When the Cool Beer Brewing Company launched its Millennium Buzz Hemp Beer in 2003, the Ontario Liquor Control Board didn’t know what to do with it. The marijuana leaf on the label didn’t help.
“It took them a while to wrap their heads around it and get the beer on shelves,” says Andrew Costa, the Ontario craft brewery’s marketing manager. “It took them a while to realize there’s a big difference between cannabis and hemp seeds.”
The two plants are closely related, but hemp doesn’t contain THC, the psychoactive compound that creates the marijuana high. The hemp seeds Cool Beer used are like the ones on grocery store shelves. They don’t even have CBD, the other main cannabis compound with promising medical attributes. The toasted seeds just added a caramel flavour to the amber ale.
Up until now, no beer has contained CBD or THC. But that is about to change as the federal government prepares to add beverages and other edibles to the list of legal cannabis products. The tweaks to the Cannabis Act open the taps to new flavours and new drinkers.
“So many brewers are teaming up with cannabis growers,” says Costa. “It’s going to be hard to stay ahead of the large corporations like Molson and Labatt. But we’ve got a lot of knowledge of how to mix hemp with the brewing process. I think it will help.”
Cool Beer faces some frothy competition. Molson Coors Canada has a joint venture with Hexo Corp., a cannabis producer. Labatt’s parent Anheuser-Busch InBev has an agreement with Tilray, a global cannabis firm, and is a major investor in Canopy Growth, one of Canada’s largest cannabis firms. Many smaller brewers are also looking to get in on the green.
Most plan to add CBD or THC oil rather than fermenting cannabis along with other traditional ingredients like hops, malt, wheat, and barley. The reason comes down to control.
“It’s easy to control the alcohol content during fermentation, but it’s not the same for CBD or THC,” explains Simon Barna, the head brewer at Nelson Brewing Company in British Columbia. “We can lab test the oil to know the percentages and then add it to beer to dial in the concentration. It’s much more exact, which is what we think Health Canada will be looking for.”
Only one brewer, Province Brands of Canada, has announced plans to use the plant itself. That’s been the company’s focus since its founding in 2016. After a couple years of experimenting they built a brewery in Grimsby, Ontario where they’ll use off-cuts from cannabis cultivation in the fermentation process.
“Our beer is brewed from the stalks, stem, and roots of the cannabis plant,” says Dooma Wendschuh, CEO and co-founder of Province Brands. “The flavour is dry, savoury, less sweet than a typical beer flavour.”
At least nine craft brewers, including Lake of the Woods, have signed agreements to use Province Brands technology to craft their cannabis beers. None of it is available yet as everyone awaits the final regulations for cannabis beer, but brewers are pretty sure about one thing: any buzz will only come from one source. Health Canada has said products with THC and CBD can’t contain alcohol as well.
That requirement leaves craft brewers at a disadvantage; the filtering process to remove alcohol is expensive and none are currently making alcoholic free beer. However, adding unique ingredients plays right into their strength.
“We’re all about experimenting,” says Costa. “That’s what craft beer is all about and cannabis is not that different from many of the ingredients we already work with. We can get any flavour of any strain into the beer. Or with CBD there can be no taste at all. It’s going to be really interesting to see how it all plays out.”