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Hemp, CBD & Craft Beer: The New Green Wave

Two Flowers Series Label Coalition Brewing CBD IPA

To be completely honest, I’m not a regular consumer of marijuana.

Of course it’s legal in the state of Oregon and as a creative type, I’ve spent the majority of my free time with regular smokers since my college days in the early 2000’s. So, as an avid craft beer drinker, constantly threatened by the fear of a brutal cross fade, I generally decline and enjoy the subtle feel of the second-hand high.

As a latent participant in America’s newest craze, the now quick availability of more hemp or non-THC products than ever, I’m curiously watching as the Cannabis industry sets up shop

What has begun to cross pollinate lately, is the fusion of cannabinoids (CBD) and craft beer. This phenomenon has slowly begun to creep into grocery stores and our local breweries, though what’s actually in the beer is certainly cause for closer examination.

Foundations

I suppose the first thing to keep in mind here is that we’re talking about CBD, the naturally occurring compound in Cannabis Sativa plants. It’s certainly legal in the states where marijuana has been approved for recreational consumption, though federally legal CBD terpenes must be sourced from the much lower THC content of industrial hemp.

The high-THC flowers of cannabis or marijuana, cannot be sourced for CBD oils, seeds or terpenes for beer. To make sure, the beer industry is federally overseen by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) which dictates TTB guidelines.

Where weed is legal, in 9 states and Washington D.C., the cannabis industry is exploding. It’s also the case that many of the states where weed is legal, are the same states where craft beer first took root. Thus, the vast majority of Beer and CBD R&D has primarily taken place in Colorado, Oregon, California, and Vermont.

The first TTB approved CBD beer was created by Aurora, Colorado’s Dudes Brew in September of 2016, called George Washington’s Secret Stash (heh…). Yet the TTB reviews every CBD infused recipe, adhering to the DEA’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act to ensure it’s legal. Unfortunately, the TTB felt the need to rescind that initial approval, so they stopped brewing this beer in December of 2017. Yet it’s clearly back in production, as untappd check-in’s show, since February.

Humboldt Brewing Hemp Ale

Yet long before CBD became a thing, a number of beers have been brewed with hemp, including the Hemp Ale from Humboldt Brewing which features toasted hemp seeds. Did federal regulators overlook this one or how is this whole CBD thing defined?

Legality of CBD

Following a lawsuit by the Hemp Industry Association vs. the Drug Enforcement Agency, successfully overturning the assignment of CBD ingredients as a Schedule I substance (like marijuana) in May, the TTB released this update to their “hemp in alcohol” policy.

On the one hand, the TTB begins the definition of their policy as such:

TTB will not approve any formulas or labels for alcohol beverage products that contain a controlled substance under Federal law, including marijuana. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. § 802(16), defines marijuana as all parts of the Cannabis sativa L. plant (and its derivatives) with certain specific exclusions. Substances (such as tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), cannabidiols (CBD), or terpenes) that are derived from any part of the cannabis plant that is not excluded from the CSA definition of marijuana are controlled substances, regardless of whether such substances are lawful under State law.

On the other hand, they go on to state the following, two sentences later:

The parts of the cannabis plant that are excluded from the definition of marijuana in the CSA (referred to here as “hemp” ingredients) include hemp seed oil, sterilized hemp seeds, and non-resinous, mature hemp stalks.

And further clarification later:

For alcohol beverage products containing a hemp ingredient, the product label must accurately and specifically identify the ingredient in a manner that makes it clear that the ingredient is not a controlled substance (e.g., “hemp seed oil” rather than “hemp oil”).

So the TTB/DEA appear to have clarified that it’s the source that matters. If it’s CBD sourced from hemp, there’s only 0.03% THC present (you can’t get “high”). But to be even clearer, federally regulated alcohol cannot contain cannabis (THC rich) ingredients. There are many more state specific regulations on this, which I won’t go into here.

It’s a very uncertain and confusing mess which the federal government feels obliged to mire themselves in these days. The only thing that seems clear to me is that these recipes are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

CBD Beers Available Now

Coalition Brewing Two Flowers CBD IPA
Coalition’s Two Flowers IPA

My primary exposure to CBD beers has been the multiple releases of Coalition’s Two Flowers series. First released in late 2016, and still flowing on taps throughout Portland, it’s the first commercially available CBD infused beer in Oregon. The bulk of their production has been the very popular IPA version, but they’ve also released a Fresh Hop IPA and a Gose.

