If the White Claw memes and CBD sections at liquor stores haven't tipped you off, let us be the ones to tell you that the beer business is struggling. Non-alcoholic drinks and less caloric options have made the once-thriving craft-beer industry look for new ways to satisfy your thirst.
Lagunitas Brewing Company, already known for its love for cannabis, took a natural route toward the pot-infused side of things. The brewery's Hi-Fi Hops drink, a hoppy seltzer infused with CBD, THC or both, hit Colorado dispensaries this fall, giving users a terpene-filled splash of cannabinoids. To learn more about how the drink is made and the loving history that Lagunitas has with the plant, we chatted with Hi-Fi head brewer Jeremy Marshall.
Westword: Do you come from a background of brewing beer? How does one end up making this beverage?
Jeremy Marshall: I'm a brewer by trade. I've worked in all functions and operations at the brewery, from cellar work to filtration to brewing, so I know beer. Since the dawn of time, there've been sodas or drinks that aren't beer but still have hops in them. They're typically made by the Germans.
So we noticed how terrible most non-alcoholic beers are, and we wanted something that was NA but still tasted like beer. We landed on this idea of a hoppy refresher, which is basically what would happen if you left the grain out of brewing beer and kept all of the other steps, especially the hopping. It's got yeast and hops in it, and some beer PH to bring the water's PH level down.
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We were hanging out with the people at CannaCraft in California, drinking some of those, and someone asked why we didn't just infuse those drinks [with cannabis]. It was a few of us just chillin' at the time, and that idea went on to become Hi-Fi.
How does the brewing process work?
It's like making beer, but skipping the malt. Malt is what gives you ferment-able sugars, like booze. Malt is also what gives you calories, gluten and mouthfeel. When you think of beer as liquid bread, it's the malt that makes that comment ring true. But when you take the malt out, it makes the drink sort of a hop tonic or hoppy water. We didn't invent this category — Germans have been doing it for a while — but we'd seen a few come out to the market, and we wanted to make one with our hops and our ways, with that big punch of myrcene that hops can give.
We didn't want any bitterness, because there's no malt in it. Brewers typically add hops to provide bitterness that counteracts the malt. In this case, since there's no malt, we did all dry-hopping instead of kettle-hopping, so you get the flavor without the bitterness you'd get from kettle-hopping.
Since terpenes are also in cannabis, could you brew or dry-hop beer with cannabis?
Absolutely. However, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau needs a much-needed update in its hemp policy. It basically says we can only use seeds and stems in brewing, and those don't have any terpenes. I see no reason why brewers can't use hemp, because it only has 0.3 percent THC, and it won't put any THC in the beer. I'd like to do that, but I can't legally.
Alcohol and cannabis share a lot of similarities: they've both been subject to prohibition, and people could get them during Prohibition with a prescription. Hops and cannabis are almost the same plant, and some people think they were the same plant around 27 million years ago. When you look at their genetic records, you could trace the markers to the point where hops diverged to chase water and cannabis stayed to grow in dry climates.
Have you or any of your brewer friends tried making cannabis beers at home?
Oh, yeah. There are loads of tales from growers in the Emerald Triangle, in the ’80s and ’90s, brewing some stuff in Humboldt [County, California]. There's a story about a brewer out there who got fired for taking a bunch of nugs and soaking them in a keg of beer.
If you can brew it with hemp and don't have THC, it could be done at breweries. I don't see a future where the government allows mixing alcohol and THC together. But if you just want to capture that bouquet of terpenes and the smell, maybe we can get a policy change to allow brewers to brew beer with hemp. I've been working on that concept. [The New Belgium Hemperor is brewed with hemp seeds.]
Most brewing companies that have gotten into THC and even CBD-infused drinks haven't used their own names. Why do you think Lagunitas does?
Well, we wanted people to know where it came from! Some of the guys who are spinning off to make CBD drinks are technically breaking the law, because the FDA has said they're not legal, so that could be why they're using different names.
I think the tie-in here is the hops. Most of those drinks you're talking about don't have hops in them, but this does, because we want it to be like a beer.
And the brewery has never really shied away from its love for cannabis, has it?
Nope. Remember, we're the only brewery that's been raided and shut down for weed consumption. Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale comes out every spring [to commemorate that]. I was there in 2005 when we got raided, and there were these commando guys in all-black with machine guns. And ultimately, they found one joint.
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They thought Lagunitas wasn't even a legitimate brewery. They thought we were a front for selling weed, so they were trying to send in agents to make purchases from people working on the bottom, guys making $12 an hour. What was funny is that when the agents tried making purchases, no one would sell them anything; they'd just break off a piece of a nug and give it to them for free.
They couldn't arrest them for trafficking, because they just gave it to the agents. They also tried to get us busted for allowing underage drinkers, and we didn't. They thought we were some elaborate operation, and at the end of the day, they charged us with a disorderly house, which is used for brothels and places like that. The other charge was moral turpitude, which is some Bible term. They're really old, arcane laws.
Funny how you ended up here, then.
With time, it appears, we were on the right side of history after 2005. Our founder, Tony Magee, said, "Do the crime, do the time, and get the bragging rights."