A craft beer boom in Germany, combined with increasingly lenient regulations on cannabis farming, means hemp beer is becoming a popular product with many brewers. But any beer fans hoping for a legal high might be disappointed.
Jan Fidora recently decided to experiment with a new beer in the range he sells at his small brewery on the German island of Usedom. It has a no-nonsense name: Mellenthiner Cannabis.
The beer has a flowery, grassy taste, he says. The 1,000 litres that he brewed were pretty much sold out within three weeks. In fact, the trial was such a success that in 2019, Fidora is planning to bring back the heady brew – in three times the quantity.
Fidora is not the only German who’s using hemp in beer. The craft beer boom has seen all manner of once-rare ingredients added to beer – such as ginger, cinnamon and other things that can easily be found on most supermarket shelves.
And since hemp can now be grown legally in Germany as an industrial crop, its components are also increasingly being used in the production of food products, says the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Those products range from hemp seeds and oil to baked goods, sweets, sausages, tea and – obviously – beer.
Other German brews that include hemp include Cannabis Club Sud and Muensterlaender Hanf. However, there are no numbers available regarding how many brewers use hemp as a raw ingredient.
The amount of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) – the chemical that makes someone feel high – in industrial hemp is not allowed to be above 0.2 per cent. When it comes to food products, that amount is even lower: The top threshold for drinks is about 5 micrograms, says the risk assessment institute, while for cooking oils it’s 5,000 micrograms, and in other products, 150 micrograms per kilogram.
The hemp beer boom in Germany is a result of two parallel trends: the increasing vogue for craft beers; and the debate around the legalization of cannabis.
Hemp and cannabis beer are essentially the same thing – it’s just a question of linguistic connotations, according to experts. Cannabis sounds edgy and a bit sexy, while hemp sounds more organic.
“Cannabis is, of course, eye-catching,” says Urban Winkler, sales director at the Klosterbrauerei Weissenohe in southern Bavaria, which has been producing Cannabis Club Sud since 2001. For example, a father might think it’s cool to buy his son a Cannabis Club Sud, with a hemp leaf on the label, for his birthday, he says.
The number of breweries in Germany in general has been growing, according to the German Brewers Association, despite an overall decline in beer sales. Since 2009, 161 production sites have been added, even though beer sales have sunk from 100 million hectolitres in 2009 to 93.5 million hectolitres in 2017.
“The current wave of small breweries being founded in Germany can be attributed primarily to the trend towards craft beer,” says brewing association managing director Holger Eichele. However, at 0.5 per cent, craft beer’s market share remains small.
Hemp in beer is nothing new, according to Eichele. “Hemp flowers have been used for more than 100 years in beer for aromatization, either as an additive or in the brewing tank,” he explains.
Until the introduction of the German beer purity law in 1516, hemp was even considered one of the base materials for brewing beer. The cannabis plant also enjoyed a renaissance in the 19th century, until the 1929 Opium Law classified hemp as a narcotic drug.
Just a few kilometres from Fidora’s brewery on Usedom, organic farmer Dirk Schramm is growing industrial hemp of the Finola variety on 4.5 hectares of land. Normally he presses the hemp seeds to create highly profitable hemp oil, but this year’s harvest was particularly bad due to the weather, reports the farmer – which is why he turned to beer.
The flowers and leaves create the best flavour, Fidora says. When customers try his Mellenthiner Cannabis beer, those who smoke pot often report a slight high, similar to smoking a joint, while non-smokers don’t experience anything other than the typical effects of drinking alcohol.
Fidora theorizes that smokers who drink his beer might be experiencing a placebo effect due to the taste of hemp. Either way, Germans seem to be growing to love the idea of getting a buzz on.