization efforts from every barrel, or 31 gallons, sold.

“We’re trying to move the ball forward on the federal level and deschedule hemp so that we can get back to breeding hemp bud and brewing that in beer,” Koenig said. “We purchase, process, and consume agriculture commodities in the form of barley and hops, and we want to treat hemp just like a standardized brewing ingredient. That’s the end goal for us.”

Increased Opportunities

Elan Walsky of Coalition Brewing in Portland, OR, said last week that his microbrewery had not been contacted by the TTB but that he will stop infusing Two Feathers IPA and Herbs of a Feather sour ale with CBD while he seeks approval for adding terpenes to those beers and to two new brews: Pineapple Upside Down, infused with terpenes found Pineapple Express cannabis, and Hazy IPA, infused with terpenes found in the Tangie cannabis strain.

“We believe it’s a natural fit of synergies between hops and cannabis,” Walsky said. “You hear people all the time talking about how cannabis is going to cut into craft beer sales. We just disagree. We see it as a huge opportunity.”

Wayne Green of San Diego recognized the huge opportunity for his terpene isolates among his native city’s 100-plus microbreweries. Green’s company, Trinity Terpenes, began formulating cannabis-derived terpenes for vape oil manufacturers in 2016 and started selling non-cannabis-derived terpenes to craft brewers this past winter. Green told Leafly he’s developing strain-specific cannabis terpene profiles for a well-known San Diego brewer he can’t yet identify because the terpenes have not been approved by the TTB.

Green said his first experience drinking cannabis terpenes came in an alcoholic cocktail containing non-psychoactive oils isolated from the Jack Herer cannabis strain. He said he felt calm yet uplifted, leading him to realize strain-specific formulations chemically mirroring the composition of cannabis terpenes but containing no intoxicating effects can induce mental and physical wellbeing, just like consuming terpenes in foods—say, relaxing myrcene from mangoes and basil or mood-elevating limonene from rosemary and fruit rinds—can have physiological and psychological benefits.

“Hoppy beers have always been about effects and flavors,” Green said. “IPAs and double IPAs came to popularity because of the effects that hops’ essential oils bring to beers, which is very similar to what happens when you add the essential oils of cannabis. It’s modulating brain chemistry.”

Infographic: How Do Cannabis Terpenes Affect the Body?

Green said he makes two kinds of terpene formulations—essential oils extracted from cannabis flowers and essential oils extracted from other natural sources. The difference, he said, is price: Terpenes extracted from cannabis can cost hundreds of dollars per milliliter. Terpenes extracted from other sources are about a tenth of the cost.

“Concentrated versions of the true and essential oils of cannabis are like the Teslas of terpenes,” Green said. “Essential oils are usually only about 2% of the biomass.”

Cannabis Sensations

An upcoming line of beer from the brewer that created mega-selling microbrew Blue Moon Belgian-style ale in the 1990s may be the headiest of all, explicitly focusing on the effects of cannabis delivered in beverages containing 2.5 milligrams to 10 mg of psychoactive THC and only a trace amount, 0.5%, of alcohol. The low alcohol content qualifies it as a non-alcoholic beer, free from federal oversight and permitted in medicinal and recreational cannabis states.

“We can deliver certain sensations from THC,” said Keith Villa, the founder of Ceria Beverages in Boulder, CO, who sold Blue Moon to brewing behemoth Coors. “One beer might deliver a very blissful happy sensation. Another beer might deliver a very chilled relaxing sensation. Another might deliver a very creative buzz.”

Ceria Beverages, slated for release later this year in Colorado and in California and Nevada in 2019, is developing marketing schemes using color-coded cannabis leaves to indicate particular new cannabis beers are as potent as traditional light, medium, and dark beers, whose effects are well known. It’s intended as a helpful guide for consumers who know little about cannabis.

Villa sees Ceria brews as session beers for social situations—low- to moderate-potency beverages adults consume when gathering with family and friends in public or private.

“For those folks who just want to relax with their friends after a hard week of work, they can drink a 2.5-mg beer or share half a bottle of a 10-mg beer,” Villa said. “They’ll have a very social experience and drink a product that helps them relax in 10 minutes.”

Villa said he chose to emphasise cannabis effects rather than cannabis flavors and aromas.

“We want to give our customers the experience of cannabis but we think that the flavor and smell of cannabis is really polarizing,” Villa said. “Some people really love herbal notes and sweet aromas. Other people want the effects but hate the smell and taste of dead skunk or burning rubber.”

In addition to being less odiferous than smoked cannabis, Ceria brews will be faster-acting than edibles, featuring onset times similar to alcohol onset times.

“Mainstream, mass-market consumers really don’t want to smoke cannabis,” said Jon Cooper, president of Ebbu, a Denver cannabis infusion and terpene formulation company that partnered with Ceria Beverages. “Cannabis beverages that are fast-acting and have the same bio-response as beer, that’s something people can understand and control and want to try. And if you combine that with precise formulations so people know exactly what they’re getting every time, that’s the magical combination.”

Authenticity Appeal

A Canadian startup hopes its imperial pilsner will rival other cannabis beers in consistency and dose response and believes it can beat all competitors in authenticity, being the only beer in the world brewed from cannabis in place of grains.

“The one thing that cannabis consumers and craft beer consumers have in common is an appreciation of authenticity,” said Dooma Wendschuh, CEO of Toronto’s Province Brands. “To us, nothing can be more authentic than beer brewed from cannabis as opposed to what others are looking to do in the space, which is to brew beer from barley and infuse it with marijuana oil. Anyone can do that, right?”

Province’s beer will contain 6.5 mg of THC per 12-ounce bottle and will be non-alcoholic—a feature Wendschuh attributes to his company winning an Ontario college’s government-funded $300,000 grant to develop unique beer using cannabis stalks, roots, and leaves.

“We feel that there is a public health crisis in Canada and the world, and that crisis is caused by a sleeping giant that everybody knows is there but is afraid to poke and wake up, which is the alcohol industry,” Wendschuh said. “We’re creating something that can give you the same sensations of alcohol but which doesn’t come with any types of cancer, liver disease, heart failure, depression, dementia—all the many harms that alcohol brings.”

Wendschuh concedes that without barley, he won’t be able to legally call his beverage beer under Canada’s upcoming beer-designation law changes. But he welcomes the challenge of brewing with a non-traditional ingredient.

“It was a natural choice to make a marijuana beer because of the way hops complement cannabis,” Wendschuh said. “On the other hand, we thought barley would work against the flavor of the cannabis. What the barley really contributes to beer is the sweetness. We feel we obviously don’t need that sweetness. Our beers are sugar free, lower carbs, and lower calories.”

While cannabis-infused beverages will be brand-new products to Canadian consumers when they are legalized in 2019, Wendschuh believes Canada’s longtime beer culture gives cannabis beer an edge over cannabis edibles, sublinguals and tinctures.

“The first Fortune 500 company to invest in cannabis wasn’t a pharmaceutical or tobacco company,” Wendschuh said. “It was an alcohol company—Constellation Brands, the company known for Corona Beer. The moment that happened, we all realized that beer and beverages will win the marijuana format war.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Ebbu President Jon Cooper. His surname is Cooper, not Carroll.

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Ed Murrieta
Ed Murrieta
Ed Murrieta is a veteran lifestyle journalist and multimedia producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Cannabist,, Leafly, and broadcast on the syndicated public radio show The Splendid Table.
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