After pushing pale ales to the edge of bearable bitterness, brewers are starting to get hopped up on the new hot thing in the world of beer: cannabis. Craft breweries around the country are experimenting with drinks that look and taste like beer but use tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), not alcohol, as their intoxicating ingredient.
In January, Flying Dog Brewery and Green Leaf Medical Cannabis, both of Frederick, Maryland, announced plans to release a joint beer called Hop Chronic. To avoid tangling with federal regulators, Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso in February told Reason's Eric Boehm that the brewing and cannabis-infusion processes will be kept separate. He also spoke about the government shutdown's deleterious effect on seasonal beer releases and how excessive regulation of alcohol labels hurts one of America's most robust domestic industries.
Q: Where did the idea for Hop Chronic beer come from?
A: The idea came from getting to know our new neighbors, Green Leaf Medical, a cannabis grower within walking distance of the brewery. We learned from Phil Goldberg, the CEO and founder, and the other people over there about how it's processed and the various routes of delivery for people who want to experience the therapeutic benefits. They began operations after Maryland legalized medical marijuana [in 2017]. Everything is fairly new in this state—it's just been a couple years.
We liked the guys; they liked us. They've been over to the tasting room to try some of our beers and, of course, the conversation led to whether we could make a nonalcoholic beer that they could infuse with marijuana.
Q: How do you make a beer that's nonalcoholic and that mixes well with weed?
A: It's interesting, because we have never brewed, for commercial purposes, a nonalcoholic beer before. But that market seems to be increasing, and cannabis and hops are literally related in terms of their DNA, so we're very confident we can come up with an IPA that blends well with the flavor of cannabis.
Q: Is marijuana part of the brewing process or something that's added after the beer is finished?
A: Because of the law, it is strictly prohibited for us to have cannabis here at the brewery. We do not have that license. I wouldn't say that we literally take it next door, but sort of. We will be brewing the non-alcoholic beer, and then it goes to Green Leaf Medical for them to infuse, produce, package, and distribute through their network and their retail stores.
Q: Is there a real market for this sort of cannabis-beer product that goes beyond people just wanting to say they've tried it?
A: There's certainly a bit of gimmicky element anytime you do something new, but I have noticed a trend toward what some people call "mindful drinking." That includes low-alcohol or nonalcoholic beers. I think that is a real market.
As I've gotten to know more about the marijuana industry and the people who really do want this for the therapeutic benefits, it does seem to me that they shouldn't be forced into smoking, or using creams or edibles, when they want to experience the benefits through a beverage. If you enjoy the taste of beer, then that would be a very appropriate method for experiencing the benefits of CBD.
Q: How did the government shutdown, which extended to the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, affect beer makers?
A: It's a big problem. Most breweries, like Flying Dog, do special releases for the spring and summer. In this case, we will either miss that window—so we will sell less beer—or it will be a shortened season.
If you're doing a spring beer, you need the approval [for the label] in the winter. You're not going to go out there and produce hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of packaging and not know whether you have to tweak the label a little bit. So we're stuck, and we'll have a couple special releases that we can't sell anywhere.
I'd like to see this whole thing go away. What they should do is say, "Hey, you have to say this on the label in this size font, and if we see it in the market otherwise, we're going to fine you." There's no reason for them to have to look at 200,000 labels every year.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.