âSo, does it get you high?â
This was one of my first questions when I met with brewer Elan Walsky, the co-owner of Coalition Brewing in Portland, Oregon. Coalition makes a line of beers infused with CBD, one of many compounds found in marijuana and hemp (two strains of cannabis) that make the plants unique. Walsky grinned and told me no. I knew this would be the answer, but itâs an obligatory question while drinking a CBD IPA. I was visiting Coalition not only to partake in its CBD beers, but also to understand why theyâre so difficult to make, whether Iâll ever be able to legally buy one on store shelvesâââand most importantly, why brewers so badly want to make them.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is not a hallucinogen; itâs the part of weed that gives you, in colloquial terms, a body high. CBD can reduce pain, and relieve both anxiety and insomnia. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive part of cannabis that affects the brain instead of the body. Brewers are largely uninterested in THC (the legal difficulties in combining alcohol and hallucinogens are too many), but the interest in CBD is a natural progression from the introduction of hops. Hemp and hops, I was told time and time again while talking to brewers, are âcousins.â Biologically, the two are incredibly similar, and CBD has familiar yet exciting new effects when infused in beer. âTheyâre the most closely related plants in the family cannabaceae, genetically speaking,â says Walsky. âSo from a practical standpoint, it means theyâre producing a lot of the same terpenes, or flavor and aromatic compounds.â
That seemingly simple explanation has done little to convince state and federal regulators that combining CBD and alcohol wonât result in some kind of super-dosed booze. (Perhaps theyâre having Four Loko flashbacks.) While recreational-use laws are quickly changing the marijuana market, there is still a collective misunderstanding about the differences between cannabis-created products and their effects. âThe idea is not to make some kind of chimera of intoxicants,â Walsky said. âCBD is nonpsychoactive. The idea is really to highlight these similarities.â And of course, the best place to start is with beer.
CBD has the potential to create new subsections of craft brewing. It would invite new and unexpected flavor profiles for brewers to experiment withâââand anyone who has visited a craft brewery knows how brewers love to experiment. But the murky legal status of CBD-alcohol combinations and a general misunderstanding about marijuana and cannabis will be tough to toppleâââand now, the beer market is gearing up to take it all head-on.
Coalition is a pioneer on the challenging path to selling CBD beer. Itâs legal only in some parts of the United States. The sale of CBD food and drink products is subject to state law, and even in states where recreational marijuana use is permitted, the sale of CBD beer can still be halted. It is illegal to combine THC with alcohol in all 50 states, but the regulations on CBD beverages are different. For brewers to experiment with CBD, they have to do so in a state where the compound is legal, and then they have to jump through myriad regulatory hoops to get their recipes approved. And after all that, they still likely will be restricted to serving it only on tap, and even if they can bottle it, it canât cross state lines.
Tom Hogue, the congressional liaison for the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), tried to explain the labyrinth of regulations. âThere are three layersâââat least two, but potentially three,â he said. âFederal law, state law, and you may have local ordinances.â
Brewers are required to submit all beer formulas to the TTB for approval, and if thereâs a question of safety, Hogue said, it has to be vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. From there, the path to commercial viability gets complicated further. âLetâs say I produce a beer here in Virginia. I brew it here, I sell it here, it does not leave the state,â he said. âI donât have to have a label thatâs approved federally to get it out in the market. If Iâm selling it outside Virginia, I need federal approval.â
FDA approval of regular beer recipes has become standardized, but according to Hogue, hemp-derived beers are scrutinized much more closely. The TTB has to reconcile these formulas with not only the FDA, but the Drug Enforcement Administration as well because cannabis is a controlled substance. If the beer meets the standards of all three bodies, the drinks can be sold in the states where theyâre made.
Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts have laws that should allow for the sale of CBD alcoholic drinks. But there are still hurdles. Down the Road Beer Co. in Massachusetts recently tried to brew and release a CBD beer called Goopmassta Session IPA. The brewery had hoped that because marijuana had been approved for recreational use in the state, its beer could go on sale in July when the law went into effect. But the stateâs Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission denied the brewery, and that mandate is likely to stand for the near future. Vermontâs Long Trail Brewing faced a similar fate. While recreational weed use is legal in the state, the breweryâs CBD beer, Medicator, was shut down by federal regulators. San Franciscoâs Black Hammer met the same fate.
