Cannabis’ closest botanical cousin, the hop plant, has been an integral part of the beer-brewing process for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The hop plant is characterised by a tangy, fragrant taste and aroma, which is often compared to that of cannabis. Thus, some brewers now experiment with using cannabis along with hops.
Beer-brewing explained in brief
Simply put, the process of brewing beer involves taking a starchy source material (typically a cereal grain such as barley), converting this source into a sugary substance known as wort, and fermenting the sugary wort until the sugars (at least partially) turn to alcohol. The fermentation process is effected by use of yeast, which produces enzymes that convert sugars into ethanol.
In the initial stage of the process, crushed, malted cereal grains (known as ‘grist’) are mashed with hot water (known to brewers as ‘liquor’) in a large container known as a mash tun. Malted grains are those that have had the germination process triggered by immersion in water, which are then prevented from germinating fully through exposure to hot air. The malting process triggers the development of enzymes required to transform the starches into sugars. After 1-2 hours of ‘mashing’, the starches are mostly converted to sugars, and the water (which now contains the dissolved sugars) is filtered off. This mixture of water and dissolved sugars is the wort.
Next, the wort is placed into a kettle (traditionally copper) and boiled for around one hour. This allows the water to evaporate off and the sugars to become concentrated. This stage also ensures that residual enzymes left over from the mashing stage are destroyed. During the boiling stage, hops are added to the kettle. This may occur at any point during the boil, and may be repeated once or more at various stages. The hops impart bitterness, fragrance and flavour to the brew: the longer they boil, the more bitter the end result, but flavour and fragrance is sacrificed. Once hops are added to the mixture, it is known as ‘hopped wort’.
After boiling, the hopped wort is cooled and placed in a large vat known as a fermenter, and yeast is introduced. Thus, the process of fermentation can begin. The process may take as little as a week, or as long as several months, depending on the variety of yeast used and the alcohol content of the end result. The beer is often fermented more than once, in a series of two or more fermenters. As well as converting the sugars present into ethanol, the process allows the fine particulate matter held in suspension to settle. Once fermentation is complete, the yeast also settles, so that the end product is clear.
After the fermentation process is complete, more sugar is added to the brew; the leftover yeast remaining in the beer begins to react with it, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide—the source of the carbonation in fizzy drinks. This stage of the brewing process is known as ‘priming’ or ‘conditioning’, and is usually the final process performed prior to bottling. After the sugar is added, the brew is left for around a week to allow the majority of the carbonation to dissipate—otherwise, if bottled too early, excess carbonation could cause pressure to build up and bottles to distort or burst.
Using hops in the brewing process
Prior to the introduction of hops, a blend of herbs known as ‘gruit’ was the primary flavouring agent used in beer brewing. It is important to note that hops are used primarily as a flavour and stability enhancer; their presence is not essential to the beer brewing process, and many beers throughout history have been brewed using alternative flavourings.
As well as providing flavour and aroma, hops are known to exert a selective antibacterial effect, which allows the activity of yeast to occur unhindered but inhibits the actions of unwanted bacteria. When hops first began to be used extensively in brewing, it was soon noted that brews made with hops were less prone to spoilage than other beers, due to this unusual property of the plant.
Hop resins contain two main forms of natural acid, known as alpha and beta acids, and hops themselves are classified according to the percentage of alpha acid they contain. Alpha acids have a mild antibacterial effect, which selectively favours the activity of yeast in the fermentation process, and contribute to the bitterness of the beer. While beta acids do not contribute to the bitterness or overall flavour of the brew, they do contribute aroma, and hops high in beta acids are often added to the wort at the end of the boil.
There are striking similarities between the hop plant and the cannabis plant, and their respective growing methods and characteristics. Cannabis and hops are both dioecious plant species, meaning that they usually develop into separate male and female plants—although in rare cases, plants may be monoecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Only the female hop flowers are used to flavour beer, and just as with cannabis, the presence of seeds is undesirable; thus, the males plants are culled—or if the hops are propagated vegetatively, male plants are not grown at all.
