For a short while on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea, small-brewer Jan Fidora has been brewing beer with cannabis. He successfully advertises as “Mellenthiner Cannabis” and the 1000 litres he brewed in autumn sold out in almost three weeks.
He has since announced that he will triple his production in 2019. But the brewer doesn’t see himself as the trailblazer for the controversial legalzsation of cannabis. In fact, the hotelier and brewer asserts that he is against drugs.
Fiodora is not alone in making hemp beer. Thanks to the trend towards craft beers, beers with ginger, cinnamon or other exotic spices have started turning up in supermarkets. Other brewers discovered cannabis as an ingredient long ago; they call it “Cannabis Club Sud” or Münsterländer hemp. But as many brewers nowadays use hemp as a raw material, there are no official figures.
Since hemp may be grown in Germany in unintoxicating varieties and also as an industrial crop, it is increasingly used as an ingredient in foodstuffs, stated the Federal Institute for the Evaluation of Risk (BfR).
The content of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), which triggers the intoxicating effect when smoking, is not allowed to exceed 0.2 percent of the crop. For its use in foodstuffs, the plant is even more stringently regulated. According to the BfR, the THC content in drinks is limited to five micrograms for cooking oils, 5000 micrograms and in other products, 150 micrograms per kilogram.
How cannabis is giving beer a boost
Hemp is benefiting from two trends. On the one hand, the growing popularity of craft beer means that craft brewers are using hemp as an experimental raw ingredient. Secondly, the discussion about the legalization of cannabis has profited from the advertising of the drink. There is no difference between hemp and cannabis, yet while hemp sounds organic, cannabis sounds seedy and sexy.
“Cannabis naturally has an eye-catching function,” says Urban Winkler, operations manager of the monastery brewery Weissenohe in Bavaria, which has produced mixed beer “Cannabis Club Sud” since 2001. A father finds it cool to buy his son a “Cannabis Sud” with a cannabis leaf on the label for his 18th birthday. Winkler is convinced that the plant is undervalued in Germany – as a fibre in insulation or clothing as well as in foodstuff.
Brewers are increasingly experimenting with raw materials and are bringing new beer creations to the market which no longer follow the Reinheitsgebot – the Holy Grail of the German art of brewing, a 502-year-old purity requirement.
The total number of breweries is increasing, according to figures from the German Brewers’ Association, and that’s despite sinking beer sales. Since 2009, 161 production sites have been established, but at the same time, the rate of beer sales has sunk from 100 million hectolitres in 2009, to around 93.5 million in 2017.
“The current wave of setting up small breweries in Germany is primarily due to the fashion for craft beers,” says chief manager Holger Eichele. Yet the market proportion of craft beers of 0.5 percent (7.8 million litres) is low.
Beer with hemp: an age old tradition
Moreover, beer with hemp is an old hat. “Hemp leaves have been used for more than a hundred years as flavouring, either as a supplement in the mash, or in the storage tank,” Eichele explains.
Until the introduction of the Reinheitsgebot in 1516, hemp was one of the basic ingredients. In the 19th century, the cannabis plant experienced a renaissance in beer, until the opium law of 1929 also classified hemp as a narcotic.
Only a few kilometres from Fidora’s brewery on Usedom, the organic farmer Dirk Schramm is cultivating industrial hemp of the sort used by Fidora. Normally he produces upmarket hemp oil from hemp seeds, but this year the harvest has been very bad due to the weather, he claims. And that’s how the idea to create a beer from the flowers and leaves came about.
Fidora says he experimented at first with his hemp beer production. When he put the flowers and leaves picked from the stem into the mash, the best aroma was released, he says. He also described the reaction of consumers who had enjoyed his beer: the ones who smoked reported a light intoxicating effect similar to that of a joint.
Non-smokers reported nothing other than the usual effects of alcohol. Fidora thinks that the taste of weed triggers an association with smoking a joint and a placebo effect in smokers.