Their description of the series, as defined by co-founder Elan Walsky, is a great definition of the Hemp IPA sub-genre:

There is a natural synergy between hemp and hops, and between the craft beer and cannabis industries. Biologically speaking, hops and hemp are very closely related. Taxonomically, they are both in species Cannabecae, with separate genus Humulus (hops), and Cannabis (hemp). They share many genetic similarities, which in practical terms mean that both plants produce many of the same terpenes, or flavor and aromatic compounds. A common tasting note for IPAs is to describe them as smelling and tasting like cannabis, which is no surprise given their shared terpene profiles. In addition, alpha-acid, the bittering component of hops, is actually a cannabinoid…though it is not psychoactive, it is closely similar in structure to both CBD and THC, all of which are derived from a precursor molecule called isoprene.

It’s clear that Coalition is on a mission to educate the public about the overall benefits of CBD as well, featuring a number of links on their site. So if you live in or are visiting Portland, be sure to check out their 6% ABV, 55 IBU creation. It’s my favorite CBD infused beer thus far.

Coalition’s next terpene infused release, part of their “Ensemble” series, includes an American Wheat Ale with Pineapple and Pineapple Express terpenes (this beer, unlike Two Flowers is flavored with distilled terpenes that aren’t from hemp). Even cooler, this “Pineapple Upside Down” will be on tap this evening during a tap takeover at EastBurn. They’re also creating a Hazy IPA with terpenes as well.

New Belgium The Hemperor HPA CBD Craft Beer

The most commercially available CBD beer nationally is New Belgium’s The Hemperor HPA. Released back in March, their 7% ABV, 55 IBU is packed with Nugget, Cascade, MBC 522, and Simcoe hops, balancing nicely with it’s piney and resiny finish. It also sports a pungent weed aroma.

The biggest difference between these two beers, aside from the difference in production size and the local freshness of one over the other, is that Coalition’s offering has a better infused flavor – more floral and less dank.

This is a result of due diligence in creating beers in collaboration with Portland based True Terpenes. They offer a wide variety of distillates that are sourced from various non-cannabinoid sources as well, helping them stay under the THC threshold of 0.03%. They are planning a future bottle release with either 0.03% THC terpenes or non-CBD terpenes.

The Hemperor is also described as utilizing “hop flavors and hemp hearts (seeds)” with the intention to “recreate hemp terpene flavors.” This makes me think that New Belgium, via clever verbiage in it’s marketing, wanted to avoid any implication that this beer could be viewed or downplayed as being illegal. Unfortuntely, it is just that in Kansas, but that’s another story for another site…
In the end, each brewery definitely pursued different means to achieve similar ends, with strikingly different results, though I do enjoy them both.

The Future & THC Drinks

A few months back, I was invited to a taste testing of R&D beers being considered for production on a larger scale by Widmer Brothers Brewing. In addition to a few other interesting choices, they also presented two CBD terpene infused versions of exisiting beers – their Drifecta Pilsner and Hospitality IPA, both only available on draft in town.

First, the Pilsner was a mistake – the terpenes made it taste like licking a cedar wood box. Very unpleasant. But the IPA version was pretty solid, so while I’ve heard nothing about Widmer releasing a CBD beer any time soon, don’t be surprised if you see them release an IPA version in 2019.

Cannabis_Full-Width_Lagunitas
courtesy of brewbound.com

The latest news in the weed drink industry has been Lagunitas Brewing’s release of two THC infused sparkling waters – one with 5mg of THC and 5mg of CBD, the other with 10mg of THC alone. Of course, these are only being sold at cannabis dispensaries in their home state of California, but it’s clearly a thing now.

The main difference between what they’re doing and those trying to make CBD beer? The federal government isn’t involved via the TTB and DEA. I’ll be watching to see if anything changes on that…

Also in recent news, Keith Villa, of Blue Moon fame, announced that he’ll be releasing his own series of “THC infused, non-alcoholic beers.” Working in tandem with his wife Julie, they created Ceria Beverages, which will run it’s operations in suburban Denver.

So there’s a lot going on with cannabis, hemp, CBD and even THC these days, as it relates to the craft beverage industry, especially around beer. And it looks like some in the slowing craft beer industry are quick to embody these new trends to stay ahead of the curve, especially in the face of cannabis’ popularity in foundational craft beer states.

While there’s still a lot of excitement around this relatively new concept, only time will tell if these craft beer/CBD infusions will last, or if the ignorant policies the federal government is imposing will curb what would be almost assured growth.

Note: the original version of this article stated that Coalition Brewing is using hemp juice, which they no longer do. Additionally, the article has been edited to reflect their current use of True Terpenes non-CBD, as well as CBD based distillate infusions.

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