Down the Road marketing director Alex Weaver said the brewery approached the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission in March 2018 hoping to be the first in the state to sell a CBD beer. âIt was still very much uncharted territory for [the commission]. So we knew that, and to be frank, we knew the answer wasnât going to be âyesâ right away,â Weaver said. Down the Road hoped that by raising the issue the organization would clear a path for CBD beer distribution. But days later, the commission issued an official advisory stating that cannabinoid extracts are Schedule I drugs and that infusing alcoholic drinks with them is considered âadulteration of alcoholâ and both their manufacture and sale would remain illegal. âThey never said it was a direct response to us, but I can say the timing was very, very likely not a coincidence,â Weaver said.
When I reached out to the commission to ask about its policy on cannabis and beer, and about Down the Roadâs ill-fated CBD beer, I was sent the commissionâs advisory on cannabis in alcoholic beverages. âCannabinoid extract from the cannabis plant is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Infusing or otherwise adding cannabinoid extract in alcoholic beverages is considered adulteration of alcohol,â the advisory states. âPlease be advised that even though retail sales of cannabis are expected to become lawful starting July 1, 2018, it will remain unlawful to manufacture and/or sell alcoholic beverages containing any cannabinoid extracts, including tetrahydrocannabinol (âTHCâ) and cannabidiol (âCBDâ), regardless of whether it is derived from the cannabis plant or industrial hemp.â The statement goes on to say that any companies found violating this law by making, transporting, selling, or even possessing such products could lose their license.
Most brewers I talked to said that lack of understanding about the differences between CBD and THC is the chief reason theyâre unable to make CBD beer. The compounds have long been grouped together, and distancing them from each other in the minds of consumers, regulatory bodies, and politicians is a challenge. In Idaho, a bill to legalize CBD oil for medical purposes was killed in a state Senate committee in March for what could only be described as law enforcementâs worries it would lead to laxer drug enforcement laws. âThe governorâs office doesnât want this bill, the prosecutors donât want this bill, the Office on Drug Policy doesnât want this bill,â Lee Heider, the committeeâs chairman, reportedly shouted during the closed-doors meeting during which the bill was struck down. In May 2017, police in Indiana seized $10,000 worth of CBD on the grounds that it was a marijuana product (it has since been returned).
The first step to getting CBD beer to the public will be educating consumers and politicians about how CBD and THC differ and about the actual effects of CBD beer. A 1979 study found that CBD does not make drinking more dangerous. But that conclusion has done little to tamp down fears over combining marijuana and alcohol.
The biggest hurdle to that is a lack of research. While there is more known about how THC and alcohol interact, less is known about CBD.
Coalition is among the breweries finding the most success, in part because of its location. I consider myself someone who knows a little about weed, a lot about beer, and too much about Oregon. I was surprised to learn that Iâd never tried Coalition, a brewery less than 2 miles from my house. It opened in 2010 in Portlandâs Laurelhurst neighborhood. In a city where thereâs a new microbrewery launch every week, Coalition is a veteran of the scene. Still, the space is relatively small, with little to no indoor seating, which encourages patrons to enjoy its large, welcoming patio. (A risky move given Portlandâs six to nine months of rain, but we tolerate the elements for good beer.)
Coalition has two CBD beers in regular rotationâââits Two Flowers IPA and a lemon-basil sourâââas well as a few seasonal options. Once I tried them, I could see why CBD beers excited Coalitionâs brewers: The Two Flowers IPA was a happy surpriseâââit had the big flavor of an IPA, without all the bitterness. It was floral and bright, but not overly citrusy like some lighter IPAs. And the lemon-basil sour, Herbs of a Feather, was mouth-puckeringly tart, but also earthy while still refreshing. I loved them both. âThe idea behind the project is to highlight a natural synergy that exists between hops and hemp,â Walsky explained.
He added that in addition to the biological similarities between the plants, the craft brewing and CBD farming industries are also similar. For one, they deal with some of the same federal and state regulatory bodies, and a familiarity with navigating both has proved helpful. On a more basic level, craft beer drinkers and CBD users tend to have similar ideas about what products they prefer: high quality, locally sourced, environmentally and agriculturally sustainable.
Coalitionâs regional beer ambassador Phil Boyle says the companyâs interest in making a CBD beer stems from a very specific kind of dinner party in September 2016. âLuck would have it that we were invited to a cannabis industry event, an invite-only THC-infused dinner,â Boyle said. âWe consumed something like 2,500 milligrams of THC,â Walsky confessed.
