The Short History and Uncertain Future of CBD Beer

The Short History and Uncertain Future of CBD Beer

CBD Beer “So, does it get you high?”

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 it’s 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 they’re so difficult to make, whether I’ll ever be able to legally buy one on store shelves — and most importantly, why brewers so badly want to make them.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is not a hallucinogen; it’s 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 “cousins.” Biologically, the two are incredibly similar, and CBD has familiar yet exciting new effects when infused in beer. “They’re the most closely related plants in the family cannabaceae, genetically speaking,” says Walsky. “So from a practical standpoint it means they’re producing a lot of the same terpenes, or flavor and aromatic compounds.”

That seemingly simple explanation has done little to convince state and federal regulators that combining CBD and alcohol won’t result in some kind of super-dosed booze. (Perhaps they’re 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. “The idea is not to make some kind of chimera of intoxicants,” Walsky said. “CBD is nonpsychoactive. The idea is really to highlight these similarities.” 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 with — and 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 topple — and 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. It’s 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 can’t 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. “There are three layers — at least two, but potentially three,” he said. “Federal law, state law, and you may have local ordinances.”

Brewers are required to submit all beer formulas to the TTB for approval, and if there’s 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. “Let’s say I produce a beer here in Virginia. I brew it here, I sell it here, it does not leave the state,” he said. “I don’t have to have a label that’s approved federally to get it out in the market. If I’m selling it outside Virginia, I need federal approval.”

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 they’re 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. Alex Weaver’s 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 state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission denied the brewery, and that mandate is likely to stand for the near future. Vermont’s Long Trail Brewing faced a similar fate. While recreational weed use is legal in the state, the brewery’s CBD beer, Medicator, was shut down by federal regulators. San Francisco’s Black Hammer met the same fate.The Short History and Uncertain Future of CBD Beer

Weaver said his brewery approached the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission in March 2018 hoping to be the first in the state to sell a CBD beer. “It was still very much uncharted territory for [the commission]. So we knew that, and to be frank, we knew the answer wasn’t going to be ‘yes’ right away,” 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 “adulteration of alcohol” and both their manufacture and sale would remain illegal. “They never said it was a direct response to us, but I can say the timing was very, very likely not a coincidence,” Weaver said. (The commission did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.)

Most brewers I talked to said that lack of understanding about the differences between CBD and THC is the chief reason they’re 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 enforcement’s worries it would lead to laxer drug enforcement laws. “The governor’s office doesn’t want this bill, the prosecutors don’t want this bill, the Office on Drug Policy doesn’t want this bill,” Lee Heider, the committee’s 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 I’d never tried Coalition, a brewery less than 2 miles from my house. It opened in 2010 in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood. In a city where there’s 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 Portland’s six to nine months of rain, but we tolerate the elements for good beer.)

Coalition has two CBD beers in regular rotation — its Two Flowers IPA and a lemon-basil sour — as well as a few seasonal options. Once I tried them, I could see why CBD beers excited Coalition’s brewers: The Two Flowers IPA was a happy surprise — it 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. “The idea behind the project is to highlight a natural synergy that exists between hops and hemp,” 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 […]

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