Small craft breweries anticipate large beverage corporations will push for change in the cannabis-infused beer market
For Sarah Luker, Transplants Brewing Company’s head brewer, the combination of cannabis and beer always felt like a natural fit. After all, there are strong chemical similarities between cannabis flowers and hop flowers, and breweries are constantly appropriating stoner terminology like “dank” and “kush” for their hoppy beers.
“Honestly, we were smokers before we were drinkers, so the idea of anything cannabis-related was intriguing,” says Luker, who co-owns the Palmdale craft brewery along with husband and former home-brewing partner Matt Luker, as well as Corey Cordovano. “It was something we were always interested in.”
Earlier this year, Transplants released an IPA called CatBirD that was infused with an extract of hemp-derived CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid famed for its anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving powers. The beer sold like gangbusters at a premium price, with each $9 pint carrying a roughly 10 milligrams payload of CBD.
“We had older people that would come in or somebody who injured themselves, who would say, ‘I had this one beer and now my joints don’t hurt as much,’ and it was in a method that was comfortable for them to consume.”
Unfortunately, the feds raided the party in May, as Transplants became one of several breweries to receive a letter from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, ordering them to stop production on any cannabis-related beers.
“They were going to people’s social media, their websites, and obviously we weren’t hiding it, so they found out,” Luker says. “They were very nice, because we had beer fermenting at that time, and they let us go through that. They didn’t ask us to do anything but stop making it.”
SN&R could not find any Sacramento breweries that released a CBD beer, but San Francisco-based Black Hammer, which created eight CBD-laced brews, also received a letter from the TTB. Like Transplants, they were permitted to sell the CBD beer that was already fermenting for on-site consumption at their taproom. Meanwhile, Heineken-owned Lagunitas earlier this year introduced Hi-Fi Hops, a hoppy, nonalcoholic water-infused beverage with the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, but it’s only available at dispensaries.
“It’s beer companies coming out with water,” Luker says. “That’s not the game that I’m in.”
According to one legal expert, it may be a long time before any craft brewery legally produces an alcoholic beer containing CBD.
“The ingredients that go into beer are governed by the TTB,” says Dan Croxall, a McGeorge professor who teaches the only craft beer law class offered for credit at an American law school. “Because of the state of the administration we have in power, it seems very unlikely to me that the TTB will ever say that it’s OK to add marijuana-based products to your beer.”
That crackdown on the federal level has been just as severe on the state level. Two weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the sale of CBD beverages in bars and restaurants, effectively killing a CBD cocktail scene that briefly flourished following recreational legalization.
Meanwhile, international beverage conglomerates are getting in position to dominate the nascent cannabis beverage market in Canada. Constellation Brands, which owns everything from Svedka Vodka to Clos du Bois wine to Corona beer to “fake craft” brands like Ballast Point, recently purchased a stake in Canopy Growth Corporation, the largest marijuana producer in Canada.
Luker is hopeful that well-funded corporations will push for changes in the law that might allow her to brew CatBirD again, but Croxall is more skeptical about the long-term benefits of big companies seizing control.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Croxall says. “… If the big guys own all the production capabilities, it could be difficult for the little guy to get in.”