âWe knew that people who were in that room could help us make the beer correctly, because at the time, we didnât know what we were doing,â Boyle explained in his Irish lilt, which distinguishes him from most stoner bros. Walsky and Boyle teamed up with chemical engineer Bill Stewart from Half Baked Labs, an edibles business, to understand how to work with these new ingredients. The brewery also works with a company called True Terpenes, which extracts terpenes from non-cannabis plants and then mimics strains like OG Kush and Pineapple Express in the form of oils. âThere are a lot of questions out there about the efficacy of synthetic CBD, so ultimately we decided to go with one extracted from plant material. Itâs more studied at this point,â says Boyle.
Coalition couldnâtâââor wouldnâtâââtell me everything about how it makes its CBD beers. âThe product that we use allows us to stay in full compliance, so weâve kind of been spearheading [the commercial CBD beer business] in Oregon,â Walsky said. When the DEA stated that CBD, as a cannabis extract, falls under the Controlled Substances Act, it forced Coalition to reformulate. After experimenting with various batches, Coalition released Two Flowers IPA, its first CBD beer, in December 2016.
âI canât give you too many details about what weâre doing, but weâre using a proprietary CBD product,â Walsky said. âItâs natural CBD but it doesnât fall under the Controlled Substances Act. âŚ So weâre using a proprietary product that allows us to remain compliant.â Walsky said that Coalition has exclusive use of this product, and he said many other breweries experimenting with CBD beers are taking a risk by simply hoping to slide under the regulatory radar or, worst case, get a slap on the wrist. Of making sure Coalitionâs CBD beers stay in compliance, Walsky grinned and said, âWe probably put our lawyersâ kids through college four times over.â
Giving brewers unfettered access to cannabis wonât happen overnight. Breweries will need to win over beer aficionados and convince them to care about policy. It will be difficult, so the path to a more viable CBD beer industry may first be beers that use non-CBD hemp.
There are ways to brew with parts of a cannabis plant without including CBD or THC, thus allowing brewers to skirt the myriad legal hold-ups plaguing cannabis beers. New Belgium is likely the most well-known brewery doing exactly that. The Colorado-based brewery was inspired to take a stab at a hemp beer after talking to people they knew in the local industrial hemp business.
âWe started doing some R&D off site and landed on a liquid we really liked and we brought it to the TTB and they were like, âHeck no, almost the entire hemp plant canât be used,ââ said New Belgium spokesperson Jesse Claeys. âWe think hemp can bring this whole new world of brewing ingredients to the hoppy beer segment, and thatâs really popular with craft brew makers.â
Federal regulations donât allow New Belgium to use the entire hemp flower, even though it doesnât contain THC and has very little CBD. It is allowed to use hemp hearts, and if there are trace amounts of CBD in those ingredients, New Belgium filters it out. âBut the terpenesâ flavor and aroma? We had to find a different way,â Claeys said. New Belgium used ingredients like orange peel, grapefruit, pine, and sap to try to mimic hempâs fingerprint. Even still, the beer wasnât approved for total interstate sale: It canât be sold in Kansas, where industrial hemp production is allowed only for research purposes.
Creating the Hemperor HPA was far more difficult for New Belgium than it was for the company to create any of its other beers. âThis beer is two, three years in the making,â Claeys said. âCompared to a normal process of making a beer and bringing it to market, this was at least double the length of time weâre used to.â Claeys said restrictive legislation convoluted the process. New Belgium used the beer release as an educational opportunity for the industry. The brewery partnered with Willie Nelsonâs GCH Inc., an organization dedicated to decriminalizing hemp and restoring its status as an incredibly diverse agricultural resource.
Brewers and growers are not the only ones trying to reintroduce hemp as a crop: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently introduced a measure that would declassify hemp as a Schedule I drug. McConnellâs motivation likely isnât supporting experimental brewingâââhe represents Kentucky, the second-largest producer of hemp in the United States. âWeâre surprised by some of our bedfellows,â Claeys said, laughing.
An alternative to pursuing CBD-adjacent beers is to make a CBD radlerâââpairing a non-alcoholic CBD soda with a beer. Bartenders, for example, will suggest a CBD ginger soda with an IPA, a sort of beer cocktail. The drinker can dump them into a glass together or drink them separately. This has a similar effect as a CBD beer, and in a recreational-use state the beverage doesnât have to jump through the same regulatory hoops that a CBD beer does.
