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High on Hops

Nov 26, 2018 05:07PM ● By Leland Rucker
Keith Villa is no stranger to beer. He was an employee of MillerCoors for 32 years helping to build the Coors brand before he retired in Jan. 2018.

Now he’s creating a line of beer-ish products under the CERIA label that will be on shelves in the coming months. Instead of alcohol, these beers will contain THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis. The goal is to offer a THC high with the predictability of beer, and he hopes to have it on the market by fall. “You know what happens when you drink one or two or three beers,” he says. “We want you to get that same experience every time.”

It’s a tall order, but Villa is just one of many entrepreneurs loitering at the growing juncture between craft beer and pot. People love beer, and they love cannabis, and who can blame people for trying to find some synergy between the two? You can get cannabis in tinctures and salves and consume cannabis oil via vaporizers and dab rigs. Why not inside a carefully crafted beer?

The market possibilities are mind-boggling. Legal cannabis is now about a $15 billion business, but the illegal market is at least three to four times larger than that, making it appetizing for investors. American conglomerate Constellation Brands, the corporate overlord of Corona and Modelo Especial beers, now owns a $3.9 billion stake in Canopy Growth Corporation, the largest Canadian cannabis grower, and there’s speculation that the move might be the beginning of a bid for complete ownership. At the least, it confirms a commitment to become seriously involved with Canopy.

Molson Coors, Blue Moon’s parent company, is also looking into the Canadian market, which is set to open for legal adult sales this month and which has far fewer regulatory hurdles than states in the US where cannabis is legal.

“This is an enormous opportunity to create a full industry comparable to the beer industry,” says attorney Steve Lenn, a partner at the Greenspoon Marder business law firm, which works largely with mergers and Fortune 500 companies. He says an investment this large helps legitimize the industry. “Think of what that means in the ramp of opportunity,” he says. “This kind of money is going to draw investment bankers like honey to bees. In terms of the world market, I don’t know how big it could become.”

In the States, hemp/hop beers are popping up around the country. Colorado beer maker New Belgium sells Hemperor HPA—a new style of IPA made from hemp and hops—and Lagunitas Brewing Company, a California brand owned by Heineken, last year released a limited run of SuperCritical Ale, a THC-free brew made with hops and infused with cannabis terpenes. This spring, the company introduced Hi-Fi Hops, an IPA-inspired sparkling water infused with THC, to dispensary shelves in California. As legalization spreads, it seems, the sky’s the limit for beer and pot.

CBD in Hops Plants

Family bonds are another reason for the symbiotic relationship between the cannabis and the hops plants. Dr. Bomi Joseph was the first to identify the cannabinoids THC and CBD in a plant that isn’t cannabis when he found them in Humulus, or hops, which give beers their distinctive flavors.

Cannabis and hops both belong to Cannabaceae, a small family of flowering plants that also includes hackberries. Joseph was seeking substances that might have a positive effect on liver cancer cells when he ran across cannabidiol (CBD), and soon found out that it is federally illegal because it comes from the cannabis plant. “I was restricted from using cannabis,” he says.

And I wanted to get my hands on cannabidiol and couldn’t find it.”
He had to look elsewhere for a CBD source and found several strains in Humulus plants. Because all hops plants in the United States are controlled by beer companies who find the right combinations of flavors and compounds, patent them, and reproduce them endlessly, Joseph roamed the Silk Road regions of India and Mongolia to find wild varieties. “We started looking for nothing more than wild hops,” he says. “If you want the wild stuff, you have to go into the wild.”
Joseph spent nearly three quarters of a year collecting the plants he needed. “It took eight months of mucking around to get samples. I was possessed,” he says. “When I think about it now, today I wouldn’t have done it. My friends said, ‘What are you thinking?’”

He came back with plenty of specimens and hired botanists and experts to crossbreed the strains, and they came up with an oil containing 18 percent CBD. He has applied for a patent for Real Scientific Humulus Oil (RHSO-K), the first non-cannabis CBD oil on the market, for sale at the company’s website, REALSCIENTIFICHEMPOIL.COM.

Joseph admits the hops/cannabis connection is more marketing tool than reality. “Everybody uses the word hops for our stuff,” he says. “But if you’re a botanist, you say, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ It is a Humulus, the same species, but not the plant that gives you beer flavor.”

Big Science

Blue Moon’s Villa explains that CERIA Beverages is vying to introduce a line of cannabis-infused nonalcoholic craft beverages containing THC. Basically, he says, they will brew beer, then extract all the alcohol and infuse it instead with special concoctions of cannabinoids and terpenes to produce the desired effect. His goal is for all consumers to have quantifiable, comparable experiences every time. There’s a lot of science involved, and CERIA partnered with Colorado-based cannabis research company Ebbu to create the infusions for the new brews. Ebbu has been researching terpenes and cannabinoids since 2013 and sells a line of exclusive oil products. 

Ebbu president Jon Cooper says the company is working with others beyond CERIA that are interested in cannabis and beer collaborations. There’s a growing market for cannabis-curious people who don’t want to smoke cannabis, he says. “We know how to drink. Our piece of the technology is to figure out how to control the experience like with a beer in a product that tastes the same and smells the same.”

Cannabis plants are notably dissimilar and contain dozens of compounds that vary even from plant to plant. “It’s like chemical chaos,” Cooper says. “How can we create a consistent experience from the chaos of the plant? We tear it down to individual ingredients, so you have what you need to make a consistent product. To deliver that awesome experience, we have to get super geeky. It’s the same way we do in medicine.”

Staying Nimble

After Lagunitas Brewing Company released Super-Critical beer made with hops and hemp, the state shut it down. “We were told we couldn’t do that,” says Lagunitas’ marketing rep Karen Hamilton. “No CBD or THC. It was unexpected. We didn’t realize that.”

While waiting for things to change, the company did its research and came up with a fun idea in Hi-Fi Hops, which are 12-ounce cans of sparkling water infused with cannabis. There are two varieties or doses: one with 5 milligrams of CBD and THC, and the other with 10 milligrams of THC. Both varieties are now on sale in California. 

The company is marketing Hi-Fi with some clever hints that it contains cannabis—“this drink will get you high, just don’t call it beer”—and Hamilton says that sales have been going strong in dispensaries. “It’s selling like crazy, so we had to limit how much per person each consumer could buy,” she says. “That’s a good problem to have.”

New Belgium Brewing in Ft. Collins, CO is celebrating the passage of the 2014 Farm bill, which changed the way the federal government regulates industrial hemp and could loosen restrictions, with its Hemperor hemp-and-hops HPA, which public relations coordinator Jesse Claeys says “showcases the game-changing union of hop and hemp.”

At first, Hi-Fi was made from hemp flowers. When this ran afoul of the federal ban on hemp, so New Belgium started using de-shelled hemp seeds instead. 

New Belgium has partnered with Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Reserve cannabis company for an education campaign about bringing hemp back into the mainstream. “Right now all efforts are about using beer to have a conversation,” Claeys says. “We really think we have a good shot on the Farm Bill this year. Let’s get the laws changed and updated, and then let’s brew the beer we want to make.”