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Special Ingredient: CBD

Commercial brewers are in the earliest days of figuring out how to legally get CBD into beer (and keep it there). For homebrewers, it presents an open—if legally vague—field of play and experimentation.

Joe Stange Dec 29, 2020 - 6 min read

Special Ingredient: CBD Primary Image

Photo: Open Range Stock/Shutterstock.com

So, you thought that last IPA you made was dank. Want to get danker?

CBD—that is, cannabidiol, one of the active ingredients in cannabis—has proliferated across North America in the past couple of years. Its advertised benefits include relaxation without marijuana’s THC high, plus a litany of reputed health benefits that are generally either unproven or unprovable. Still, considering its growing popularity, it may seem surprising that we haven’t seen more brewers put the stuff into beer.

On a commercial level, there’s a good reason why not: It’s not technically legal—yet. The issue lies between the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Beer needs TTB approval,” says Levi Funk, the blender and entrepreneur behind Funk Factory Geuzeria and Untitled Art. Under the latter brand, Funk briefly released a CBD Pilsner in early 2019—a one-off release that won’t appear again until the legal situation is clarified. (In the meantime, Untitled Art has had success with a series of fruit-flavored CBD Sparkling Waters.)

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“TTB won’t grant any approval until the FDA finally makes a statement that CBD is safe for consumption,” Funk says. “So, even though CBD is legal, and the FDA isn’t telling people they can’t make it, the FDA also hasn’t technically said it is safe. It wouldn’t be an issue for beer, except the TTB won’t start granting approval until FDA makes the statement.”

So, while commercial brewers wait for red tape to be snipped, let us state the obvious: Homebrewers don’t need TTB approval. We also share this disclaimer: Certain CBD and hemp-based products may contain small amounts of THC; the legality of brewing with that at home is unclear, and it may depend on your state. Got it? (Now, please sign this release form before proceeding.)

Let’s also get this out of the way: The CBD products that don’t contain any THC—such as CBD tinctures or isolates—are not water soluble. That presents a puzzle for someone brewing a product that is typically 95 percent water.

“To make a beer or a sparkling water [with CBD oil], you have to know how to emulsify an oil into water,” Funk says. “This is something we have spent a lot of money and time developing and the reason we have a full-time chemist on staff. It isn’t simply emulsify and go.” Funk says that some techniques or agents end up with a bitter plastic flavor while others stick to the fermentor walls, drop out, and/or are not shelf-stable.

However, there are other options more practical to the homebrewer—if far less exact, and with totally unknown effectiveness—than hiring a full-time chemist.

As CBD has grown in popularity, so have various products associated or infused with it. These include hemp flowers and hemp teas (made from hemp buds, leaves, and/or seeds), which have varying amounts of CBD in them. Unlike tinctures and the like, hemp teas also have small amounts of THC in them. The solubility might be less of an issue here: Obviously, teas are meant to be infused in water.

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Two years ago, in central Berlin, the BRLO brewery requested and received an exemption from the Reinheitsgebot to produce a beer with hemp flowers. That beer, released on April 20, 2018 (yeah, 4/20), was called Legend Has It. This hop- and hemp-forward “CBD-infused” pilsner was a collaboration with Atlanta-based hip-hop group Run the Jewels.

The technique employed by BRLO brewer Michael Lembke and his team was simple: Make an infusion of organic CBD hemp tea, sourced from nearby Brandenburg, and add it to the secondary.

“Back then, it was really pre-pre-CBD hype in Germany,” says Katharina Kurz, BRLO cofounder and managing director. “The reason we didn’t use the tea before fermentation was to keep the hemp flavor. We also dry-hopped with Columbus to get that extra dankness.”

However, it’s still not clear how much CBD remains in suspension or winds up in packaged beer. “We weren’t able to determine the exact CBD level in the beer,” Kurz says. “I’m not sure how it is now in Germany, but back then it was still a grey zone to use pure CBD in food or beverages.”

For whatever it’s worth: I drank a tasty half-liter of Legend Has It at BRLO’s taproom in Berlin. Did I notice any special relaxation effects? No. I was already enjoying the widely accepted relaxation benefits of having had a few lagers. However, I distinctly remember its lovely, herbal-dank hop flavor. Now I know why: Check out the recipe—featuring a mix of fine German aroma hops in the whirlpool—at right.

Besides relaxation, there is another possible benefit to consider with hemp products: their aroma. CBD flowers retain plenty of aromatic terpenes—hops have some of them, too, and there is a reason why some IPAs wind up “dank.”

However, aroma is not the most obvious potential benefit. So, a reasonable question: If you brew this, and you drink this, will you actually feel the effects of the CBD?

Honest answer: We have no idea. As with other CBD products, the opinions of people who have had something like this vary quite a bit. Yes, CBD is supposed to be relaxing; it’s supposed to take the edge off.

You know what else does that? Beer.

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