by Ben Swenson
Richmond’s Strangeways Brewing Company became the first craft brewery in Virginia to straddle the line between barley and cannabis last August when it debuted C.H.U.D., an imperial red ale that included six types of hops, and more importantly, cannabidiol – an ingredient derived from marijuana.
The addition of CBD, as it is more commonly known, launched Virginia’s craft breweries – along with its regulatory agency, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority – into a gray area of legality. And now, 10 months later, other breweries have joined Strangeways, but the future is unclear.
Meanwhile, brewers are eyeing CBD products cautiously, looking to their bottom line and questioning whether the impending legalization of marijuana will create a partner, or competitor, in the coming years.
The answer emerging is that legally, cannabis is complicated, but there are reasons in the craft beverage community for optimism.
“Perceptions about cannabis are changing quickly and brewers are trying to get in front of it,” says Neil Burton, Strangeways’ owner. “You have big players making big moves in the business. People are taking note.”
Marijuana legalization in Virginia is not a matter of if, but when, according to Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director for Virginia NORML, the commonwealth’s branch of the national advocacy group that works to reform marijuana laws.
“In the next two to three years, we could see a bill that ends the federal prohibition of marijuana and lets states set their own policies,” Pedini says.
Virginia has already taken the first steps to reform its laws, she says, but the speed at which the commonwealth legalizes marijuana depends on voters. Although polls show that Virginians favor less restrictive marijuana policies by a wide margin, numerous General Assembly bills reflecting that sentiment have died in committee.
Elsewhere in the country, some craft beer industry executives have blamed legal marijuana for lagging sales. In 2018, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery president and CEO Michael LaLondesuggested cannabis played a part in slowing craft beer sales. Later that year, Deschutes postponed plans for a $95 million facility in Roanoke.
Independent brewers are not the only businesses taking note of rising interest in cannabis. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors and Constellation Brands, maker of Corona, have all cemented partnerships with major Canadian marijuana firms. Even Richmond-based cigarette maker Altria Group, formerly Philip Morris, has thrown its hat into the ring with a $1.8 billion stake in a cannabis company.
But statistics seem to indicate that legal marijuana has only marginal effects on craft beer sales. Consumers are enjoying both products side-by-side. Colorado, a voracious craft beer state, legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. “They coexist there,” Burton says. “I don’t see marijuana being a negative for craft beer sales.”
The terms “cannabis,” “marijuana” and “hemp” are often used interchangeably, but for scientists, policymakers and industry professionals, there are important distinctions. Cannabis refers to a genus of plants containing multiple species. Marijuana and hemp can be an identical cannabis species, but the difference is in the compounds each contains.
Marijuana contains elevated levels of certain chemicals called cannabinoids, among them CBD, which is a nonintoxicating compound, and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces a euphoric high when ingested. Hemp, which is used to make industrial products such as rope, contains ample CBD, but only trace amounts of THC.
Many people laud CBD, and a lesser-known, nonintoxicating derivative called THC-A, for purported therapeutic benefits in reducing anxiety and helping with symptoms of disorders such as epilepsy.
THC, consumed by itself or in marijuana, remains illegal in the United States at the federal level. Federal law enforcement officials are choosing not to enforce the ban in the 10 states (and Washington, D.C.) that have legalized recreational marijuana and an additional 23 where medical use is permitted. Virginia remains one of the states where neither is fully legal.
CBD is a different, and much more complicated story. In 2018, Virginia policymakers permitted the sale of CBD and limited THC oils at five dispensaries around the state for medical use. Statewide, retailers ignored these restrictions and began to sell CBD products over-the-counter. State officials took no enforcement action. CBD products remain widely available at respectable retailers around the commonwealth and online.AdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:32Fullscreen
Last year, Burton of Strangeways decided to make a production run of beer that included CBD oil, in partnership with Richmond-area business Best Bully Sticks, which simultaneously offered dog treats that included hemp oil as an ingredient.
C.H.U.D., a cannabinoid play on the name of the 1980s science fiction horror movie about cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, was a hit. Drinkers said they found the beer provided some of the same benefits that CBD oil offers on its own. But Burton says he can’t be sure there weren’t other influences. “It was 8.7 percent,” he jokes of the alcohol by volume.
Nevertheless, Burton and Virginia ABC saw the CBD-infused beer from two different perspectives. “Did we push the envelope here? Sure,” he says. “We thought from a legal standpoint we could do what we did because no one said it was illegal.”
But Virginia ABC officials, according to Burton, politely asked him not to make any more CBD-infused beer, because it technically wasn’t legal either. There just hadn’t been a ruling either way, and state regulators came down on the side of caution.
When contacted by a reporter, Virginia ABC spokeswoman Dawn Eischen said in an emailed statement that “there are currently no ABC regulations in place in Virginia regarding the use of CBD oil or hemp in alcoholic beverage products. We are handling requests from manufacturers on a case-by-case basis.”
Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have clear guidelines about using CBD in consumable products. The agency will hold a hearing on May 31 to gather testimony about whether the ingredient should be permitted.
Given this regulatory uncertainty, Virginia’s brewers aren’t rushing to occupy the CBD-infused craft beer space. But a few are nonetheless dipping a toe into this tank.
Earlier this year, two Virginia Beach businesses, Back Bay Brewing Company and Hemp House Wellness, partnered to create Cannabus Pilsner, brewed with “full spectrum hemp flower with naturally occurring CBD,” according to Josh Canada, co-founder of the brewery. Canada says that brewers added the hemp flower during a hopping stage of the brewing process.
In hindsight, according to Canada, pushing full-steam-ahead was perhaps too gutsy a move. “We probably should have waited,” he says.
The beer hit a snag with state regulators. When craft brewers want to create a new beer, they must have the label approved by Virginia ABC after offering the name, the general style and the alcohol by volume. Canada says the process usually takes about a week, but this approval took more than six weeks, and required Attorney General Mark Herring to sign off. All that time the beer sat in a tank.
Meanwhile, Back Bay got creative to offer an alternative for drinkers who wanted the craft beer-CBD fusion. Canada says that Back Bay used a Randall, an infuser that adds flavors and ingredients post-production, after a beer has already been brewed.
Other breweries have devised alternative methods for mixing cannabis and craft beer while bureaucrats sort out specifics. The most widely available cannabis crossover is The Hemperor HPA from New Belgium Brewing Company. The beer is brewed with hemp hearts (or hulled seeds) and other flavors to create notes of hemp in the profile.
International firms are already tinkering with cannabis-infused beverages but are facing some challenges. Canopy Growth Corporation, a marijuana-grower based in Canada where recreational cannabis is legal, is one of the larger businesses in the process of trying to develop a palatable THC-infused beverage. Among the problems firms like Canopy are encountering is what many drinkers think is an off-putting taste of hemp as well as the age-old problem of getting oil (which is how cannabinoids are delivered) and water to mix without separating.
Back in Virginia, local craft brewers aren’t yet thinking that far ahead, but many are certain that cannabis and craft beer are a natural pair. Twice in the past nine months, O’Connor Brewing Company has hosted events to benefit Virginia NORML, most recently the Legalize Virginia 420 Festival in April. “We support the legalization of marijuana, especially medical marijuana,” says owner Kevin O’Connor.
The events O’Connor Brewing Company has hosted are about education and bringing people together for a common cause with clear benefits, he says. Brewers want to stay ahead of business trends in the cannabis and craft beer industries, but it’s just as much about having sensible policies that don’t encourage underage or binge consumption of products such as marijuana and alcohol, O’Connor says.
“There are a lot of different trends in craft beer and wellness is one of those,” says Canada. “CBD is a natural progression.”