Marijuana and beer have always had a connection. Hops plants and cannabis are members of the same genus and have a closely related molecular structure. (And we won’t even get into how many brewers like to sample both.)
Those ties are slowly becoming more formal, though. In 2015 and 2016, Aurora, Colo.-based Dad & Dude’s Breweria offered tastings of General Washington’s Secret Stash, a cannabis-infused beer, at the Great American Beer Festival—to consistent long lines. And earlier this year, Lagunitas rolled out a limited run of Supercritical, an ale brewed with Cannabis terpenes, aromatic compounds of fragrant oils from the cannabis plant that give it distinctive flavors and aromatics.
Neither of the beers, it’s important to note, include any mind-altering THC. That’s stripped out before the brewing process. But the terpenes give the beer a different flavor profile. (In Supercritical’s case, it results in a tangy, bold earthy ale that has strong grass and lemon notes.)
Supercritical was officially a one-off for Lagunitas, but it came with all the hallmarks of a test balloon for a larger release. While the beer was only released on draft in California, samples were sent to reviewers. And while the company says there are no immediate plans to distribute it nationally yet, it will certainly be back.
“What I can tell you now is that we are planning to brew it again and we learn more as we move forward and there’s a whole big country out there,” says Karen Hamilton, director of communications at Lagunitas Brewing Co. “Right now we are going through some additional paperwork. When that’s complete, it will be determined when we are brewing it again.”
For some brewers, blending cannabis and beer is an opportunity to educate consumers about the two industries, while also attracting an audience that might normally opt for another beer choice.
“Doing this beer opened up a whole new consumer segment to us,” says Elan Walsky, co-founder of Coaltion Brewing, makers of Two Flowers IPA, a west coast IPA infused with hemp juice and CBD, a non-hallucinogenic chemical component of cannabis. “There’s a natural synergy between the two industries, in that there’s an emphasis on craft and locality.”
Oregon-based Coalition has a series of CBD beers, including the recently introduced Herbs of a Feather, a lemon and basil sour with CBD. Walsky and Phil Boyle, Coalition’s regional beer ambassador, say they’d love to widen the distribution of the product, which is available in local bars.
There’s a big hurdle standing in the way of every brewer who wants to blend pot and beer, though: the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
In January, the DEA published a rules update that classified hemp extracts and CBD as Schedule 1 drugs, putting them in the same league as heroin and cocaine. Before that, CBD (which has less than 1% of THC as an active ingredient) had been available via mail order in all states. (The changes are being legally challenged by cannabis advocacy groups.)
Walsky says Coalition is able to continue making the beer because there’s an exemption for industrial hemp and the CBD it uses comes from a proprietary product that does not fall under the controlled substances act. Lagunitas says it does not use CBD or hemp in its beer, instead brewing only with terpenes, which remain legal.
Still, to be safe, the Brewer’s Association says no cannabis-infused beers will be poured at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, which gets underway Thursday in Denver.
The DEA’s rule changes have signaled the end, at least temporarily, of one beer. A year ago, General Washington’s Secret Stash was about to be distributed nationally, having already received approval from the federal Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau. That fell apart after the reclassificaiton, forcing Dad & Dude’s to cease making the beer and take the fight to court.
Certainly, there are roadblocks for brewers who are looking to combine beer and pot, but as marijuana legalization and decriminalization spreads to more states, and as consumer interest in new tastes and styles of beer grows, it’s only a matter of time before the fusions become widely available.