Flavouring alternatives in beer brewing
Gruit, the traditional herbal blend used to flavour beer, typically included wild herbs common in northern Europe such as sweet gale (Myrica gale), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), heather (Calluna vulgaris), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Some gruit blends also included smaller quantities of black henbane, juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. As well as providing flavour, it is now known that some gruit ingredients boasted antibacterial properties of their own.
During the 1990s, the USA and Europe experienced a revival in enthusiasm for craft beers brewed in independent microbreweries; along with this came a renewed interest in unhopped beers and ales brewed with gruit blends or ingredients. European examples include Gageleer (also using sweet gale) from Proefbrouwerij in Belgium; Fraoch (flavoured with sweet gale, ginger and heather flowers) and Alba (using pine twigs and spruce buds) from Williams Bros in Scotland; Myrica (with sweet gale) from O’Hanlons in England, and Cervoise from Brittany-based brewer Lancelot (which uses a gruit blend consisting of heather flowers, spices and hops).
As the craft beer movement gained popularity, so too did the trend for home-brewing. Thus, in the privacy of their own homes, craft beer enthusiasts who also enjoyed cannabis soon began to experiment with combining the two. Now, it possible to find various recipes that these dedicated home-brewing enthusiasts have refined and been generous enough to share with the world.
Beer brewed with hemp already commercially available
Beer brewed with hemp may be sold anywhere in the U.S., provided that it tests negative for THC; various hemp beers have at some point been available, including O’Fallon Hemp Hop Rye, Cannabia Hemp Beer, Weed Golden Ale, Lagunitas Waldos’ Special Ale, SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale, and Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale.
In order to win the approval of the federal government for nationwide sale, the marketing and styling of a hemp beer brand must not reference or glamorise cannabis. In Washington, a locally-brewed beer known as Joint Effort has been quietly growing in popularity—first sold on tap in July 2013, and shortly followed by bottles in October that same year, Joint Effort is now available in over eighty locations throughout the state. However, due to the unashamedly cannabis-related marketing, the beverage has been rejected for nationwide sale by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Joint Effort, created by Redhook Ale Brewery and Hilliard’s Beer, is embellished with the tag-line ‘a dubious collaboration between two buds’. In bars that carry the brew on draft, pull handles are made from bongs purchased from local head shops. The flavour and aroma is also intended to evoke that of cannabis, and is reported to do so quite effectively.
Can cannabis beer be made psychoactive?
Home-brewers across the world, particularly in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, have experimented with adding cannabis to beer, with varying degrees of success. Accurate details are difficult to find, as many forums can give imprecise and misleading advice. Most agree that prior to adding the cannabis, the dried bud should be soaked in cool filtered water to remove chlorophyll and water-soluble tars, which can negatively impact the overall flavour.
Some sources state that cannabis should be added to the wort at the boiling stage (although this may cause much of the terpenes to be stripped), while others hold that adding cannabis at flameout (immediately after the wort is removed from the heat source) ensures full flavour and maximum THC extraction. Others maintain that adding dried cannabis buds after the wort has cooled is more effective (similarly to how beer can be ‘dry-hopped’, allowing maximum flavour and aroma to develop).
Most home-brewers seem to agree that cannabis should be added once initial fermentation has ended, and the sugars present have mostly transformed into ethanol. This appears to be the most logical approach, as it most effectively enables the cannabinoids present to be extracted and for the beer to become psychoactive. Some specify that cannabis should be added when the beer is added to the second fermenter, allowing a week or more for the cannabinoids to become extracted.
Which beers are best brewed with cannabis?
According to various reports, the best styles to accommodate experimentation with cannabis include Imperial IPAs, barley wines, stouts and pale ales. Styles like these are usually relatively high in alcohol; ideally, an alcohol content of 6.5% to 8% ABV will allow the THC and other cannabinoids to be extracted. Some home-brewers will take the alcohol content as high as 10% ABV, to create an end product with serious kick.
Cannabis barley wines are particularly popular with home-brewers, and yield end results that are packed with flavour, alcohol, and THC. However, the flavours may be overwhelming to all but the most adventurous beer drinkers. Generally, IPAs and pale ales are more forgiving to the untutored palate, and provided that a good malt backbone is present, the hop and cannabis flavours should not be too overpowering.
