Hemp can’t get you high, but its association with marijuana is exciting to plenty of people in the craft-beer industry, which has been swept up in the nationwide interest in all things cannabis.
In February, a Colorado Springs hemp supplier called Major Hemp, in partnership with Denver’s Sleeping Giant Brewing, will roll out kegs of a new beer made with hemp-seed powder. Major Hemp will start with fifty barrels, or about 95 kegs, which it plans to distribute in the Denver area. If the reaction is positive, the company says, it would like to take the beer to other states.
“Initially, we will focus on affluent areas like LoDo, where there is a high concentration of bars and pubs that will have an interest in this,” says Ted Jorgensen, the president of Major Hemp, a subsidiary of California’s Sipp Industries. “Then, depending on the success of the beer, which looks good, we will go ahead with a much larger brew and possibly put some beer in cans.”
Major Hemp Brown Ale, as the beer is called, was brewed by Sleeping Giant, a contract brewery that makes beer for more than fifteen companies inside and outside of Colorado; some of its local clients include the Post Brewing, Weldwerks, Black Shirt Brewing and 38 State. Sleeping Giant has no brands of its own, which means there's no danger of the brewery competing with its clients.
Major Hemp worked with Sleeping Giant to develop a recipe that uses a proprietary water-soluble hemp powder; each twelve-ounce beer will contain about 100 milligrams of hemp.
“This infusion provides a smooth, refreshing taste while enhancing the beer with the numerous healthy attributes that hemp is so highly recognized for,” the company says in its description of the beer. Major Hemp has teamed up with both Crazy Mountain Brewing in Denver and Ute Pass Brewing in Woodland Park on previous hemp-beer experiments, but chose a contract brewery so that there would be no confusion over who owns the rights to the recipe.
“They came to us a few months back, brought us some hemp powder and asked us to consult with them from tip to tail,” says Sleeping Giant founder Matthew Osterman, adding that he also spent time researching both the legality and the market potential for hemp beer. “I think it is a segment that has legs," he notes. "Hemp beers were pioneered twenty years ago, but they are a little more buzzy now because of all the ways that marijuana regulations are changing.”
“Humboldt Brewing in California started making a hemp beer in the late ’90s. They were ahead of the curve, we think. But timing is everything and I think the timing is now,” Jorgensen adds.
Unlike marijuana, hemp doesn’t contain a significant amount of THC and is therefore non-psychoactive. Hemp is legal to use in products in the United States, and Osterman stresses that Major Hemp Brown is made from hemp seeds rather than cannabidiol oil, or CBD, which is extracted from the stalk, leaves and flowers of the hemp plant. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently reclassified CBD, which many people believe to have health benefits, as a scheduled drug in the same class as heroin, even though it does not contain THC.
The Hoban Law Group in Denver and the Hemp Industries Association are fighting that classification on behalf of several companies that use CBD in their products. Most CBD-product companies are continuing to operate while the the legal action is taking place.
The federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates breweries and beer labels, meanwhile, doesn’t distinguish between hemp and CBD, according to regulations from 2000.
Last year, Dad & Dudes Breweria became the first U.S. brewery to get a recipe for CBD-infused beer approved by the TTB, and is now working on a bottled rollout of General Washington’s Secret Stash, a CBD-infused version of an IPA that it has been making for years. Breweries in Oregon and California have also produced small batches of CBD-infused beers.
Mason Hembree, who heads up Dad & Dudes, didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment for this story on whether the new DEA rules will affect his plans.
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Major Hemp’s Jorgensen would also like to make a CBD beer, but he is waiting for clarification from the DEA. “CBD is much easier to brew into a beer than hemp, so we would do it immediately once we got the green light. We already have the best CBD available,” he says.
For now, though, he is focused on the Major Hemp Brown, which will be distributed by Denver startup wholesaler Colorado Craft Distributors and could hit tap handles in February.
“There are not a lot of hemp beers out on the market, so it's unique, and it sparked our interest,” says Colorado Craft Distributors co-founder Tom Jasko. “I got a taste of the beer and loved it.... Hemp is part of our culture here in Colorado, and I think it will be a nice change of pace.”
If Major Hemp and Sleeping Giant produce a second batch, it would likely be 100 barrels — some of which would be canned — and it could be the same brown ale or an IPA. After that, Major Hemp will look to reproduce the beer at contract breweries in California and possibly in New York and Illinois.