Victoria Pustynsky, who runs a consulting business in Portland, recently created Aurora Elixirs, a CBD-infused tonic. Pustynsky worked in the wine and spirits industry for more than 12 years when she decided to take her expertise and move into the weed market. âThere are so many similarities [between the alcohol and weed industries]. Itâs regulated by the same agencies in many cases, itâs a three-tier system, highly localized, state run, and itâs this agricultural product that gets created into this recreational product,â she told me as we chatted at the Portland Hatch Innovation, a coworking center in the Green Mile, the stretch of dispensaries and weed-related business along Sandy Boulevard in northeast Portland.
She began work on Aurora about a year ago, and Pustynsky was confident it would stand out from other CBD nonalcoholic drinks. âThere were sickeningly sweet, gross juices, and everything was bro-centric and super hippy,â she said. The cannabis edibles market is now littered with artisanal chocolates, gummy candies, indulgent desserts, and pastries, but Pustynsky noticed there wasnât anything in the upscale CBD drink department.
Pustynsky created a drink that could be mixed with liquor or drank on its own as a tonic. The idea came easily, but the process of creating it shared plenty of similarities with those that brewers described. For example, thereâs the extraction process, in which you take CBD out of the plant. âWe wanted to understand all the different extraction processesâââthereâs oils, waxes, isolates,â Pustynsky said. The flavors were chosen based on their similarity to terpenes found in cannabis: rosemary, lavender, herbs and spices, grapefruitââânot dissimilar from how Coalition came up with its CBD beer lineup.
On a sunny April 20, Coalition held its inaugural CBD Beer Fest. The patio space was crowded, and a line for beer spanned the side of the building and spilled into the parking lot. A representative from True Terpenes running an informational station beckoned patrons to smell terpenes and learn more about their medicinal effects. A barbecue truck grilled meat in the parking lot, sending up delicious-smelling smoke, and everyone had one to two beers in hand. Many people were probably there to hear about the state of CBD regulation, but everyone was certainly there to drink the beer.
Coalition wants to remain a brewery first, Walsky and Boyle told me; the breweryâs CBD lineup isnât just an innovative way to package CBD and sell it outside a dispensary. And what it most certainly is not is a gimmick, which has become a dirty word in craft beer circles. âWe were really careful to make sure this was not a gimmick beer,â Walsky said. âThereâs a lot of marketing value to CBD. You could just dump some CBD in. But we worked really closely with the cannabis industry to make sure we were using the right products in the right ways, and on top of that, each of the beers [in the CBD lineup] use hops that have a terpene profile that has a connection to the plant.â Two Flowers, he said, has hops with a terpene profile that mimics hemp; the lemon-basil sour uses terpenes found in lemon. âWeâre a brewery, so these are beers for beer drinkers first and foremost. Itâs not going to be like âŚ Peeps- or candy cornâ or Fritos-flavored beer.â
Craft beer had a reputation for being snobby; now itâs earning one for being ridiculous. âPersonally, I think it is a novelty,â Thomas Shellhammer, a food science and technology professor at Oregon State University, said of CBD beer. Heâs not the only one who thinks CBD beer is merely an attention-grabber. Novelty craft beer is nearly a category unto itself. There is a dizzying amount of these excessive beer hybrids, and breweries rely on them not only to capture the passing interest of Instagram-happy foodies, but as a way to challenge themselves. There is a limited-edition Peeps beer. There is also a glitter beer. Thereâs beer from a 220-year-old shipwreck. There is (and as an Oregonian, I must apologize for this) a Sriracha beer.
âThe push to innovate and do something different and kind of separate yourself from the crowd is more intense than ever,â Weaver said. It is true that craft brewers increasingly need to stand out from their competition. Still, Weaver believes in CBD as more than a headline-generating fad. The big names investing in cannabis beer suggest that this is more than a momentary interest. Heineken-owned Lagunitas and Wiz Khalifa are both producing or looking into beer made with cannabis. Blue Moon creator Keith Villa is releasing a line of THC-infused nonalcoholic beers.
Coalition may quickly have more competition in the near future. For now, itâs solidified its place in Oregon, and is approaching the venture with an attitude beer lovers can appreciate. âWe have to make a tasty beer first,â says Boyle. âAnd itâs been at every level of bar. The high-end bars, the local bars, the dive bars. Beer is a great equalizer.â
And no, it wonât get you high. But it tastes really, really good.
On July 6, this piece was updated after publication with a statement by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Pustynsky.