Most home-brewers experiment several times to develop cannabis-infused beers that match up to requirements. Cannabis has unique and complex flavours that are not immediately appreciated by everyone, and that can be hard to blend with subtlety. However, when successful, cannabis beers can be excellent in flavour and aroma, and provide a distinct effect of both cannabis and alcohol.
Brewing cannabis beer with ‘green dragon’ extract
If the priority is brewing an end result that packs a powerful THC punch, it is possible to utilise a different technique. Instead of adding cannabis directly to the wort, in this method cannabis is infused in high strength alcohol such as vodka to make a substance commonly known as ‘green dragon’ extract. The extract is added to the beer at the end of the brewing process, prior to the ‘priming’ or conditioning stage.
The conditioning stage usually involves use of a priming solution comprised of sugar and water, which is added directly to the wort. When creating cannabis-infused beers using this method, it is reportedly best to add the cannabis extract to the priming solution before adding the resulting mixture to the wort. When adding the mixture to the wort, care must be taken to stir smoothly and avoid splashing—too much disturbance to the surface of the brew once fermentation is complete can cause oxidation and staling. Once the mixture has been slowly stirred into the wort, the blend is left for around a week, to allow carbonation to occur.
It is preferable to make the green dragon extract as close as possible to the time of brewing, as storing it for too long can cause it to lose potency and take on an intensely bitter flavour. Many erroneously believe that ethanol tinctures of cannabis should be left for up to a month to fully extract the cannabinoids; however, this just allows the chlorophyll and plant tars to be extracted. Instead, a quick-wash method is preferable, whereby the cannabis is only allowed to steep in the alcohol for a maximum of thirty minutes before being strained and separated. The alcohol can then be evaporated off by heating the mixture, until it achieves a syrupy consistency—it is not advised to fully evaporate off the alcohol, as the green dragon will mix more easily into the brew when it is still liquid.
Determining the correct quantity of green dragon extract to add to the brew can be tricky. If too much alcohol is added to the wort, it can actually cause the yeast to die, and the process of priming will be affected. For some species of wild yeast, die-off may begin when the overall alcohol content of the wort is as low as 5%; for Sacchaomyces cerevisiae, the species most commonly used in brewing, alcohol content may be as high as 17%. As long as attention is paid to the strength of the green dragon extract, it should be easy to avoid reaching such high alcohol content. Typically, it seems that a concentration of up to 0.5g of cannabis per finished bottle of beer is optimum, to ensure a well-rounded buzz from both cannabis and alcohol.
Recipes for home-brewed cannabis beer
For absolute beginners, and those wishing to steer clear of the deeper vagaries of home-brewing, the simplest technique involves purchasing a basic home-brew kit (such as a Mr Beer Kit) and following the instructions. Then, add dried cannabis flowers one week prior to bottling.
For those who have more advanced knowledge of brewing, there are various recipes available. People that are new to brewing often utilise a process known as ‘extract brewing’—with this method, the brewer can skip the stage of mashing whole grains to produce wort. Instead, malt extracts and hops are added to water and heated to produce wort; this process is considerably simpler and requires less equipment and skill.
The more advanced brewers, who prefer to maintain a ‘purist’ approach to brewing, are more likely to utilise the all-grain method of brewing described in the opening section of this article. Below is a recipe to produce five gallons, adapted both for one for the extract brewing method and another for the all-grain method.
- 1lbs caramel 20l malt
- 3lbs extra light dry malt extract
- 4lbs pale malt extract
- 6oz hops (Brewer’s yeast)
- 1-3oz cannabis (1oz of fine quality, up to 3oz of lower quality or trim)
- 10lbs Belgian pale malt
- 1lbs Belgian biscuit
- 1/2 lbs of caramel 20l
- 1oz hops 10-12% AABW
- 3oz hops 4-6% AABW
- Wyeast American Ale Yeast 1056
- 1oz fine quality cannabis
This recipe, posted by forum user MotaLeon, holds that the best time to add the cannabis is when the beer is transferred from the first to the second fermenter, along with an ounce of hops—essentially a dry-hop method. The beer should also be conditioned for one to two weeks prior to bottling.