Beer has a new competitor. Research published earlier this year by two American universities showed that alcohol sales were down 15% in US states where medical marijuana had been legalised. In March of last year, Forbes reported that the beer industry in North America could potentially lose $2 billion because of legal marijuana.

“The marijuana industry could fuel alcohol’s next growth cycle or instead suffocate an industry already on the defensive,” wrote Spiros Malandrakis, senior analyst with market research provider Euromonitor International. “The cannabis revolution is in full swing while the alcohol industry appears to be largely sitting on the fence, drink in hand, occasionally throwing crumpled cans in the general direction of the on-going legalisation debate.” Malandrakis wrote his report in September 2017 and since then it seems the beer industry has at least climbed down from the fence, tossed their cans into the recycling and taken stock of the changes. And now many breweries are scrambling to get a piece of the marijuana pie.

The trailblazers

This August, Constellation Brands, parent company of Corona, invested $4 billion in Canopy Growth, a Canadian medical marijuana grower. The company has stated that they don’t plan to make any cannabis beers until the plant is legal on a federal level in the US, but clearly see that when it comes to recreational drugs, the future is green. And they’re not the only ones. Molson Coors recently entered into a joint venture with Quebec cannabis producer Hydropothecary Corp to develop non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused beers for the Canadian market. Canada became the second country (after Uruguay) to fully legalise recreational cannabis in October 2018 and it’s already legal or decriminalised in many US states.

Brewers in some of those states have been working on ways to incorporate weed into beer for years. In 2016, Dad & Dudes Breweria launched the USA’s first cannabis-infused beer, followed soon afterwards by Oregon’s Coalition Brewing with their Two Flowers IPA and Lagunitas’ SuperCritical IPA. All three were THC-free, instead containing non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) or terpenes.

Lagunitas have since reassessed their cannabis offering, launching Hi-Fi Hops earlier this year.
Dubbed hoppy sparkling water, the “IPA-inspired” non-alcoholic beverage replaces booze with THC. The idea is to give a similar buzz to beer but with zero calories and without the worry of a hangover. On the downside, you can’t open a can and sip at bar – it has to be purchased at a licenced marijuana enterprise and drunk in the confines of your own home.

Alcohol-free or THC-free

They’re not the only ones heading down the non-alc route, although others are still using malt as a base. In the US, many eyes are on Ceria Beverages, headed up by Keith Villa, founder of Miller Coors’ “crafty” witbier, Blue Moon. Ceria is getting ready to launch three variants of their cannabis beer, which is brewed as a normal beer and later “de-alcoholised” before being infused with the plant. The beer will be offered in three THC strengths.

Further north in Canada, one company is even working on a way to brew a “beer” using the entire cannabis plant in place of barley. The beverage – containing water, hops, yeast and marijuana – is gluten-free and alcohol-free but promises to deliver a high.

But most breweries around the world that are using cannabis in their beers are relying on alcohol to give the kick rather than weed. Although many are labelled as cannabis beers, they don’t actually contain cannabis as we would think of it. In countries where the plant is not legal, the beers can’t contain any THC and so the added ingredient is nothing more than hemp seed – a part of the cannabis family. Critics see it as a simple gimmick – a way to sell more beer. But for one South African brewery, the gimmick has recently paid off.

A global trend

Poison City was pretty much destined to become South Africa’s first producer of a cannabis beer. Hailing from Durban, their brand is named for the legendary Durban Poison strain of marijuana. In September they launched two beers containing hemp seed, labelling them Durban Poison Cannabis Lager and The Poison Cannabis IPA. “I thought long and hard before putting the word ‘cannabis’ on the label,” says Poison City co-founder Graeme Bird. “We made very sure that we wouldn’t run into legal issues, but also we didn’t want to mislead the consumer.”

The timing was exquisite. Just a couple of weeks after the beer was released, South Africa’s constitutional court announced that dagga, as it is known locally, would be legalised for use in the home. It’s the first step in what many people hope will one day become a Canada-like blanket legalisation. What resulted was beyond Bird’s imagination – his phone battery was put to the test by a constant stream of emails and telephone calls. If it wasn’t a vendor wanting to stock the Poison City beers in their stores and bars, it was a journalist wanting yet another interview.

It was big news in Africa, but the use of cannabis-derived products in beer is a trend that is seen again and again in beer cultures around the world. Earlier this year popular UK brewery Cloudwater released an IPA infused with CBD – it was the second of its kind in the UK this year, with Stockton Brewing Company also releasing a CBD-enhanced beer. Australia saw its first hemp-infused brew in 2017, while brewers in Germany are also getting back to their pre-Reinheitsgebot roots and using THC-free hemp in their brews.

Detractors are quick to criticise, claiming that the hemp addition adds nothing to the flavour of the beer, but is simply there to fool people into buying something adorned with a cool, marijuana leaf label. But perhaps these breweries using hemp in their brews are not engaged in gimmickry but in forward planning. If – or when – cannabis becomes legal in their respective countries, they will have a head start: a beer name and label that’s already recognised by their consumers; a foothold in the cannabis beer scene. All that will remain is to swap out those innocuous seeds for something a little more potent.

Author: Lucy Corne

Pictures: Lucy Corne