Just a couple of years ago, the hottest trend among craft breweries was the proliferation of cannabis-infused beers. At that time, changes in public perception and in state laws had only recently allowed brewers to try new recipes that blend ingredients like terpenes and hemp. And as a result, the beer industry was really high on cannabis-infused beers and it seemed every local brewery was turning out their own marijuana-themed ale or lager.
That’s the recent history. But marijuana and beer have a connection that’s far older.
Humulus and Cannabis
The hops and cannabis plants are actually members of the same genus and both have a similar molecular structure. In fact, there was a time when the two plants were one and the same.
Humulus (Hops) and Cannabis (Marijuana) both belong to the family Cannabaceae. The fossil record is lacking, and therefore, no one knows for certain just when the Cannabaceae family originated. But based on studying the records of Cannabis parasites that also appear on plants from the sister order Urticaceae, scientists estimate that Cannabaceae originated during the Oligocene epoch. As such, the family can’t be any older than 34 million years.
However, there is better evidence to determine when Humulus and Cannabis split apart. Based on chloroplast DNA sequences and radiocarbon dating, Dr. John McPartland suggests that the two plants evolved into distinct species 27.8 million years ago. And it was the Cannabis plant that split apart and first appeared on the Tibetan Plateau.
Although separated, the two plants still share much in common. They have similar physical traits such as their jagged leaves. Their seeds and pollen are difficult to tell apart. The flower tops of both plants have similar therapeutic properties such as being calming, sleep-inducing, and are also anti-bacterial. Some studies suggest the two plants may be cancer preventative.
Another property that both plants have in common is their sticky and fragrant oils, called terpenes. They’re found in the resin glands that hang in the bud and give hops and marijuana its pungent aroma and flavor.
No, the oils extracted from cannabis don’t contain marijuana’s psychoactive THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) component nor its pain-relieving CBD (cannabidiol). But like hops, oils extracted from different strains of cannabis can lend a variety of aromas and flavors.
Having such a versatile ingredient gives craft brewers and consumers new flavors and aromas to explore. Not to mention attracting a new segment to their beers. For those who are passionate about pot but not necessarily craft beer, they’re more likely to enjoy the taste of these new brews.
One of the first breweries to experiment with the flavor of marijuana was Humboldt Brewing Company. Based in California, their Humboldt Brown Hemp Ale, an American Brown Ale brewed with toasted hemp seeds, was released in 2009.
But brewing with cannabis terpenes oils is less than five years old. Dad & Dude’s Breweria, based in Aurora, Colorado, was the first to produce cannabis-infused beers when they released their Indica and Sativa IPAs at the Great American Beer Festival in 2015.
And since that time many other craft breweries across the country have been producing cannabis-infused beers. Including some of the largest in the industry.
In August of 2017, Lagunitas Brewing Company partnered with CannaCraft to produce their SuperCritical Ale. The beer utilizes oils from a pair of popular Cannabis varietals, Girl Scout Cookie and Blue Dream. Brewmaster Jeremy Marshall said “What we’re trying to focus on really has nothing to do with the drug component.”
That may be true, but Lagunitas has a notorious reputation for having pot loving staffers and patrons. One of their beers, the Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, was brewed as a fun reminder of a time when the Feds raided the brewery back in 2005. Agents of the Alcohol Beverage Control sought to make arrests at the brewery on St. Patrick’s Day when employees and regulars were supposedly going to smoke an eight-inch joint with the circumference of a dime. Ultimately, no one was arrested, but Lagunitas had its business suspended for 20 days.
Back in 2018, New Belgium Brewing Company released a brew they’d trademarked as an “HPA” named The Hemperor. Essentially an IPA brewed with hemp, this brew was available in nationwide and is still in distribution today.
But not all has gone smoothly.
Dad & Dude’s Breweria made history by gaining approval to produce cannabis-infused beers from the government. Such approval required a year of testing by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and then Dude’s made plans for a nationwide rollout of their General Washington’s Secret Stash IPA. But their brewery ran afoul of the Drug Enforcement Agency when they announced that even a non-psychoactive marijuana extract such as CBD is a Schedule 1 substance. That ruling limited Dude’s from distributing their beer across state lines, and as such, their plans were quashed.
In November of 2017, Devour Brewing Co. in Boynton Beach released some of Florida’s first cannabis-infused beers with their Apricot Haze Berliner Weisse and Florida Thunder IPA. However, future production was halted earlier this week by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau until their beer can be tested for illicit substances.
Sure, these new brews have faced legal hurdles in some markets — like recently in South Florida — but it’s a style that’s starting to catch fire. Particularly around a date like 4/20.
Hops and cannabis together again. And their modern-day merger is a new frontier for us all.