Colorado is one of the leading craft-beer states. It was also the first state to allow recreational marijuana. So it would only seem natural that the two industries would cross paths at one of the 300-plus breweries here. But so far, we haven't seen any commercial pot-infused beers — and just one made with marijuana's non-psychotropic cousin, hemp). The reasons for that likely lie in the fact that breweries are regulated by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: Since pot is still illegal on a federal level, no brewery wants to risk its license by using it in beer.
But whatever the pros can't or aren't willing to try, homebrewers usually are, using their endless ingenuity and experimentation.
Last February, Hop Barley and the Alers in Boulder County became the first homebrew club to include a marijuana category in a Beer Judge Certification Program-sanctioned competition, the annual Reggale and Dredhop. The BJCP is an internationally renowned nonprofit that tests and certifies beer judges and encourages “knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world's diverse beer, mead, and cider styles.”
At least one other homebrew competition has followed suit, although the Boulder-based American Homebrewers Association has yet to embrace marijuana to any notable degree. “I don’t believe we had any cannabis beers entered into our National Homebrew Competition this year, and I don’t recall ever hearing of any cannabis beers being entered into that competition,” says AHA director Gary Glass, who points out that because the National Homebrew Competition covers the whole country, it wouldn't be able to add a cannabis category since pot is only legal in a few states.
The marijuana category winner in the most recent Hop Barley and the Alers competition was John Kure, who works in sales for a Colorado brewery that he declines to name. He won with a dry-hopped (or dry-budded) American Red Ale called Reefer Red. The entry was Kure's first foray into using cannabis in a beer, and he compares its aromas and flavors with its plant relative, the hop. "Some can be earthy, citrusy, grassy; they really follow a parallel line in flavor profiles," he says.
The key to making a THC-infused beer is to pick a style that is conducive to those aromas and flavors. "I had a good base recipe that I think could work with it, so I was mostly just thinking of something with a hop-forward beer. IPA comes to mind first, then I thought about this American-style amber ale where it also has a lot of that biscuit, bready, sweet caramel profile,” Kure says. “I thought a little bit more malt backbone could balance the hop intensity and flavor of the cannabis.”
Although Kure didn’t seek out any particular cannabis strain, he smelled and tasted what he had on-hand prior to incorporating it into the beer. “It was more on the earthy end, a little grassy, a little herbal,” he recalls. The next step was figuring out how to add it to the beer without damaging the volatile aromas and flavors, but also without adding any astringency or other potential off-flavors. Cannabis is a relative of the hop plant, but it has distinct properties that make its additions to beer more tricky. Hops are boiled in order to isomerize acids that impart bitterness to beer, whereas boiling cannabis could leach out tars that could impart harsh off-flavors. Kure decided to conduct two additions of the dry leaves into his five-gallon batch, adding a half ounce at the final five minutes of the boil, and another half ounce in the secondary after initial fermentation had finished.
The final product was “a bit more green, like chlorophyll, and more of that herbal flavor came through,” Kure says of the notes he received from the homebrew judges. And those judges weren't high: The beer's low-alcohol content meant it didn't extract much THC.
Although there is some confusion about the best way to add THC, the psychotropic property of marijuana, to beer, some basic tenets exist, says Ryan Thomas, a regional director for the Beer Judge Certification Program and a Grand Master II judge. To add flavor, he suggests a process known as “dry-hopping,” but with buds. To do this, brewers typically add whole hop cones to the beer after it has been fermented, which imparts an immense amount of flavor. The same thing can be done with dry marijuana leaves. The drawback is that unless you are brewing a high-strength beer (above 10 percent ABV), it’s difficult to extract any of the THC, so not much of the high-inducing punch you'd get from eating an edible will come through.
“I’ve also seen the use of tinctures and then adding that at bottling. I don’t think that’s the best way, but it gets around the low-alcohol extraction,” Thomas says. “The Mad Hatter Coffee & Tea Company has some infused teas, and I’ve seen that used with meads; putting that with a 10 to 15 percent mead, it really goes nicely together.”
Thomas also doesn’t recommend the addition of whole leaf cannabis into the boil. “It would seem that would extract some of the chlorophyll and some of the green and vegetal flavors, like using too many hops,” he says. “I would say the cannabis has a dank of its own that the hops can’t even get close to, so you get a unique character from the raw flowers. There are some that I’ve had that had a really interesting character that was similar to an edible, like if you were eating a pot brownie. It works really well with an amber ale, as you have the caramel and darker notes. It’s a distinct taste, like cannabutter.”
For those looking for both the flavor and THC, a combination of the two is probably the best route since the quantity of cannabis needed for beer makes that prospect expensive. Prices have certainly come down since marijuana’s first rec sales on January 1, 2014, but with an ounce still costing between $200 and $300 at recreational dispensaries, it’s difficult to justify adding that much pot to a five-gallon batch of homebrew, especially when hops are about 100 times cheaper at $2 to $3 an ounce. Thomas suggests that homebrewers try single-bottle tests at first. “A gram or two in an alcohol extract would get you about a six-pack," he says. "I would look at a couple of grams per six-pack rather than an ounce for five gallons,” he explains.
Some hop varieties, like Mosaic, will also impart that “dank” quality that both beer and marijuana enthusiasts seek out. Thomas cites use of hemp seeds by professional brewers, most notably Wynkoop's one-off Metacool Malt-U-Wanna, and Green Cross, an IPA made with "dank" hops and hemp seeds.
Thomas helped get a cannabis category added to another homebrew competition, the KROC Great American Beer Challenge in Westminster. Although there were only two entries last year, one won best of show. (The competition, which usually takes place in September, was canceled this year due to some unrelated changes in the way that the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division interprets existing homebrew rules.)
Should marijuana ever become legal at the federal level, the economics of adding pot may be too much of a hurdle in the initial stages, but Thomas still thinks there would be a viable market for cannabis-infused beers. In the meantime: “On the commercial side, I know there are brewers” who experiment at home, he says, “and have small amounts for their own consumption and their friends.”