Leave it to Uncle Sam to kill a good buzz.
Heavenly Daze tapped the first kegs of its Hemp Lager in late March, and the beer quickly become the Denver brewpub's second-best seller. Credit for that goes to the beer's exceptional flavor (it's made with hemp seeds), eye-catching tap handle (which features a cannabis leaf) and very cheeky slogan: "Relax and roll up a cold one."
Of course, the beer also benefits from the illicit allure of hemp, marijuana's THC-free first cousin. "People are very curious about it," says Hanna DeCristofaro, owner of Heavenly Daze. "They want to see how it tastes. And people ask, 'Is that legal?'
"And it is. There's nothing illegal about it."
Not last month, anyway. But on March 21, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that foods made with hemp were forbidden -- and those rules were to kick into effect on April 21, the day after "4-20" (the pot smoker's code for smoking time) and just over a year after a federal court shot down the DEA's October 2001 attempt at a hemp-food ban.
The new rules essentially rehash the earlier ones, stating that any food containing any amount of THC is a controlled substance. They also take aim at the importation of hemp oil for use in cosmetics, a fast-growing niche -- even though it's humanly impossible for a person to consume enough of a hemp-oil product to catch the faintest high, pro-hempers argue.
"There is no issue here with public health and safety," says David Bronner, chairman of the Food & Oils division of Hemp Industries Association, a hemp trade group. And once more, his group has challenged the DEA's new rules in California's federal courts, where he's hopeful that hemp will again prevail. (On April 17, a federal court issued a stay in response to the HIA's suit, putting the rules on hold.)
"I guess they feel threatened by the hemp industry on some level," Bronner says of the feds' attack on what's a legal, cash-generating industry in just about every other industrialized nation in the world. "It's absurd."
The notion that beer made with hemp could be a threat seems particularly silly. "The beer already gets you high," points out Candy Penn, spokeswoman for Hemp Industries Association.
Hemp beers enjoyed a brief commercial run in the '90s, when Frederick Brewing Company, a Maryland outfit, created a stir with its Hempen Ale. Although that brew is out of production, the California-based Humboldt Brewing Company kept the style alive: Hemp Ale is Humboldt's second-best seller, right behind its popular Red Nectar. For now, at least.
"I should hurry up and order more seeds," DeCristofaro jokes upon learning of the federal rules that could dry up the market for her new beer. During her years of struggle at Heavenly Daze, she's faced much bigger threats than a DEA ban on foods made from hemp.
DeCristofaro was one of the brewpub's original investors, who lost a combined million bucks (plus) when Heavenly Daze went heavenward in 1999, a year after it first opened on South Kalamath Street. "I was the Queen of Nothing," she says. She joined with a second group of investors in May 2000; that effort went belly-up, too, in part because the marketing arm wasted thousands of dollars on flawed business moves and reckless spending, she acknowledges. Finally, in October 2001, DeCristofaro re-formed the company as a sole proprietorship, and she's since brought the brewpub back to credibility and good credit.
"There were days that I couldn't get up in the morning," DeCristofaro recalls. "Today, life is peaceful." It's also much more gonzo. "We're not mainstream; we do what we like," she says. "We don't do market research. We just go full blast into it.
"I'm one of these clean-living people," she adds. "You can do things far out as long as you don't live a far-out life. If I was a pot-smoking woman, sitting around here, I couldn't touch this. People would think, 'Ah, there's a bunch of stoners down there.'"
Rick Whitehouse, Heavenly Daze's original brewer, is the man behind Hemp Lager and all the other satisfying in-house beers -- the one consistent positive in the brewpub's troubled run. He'd never tasted a hemp beer, so Whitehouse brewed his blind. The result is a blond lager hopped with assertive Magnum hops and brewed with a hundred pounds of hemp-seed cakes in the mash. About 5 percent alcohol by volume, the delicious beer has a resinous hop flavor (how appropriate), with a sweet, nutty note in the middle; it also has a wonderful, slightly oily mouth feel that comes from the oil in the hemp seeds.
Whitehouse is happy with what he calls his "gateway beer." So are his customers, he says: "Who knows if it's the taste or if it's seeing the marijuana leaf?"
Heavenly Daze gets its hemp seeds from CHII, the same Canadian company that supplies Humboldt Brewing. The seeds meet the industry-accepted Canadian standard for THC, which stands at a limit of ten parts per million; the seed cakes sent to Heavenly Daze contain about one part per million.
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Days before the DEA rules went into effect, CHII owner Eric Hughes was hustling to fill Whitehouses's second order for 200 pounds of hemp seeds. "I'm going to get that order across the border," he promised. "Then we'll see what happens. Hopefully, it's not that your bureaucracy is so ignorant and so misinformed that they think that by doing this they're actually helping the population by banning a substance like this. But it's possible that they are that ignorant and misinformed."
So far, that bureaucracy hasn't informed DeCristofaro of anything she must do to comply with the new rules. "Am I supposed to dump all my hemp beer?" she wonders. "Do they officially notify me? Do they have to serve me with papers and tell me I can't serve my hemp beer anymore?
"I'm against drugs," she adds. "I would not sell anything with drugs in it -- that would be irresponsible. We wanted to have a good-tasting beer. I don't want to do something that would make people crazy."