Why brew a beer infused with cannabis? There are plenty of reasons you might want to do it—novelty, an aversion to other consumption methods of cannabis (for nonsmokers), self-medication, or the challenge of trying something new and pushing boundaries in the use of a less-understood brewing ingredient. No matter what your reason, the wave of legalization and decriminalization of cannabis for both medical and recreational use in the United States, Canada, and more has led to a rise in interest in brewing with the close cousin of hops.
First question—what style to brew? Most cannabis strains have a pungent aroma and need a beer with various strong components—body, aroma, alcohol—that allow you as the brewer to balance those flavor and aroma contributions. As such, a New England–style Double IPA recipe is a great match with the use of marijuana in the dry-hopping process.
Use one of your favorite double IPA recipes. Cannabis is alcohol soluble at an ABV of 8 percent or higher, so stick with the double IPA over a lighter single IPA—the higher the alcohol content, the better the THC extraction, and with high-quality recreational marijuana from a legal dispensary running roughly fifteen times more expensive than an equivalent amount of hops from a homebrew store, extraction efficiency is definitely an important concern.
Additionally, the higher finishing gravity of a double IPA will let you counteract some of the herbal bitterness that cannabis can add, and balancing with fruit-forward hops will aid general drinkability.
Choosing Strains of Cannabis
Both hops and cannabis have terpenes that will lend aromatics such as floral, citrus, piney, and fruity. Dry hopping with cannabis tends to impart a much grassier flavor than most hops do, so steer clear of using hops that might amplify that grassiness.
Cannabis strains with more of the happy, uplifting, and euphoric psychoactive effects are typically better in beer than those with calming, mellowing effects, and both Indica and Sativa strains can have those characteristics. There are many sources out there that will guide you in finding a cannabis strain for you (a good source is leafly.com).
Strains that I have had good results with include
- Lemon Cake (Sativa)
- Northern Lights (Indica)
- Granddaddy Purple (Indica)
- Sour Kush (Hybrid)
- Bruce Banner #3 (Hybrid)
As with hops, it’s all about experimenting and seeing what works for the experience you’re trying to achieve.
Decarboxylation is the process of heating or aging cannabis to activate THC, the component of cannabis that produces a “high.” Without this process, the cannabis won’t have any psychoactive property, thus you will get only flavor from its use. Heating is a more effective way than aging, so we’ll focus on that.
Wash your buds to help get rid of any bacteria or anything that may contaminate your beer—some research suggests that cannabis contains similar antibacterial components as hops do, but until more science confirms that, better safe than sorry. You will need filtered, distilled, or reverse-osmosis (RO) water and a French press or something similar. Don’t worry—washing your weed with water won’t ruin it. After all, you’ll be putting it in beer.
Put your buds into the French press and cover them with distilled water for 2–3 days, changing the water once a day until the water runs clear. Then you need to blanch the buds in boiling water. Put them in a hop bag (or cheesecloth, a tea strainer, or something similar) and put the hop bag in boiling water for 1–2 minutes. Then put the hop bag into an ice bath for 1 minute or so.
Break up your buds into small bits and spread them evenly on an oven-safe tray or pan with parchment paper. You will lose weight after the decarboxylation process, so if you start with 8 grams (0.28 oz), you may end up with 4 grams (0.14 oz) that you will use for dry hopping.
Heat in an oven (or a decarboxylation machine) at varying temperatures and times, depending on the strength of THC you want. Use temperature ranges from 200–300°F (93–149°C) for 45–90 minutes. At lower temperatures, you may get less of a percentage of THC extracted, but you will not damage the terpenes. The rule here is the higher the temperature and shorter the time, the more grassy flavors you’ll get, but you’ll also get a higher percentage of THC.
If you use a lower temperature for a longer time, you will get fewer off-flavors (and save more terpenes) and have a lower percentage of THC. The sweet spot that works best for me is 225°F (107°C) for 55 minutes.
Selecting hops to use will be very similar to selecting hops for a normal beer recipe, with the exception that you want to stay away from catty, dank, and grassy types (e.g., Simcoe, CTZ, Crystal, Fuggle) because you want hops that will balance and blend well with those characteristics, not enhance them. Fruity, bright, melon hops work well for the dry hop and Citra is a great go-to for a blend. Others that tend to complement the flavors of cannabis are Lemondrop, Motueka, Ekuanot, and Amarillo.
I have used anywhere from 8–30 grams (0.28–1.1 oz) of cannabis in a 5-gallon (19 l) batch, with varying ABVs: 25–30 grams (0.88–1.1 oz) blended with 28 grams (1 oz) of hops works well—so, about a 1:1 ratio of cannabis to hops. These amounts let you drink a few beers and not get stuck on the couch or reaching for the snacks right away. You can also add a cannabis tincture to enhance the THC levels if you’re looking for a more intense experience.
Using two separate dry-hop days will mellow the grassy/weed flavors. For the first dry hop, just use hops. For the second dry hop, use a blend of 1:1 cannabis and hops. Use typical NEIPA dry-hop schedules—a first dry hop during active fermentation and the second dry hop 3–4 days prior to packaging. Fours days is about the perfect contact time to allow sufficient extraction from the cannabis.
Follow standard packaging practices with kegging or bottling. NEIPA is known for not maintaining freshness for long in a bottle, as it oxidizes and loses color, aroma, and flavors quickly. But the cannabis beer tends to maintain freshness longer (from many months up to a year) and the hops/cannabis flavors stay vibrant for much longer even in the bottle. Use good packaging practices and minimize oxygen in your process to get the best results.
Because brewing beer with alcohol and THC is not commercially legal anywhere in the United States (the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau prevents formulations of alcohol products with federally-illegal substances such as marijuana), not much has been done on a commercial level to explore extraction techniques in beer.
It’s homebrew-only currently, and there is so much more exploration to be done with this subject. The methods outlined here are ones I’ve developed through rough trial and error over time and that have achieved some effective results, but without a doubt new techniques and information will evolve over the next decade as more homebrewers take the leap and explore their own methods for brewing with cannabis.