Villa's embraced the new challenge, but home brewers in states where weed is legal don't have to. As long as the beer isn't sold, we can ferment all the heady hops we want, and Villa wants to help us learn how to do it. At the request of the Brewers Association, the longtime brewmaster recently wrote the book on making cannabis-infused beer at home: Brewing With Cannabis: Using THC and CBD in Beer.
In anticipation of the book's August release, we caught up with Villa to learn more about the art of adding cannabis to beer.
Westword: What got you interested in making cannabis beer in the first place?
Keith Villa: The main reason was that I retired. After my career at Blue Moon and growing it into the largest craft beer in the world, my wife and I wanted to stay in the beer world but start small. We were also interested in cannabis, and thought it'd be fun to bring cannabis to the masses in a socially acceptable format, especially since smoking is taking more of an anti-social stance now. Whether it's cigarettes or cannabis, smoking is seen as not healthy, and there are a lot of people with asthma or other conditions. So for us, this was a more social way to enjoy.
What was your background with cannabis before that?
It became legal here in 2012, and we dabbled. But from my perspective as a native Coloradan, it was illegal here growing up, especially if you're a person of color. So I didn't touch it until it was legal. That got us interested, though, and the most interesting aspect was that it wasn't made illegal for scientific reasons, because there are a lot of helpful medicines that can be made from cannabinoids. It's a very helpful plant, and it's not the negative, evil drug it was portrayed as.
What's different about the THC beer brewing process compared to a batch of Blue Moon?
The primary difference is that it's illegal to sell a product containing both alcohol and cannabis. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau makes it very clear that you can't put anything federally illegal into an alcoholic beverage. At the same time, states with legal cannabis have prohibited the introduction of alcohol into any cannabis product. So the first thing I found out was that I had to get busy creating some great-tasting non-alcoholic beer recipes.
How much of a challenge is making tasty non-alcoholic beer?
It's very difficult to make a good-tasting non-alcoholic beer, because alcohol is such a primary part of the taste and mouthfeel. Luckily, I went to the University of Brussels to get my Ph.D. in brewing in 1995, and they taught us a lot of the secrets in making great-tasting non-alcoholic beer. So I had to dig back into my memory bank and notes from years ago. We now have a West Coast IPA and Belgian white, and I think they come pretty close to tasting like regular beer.
How hard is it for home brewers to incorporate cannabis into their beer?
I actually give some home-brewing recipes, maybe ten or fifteen, in the book, as well as recipes for extracting cannabinoids from the plant and then making them water-soluble to add into beer or other beverages. It's actually pretty easy to do at home, but there are a lot of craft brewers who don't want to get into it yet, because it would endanger their federal brewing permits.
How does the craft-brewing industry view cannabis beer right now? Is it an established niche, taboo, or something else?
I think most craft brewers look at it as something really new and novel, and some view it as a potential threat because it seems that a lot of consumers will start having occasions where cannabis fits better than alcohol. Those occasion-based decisions really worry brewers, and some of them see it as a threat to their sales.
How about the Brewers Association? Have they changed their tune much since cannabis has been legalized?
Last time I talked to them, I asked for an official position on cannabis. They said they didn't have one, so they're kind of agnostic right now. I think they're going to develop something, though, because they're the ones who asked me to write the book; they're the publishers. It just went to press yesterday, and it will be available in August. As far as I know, though, they still don't have an official stance on cannabis, but they're open-minded and seem to be receiving it positively
That legal wall of mixing cannabis and alcohol in the same product seems tough to climb.
I think home brewers and cannabis users will be the ones really getting out and making discoveries. There's going to be some cross-fading that takes place when people consume both at the same time. For some experienced folks, that's great, but some of the rookies will probably have some rough patches from mixing the two. That's something I warn others about: taking things slowly and carefully when mixing alcohol and cannabis.
People always like to talk about the connection between cannabis and hops. Do you ever see cannabis used as an ingredient for terpenes and flavor in beer, and not an intoxicant?
Yes. If fact, there are some brews right now that use those terpenes. The most famous right now is probably the Hemperor from New Belgium. The terpene profiles between cannabis and hops are very similar, because hops and cannabis are cousins; they both belong to the cannabaceae family. There are a lot of similarities between the two and their terpenes. Myrcene is the majority terpene that's in both cannabis and hops, and it could enhance the buzz you get from THC. So those terpenes have an effect, and they smell very unique at the same time. You can isolate some cannabis terpenes and put them into beer, and you can put beer terpenes into cannabis edibles and beverages. You can play back and forth with them.
Is that something you've played around with?
We've definitely thought about it. I have cannabis terpenes in my laboratory, and we've played around with them. For now, we're focusing on the terpenes for our beers. In our Belgian white, the main terpene is linalool from the coriander and limolene from the orange peel. Those can lead to anti-stress, anti-anxiety and relaxing effects with 5 milligrams of THC, which is what we do with our Belgian white, Grainwave. It's not made to get people high, but to help them relax and socialize.
The terpenes in our Indiewave IPA are mainly myrcene and humulene, which go really well with 10 milligrams of THC and 10 milligrams of CBD. It gives a nice, mellow buzz. We tried to design the milligrams of THC in these beers to have an effect similar to what a person would get from drinking an alcoholic version.