When National Marijuana Day was conceived nearly 50 years ago the conversation around the controlled substance was much different than the one happening in homes, schools, police stations, and the courts today. With many states legalizing marijuana, others on the verge, and still general uncertainty on the Federal level, when people gathered around the country this afternoon at 4:20 p.m. to mark the occasion there's a good bet some will also crack open a beer.
Beer and marijuana have long been linked thanks to hops being part of the cannabis family (although you can't use hops in the same way, so don't even try). There are brewers that have used sly (or not) references to pot on labels, marketing, and beer names. Others have used hop and other herb combinations to give aromas of marijuana, if not the effects, in their recipes. Homebrewers have gone the step further and actually used THC, the principal psychoactive component of cannabis.
On the professional side there are brewers who hope to do the same one day, and while many are hoping and pushing for a matter of when, not if, they aren't just sitting on the sidelines. In recent months there have been a rash of beers that are best described as a lead up to the day when the two products can be fused together for commercial purposes.
Perhaps the one that's made the biggest splash is The Hemperor a "Hemp Pale Ale" from New Belgium Brewing Co. The 7% ale was released last month as a year-round and national offering from the brewery.
"This ale is brewed with hemp hearts (the meat of the seed, minus the shell) and dry-hopped with Simcoe and experimental HBC 522 hops to create a dank, pungent hop aroma balanced by a sweet,mildly bitter finish," the brewery said in a press release. "Federal law prohibits brewers from using hemp leaf and flower, so New Belgium brewers found a creative solution using other natural plant materials that perfectly emulate those hemp terpenes. The Hemperor HPA contains no THC or CBD."
A good number of people with stoner friends likely had the one in the group who, in winter, would put on a big down coat and hot box inside of it (or maybe that was just me?). This beer, upon opening smells like that coat at the end of the season. It's heavy on the hemp, like a big 'ol bag of weed. But that aroma fades fast and what's left behind is a citrus and tropical IPA that might be a bit sticky for some and finishes with a slightly bitter vegetal note.
A dollar from every barrel sold will go towards Hemp 4 Victory, an advocacy group that is promoting hemp.
"This beer has been over two years in the making, most of the time spent learning and reacting to laws that really suppress this crop's usage," says Ross Koenigs, New Belgium's Research and Development Brewer. "The Hemperor HPA is possibly the first beer to deliver meaningful hemp flavors and aromas."
Taking it a step forward Long Trail Brewery in Vermont collaborated with nearby Luce Farm to produce a pale ale finished with extracted terpenes and CBD, the compound that is extolled for health benefits, in beers. The beer itself is bursting with tropical fruit juice aromas and flavors and, at least with the sample provided to Craft Beer and Brewing, offers little in the way of traditional pot aroma or flavors, aside from a little stickiness on the finish.
When you want aroma, however, look for the limited (and likely sold out) release from Lagunitas Brewing Co. which has worked with local cannabis growers to infuse or vape terpines, the fragrant oils found in marijuana into beers. They called it SuperCritical, and reviews of the beer were largely positive. The sample Craft Beer & Brewing tried was dank with strong cannabis aromatics, yet sharply bitter in true West Coast IPA fashion.
There are others working with THC, minus the beer, to produce beverages for the public. Keith Villa, the long-time brewer and steward of Blue Moon, recently left MillerCoors and with his wife, Jodi, started Ceria Beverages, which will make a line of non-alcoholic beers that will be infused with THC and then made available at dispensaries in states where marijuana is legal. The company hopes to have products in stores by the end of this year.
Not surprisingly the breweries leading the charge come from states where the substance is legal, or at least accepted. Still, that hasn't stopped brewers in other states giving at least a wink-nod to the substance, laying the ground work for an eventual day when they too can fuse the two products together.