Hemp Beer -- Is it Good?
Hemp is touted as a plant with thousands of potential uses, from clothing to building materials to food. I keep hearing lately about one use in particular: hemp in beer. As a brewer and beer lover myself, I can’t help but be intrigued. Can hemp impart tasty and unique flavors in beer? How is it being used? I’m sure any good marketer knows that they can spin a hemp beer as having “magic” properties (as names such as Millennium Buzz, 420 Extra Pale Ale, etc. suggest) which gives breweries room to compromise on flavor. But I like hemp and I like beer. It’s no stretch to think they could be very good together.
Hemp has already been used in commercial beer, but it’s not in the main stream.
Among others, Humboldt Brewing, Uinta Brewing, and Red Hook Brewery have sold beer with hemp seed as an ingredient. But hemp beers aren’t commonly found on the shelf even though hemp seed is available and legal as other common non-barley additions such as berries, coconut, and pumpkin. There has also been a rise in the use of nuts in beer (pecan, chestnut, pine nut for example) so it’s not out of the realm of possibility (hemp seed is also known as hemp nut). There are several possible reasons for this, including: 1) Cannabis products have a complicated legal history which has kept the broader public from knowing that hemp is a safe and tasty food; 2) Hemp isn’t as cheap as other ingredients that impart similar characteristics in beer; and 3) Hemp just doesn’t contribute enough to the flavor, body, or alcohol content to make it a worthwhile ingredient. Now, as the price of hemp decreases while availability/awareness increases, the only remaining barrier will soon be whether it’s worthwhile as an ingredient.
The buzz about hemp as an up-and-coming trend in craft beer.
People in the natural foods industry and beyond are becoming better educated about hemp and its nutritional benefits. This means that a hemp beer could capture the attention of a larger, more educated customer base in more than just a gimmicky way. If I were a professional brewer, I know I’d be looking into it. But no matter the trend, no one is going to buy a beer more than once if it tastes bad. So how does hemp stack up?
Hemp beer hasn’t hit the target just yet
From the online reviews, my own taste-testing, and having brewed my own hemp beer at home, I’m on the fence about hemp seed in beer. Flavor-wise, I just don’t get much of the same character that I do when eating the seeds themselves. The grassy and earthy notes of the hemp seed just don’t come through. You could probably achieve similar flavors by brewing with toasted barley and adding the right flavor hops. What I do get in both commercial and homebrew examples is a slickness (likely from the high amount of oil in hemp seed) on my tongue that doesn’t offend but also doesn’t leave me with a great overall impression of the beer. And though there are purported health benefits of hemp beyond flavor (omegas, protein, CBD), I am not one to get my health supplements from my brew.
That being said, I’m ready to be proved wrong! I’m sure we’ll be seeing new hemp beers popping up at local breweries and at the liquor store. Brewers are never short on creativity and I’ll be looking for brands with established integrity regarding the craft. The marketing potential of hemp also can’t be avoided – people will buy hemp beer without knowing anything about it simply because it’s hemp.
What do you think? Got a line on a can’t-miss hemp beer? Have you brewed a hemp beer and think you’ve got the recipe to beat? Let us know.
Brewer Talk – How is Hemp Being Used in Beer?
Hemp seeds have a mild, sweet, nutty (walnut, pine nut) character. They can be used to impart an earthy, light sweetness to any flavor profile, which would lend nicely to the complexity of a pale ale, nut brown, or old ale, among others. Its natural oils can result in a unique flavor and mouthfeel.
*Brewer Tech Talk: Hemp seed can be used raw or toasted at various temperatures, and added to the mash or later during secondary fermentation. Hemp contains a lot of natural oils and proteins. Too much oil is a killer of head retention and proteins can result in chill haze. When you think of a beer you really want to drink, I’m guessing it doesn’t look cloudy and flat. That being said, these are issues that can likely be mitigated through a little experimentation with the malt bill, filtration, and limiting the amount of hemp in the beer.
Tip: If you live in the U.S., and unless you are living in a state that has legalized the growing of industrial hemp (see votehemp.com), you’re going to have to purchase either dehulled (outer shell removed) or sterilized seed (outer shell still on, but went through a heat process). This means no experimenting with malting the hemp seed in order to access more fermentable sugars.
Thanks to the revival and legalization of hemp in several states, hemp flowers may soon be available for use in beer on a limited basis, but there isn’t much information on how it will affect the flavor profile of a beer. Hops (Humulus) and Hemp (Cannabis) are both herbs found in the Cannabaceae family so it is presumed that they could share some characteristics.
I honestly don’t know the IBU (international bitterness units) potential of hemp flowers, but they have not been bred for that purpose so I’m guessing the flowers will likely be more useful as a flavor hop rather than a bittering hop. As brewers experiment with this, I hope they share what they are learning!
Oils and Extracts
I’m not a fan of adding extracts to beer, per se, but it has its benefits (a well-done fruit beer, for example). Cold-pressed hemp seed oil has a mild grassy flavor, but it’s the equivalent of adding salad dressing to your beer. Refined hemp seed oil is available but the flavor has been almost entirely stripped in the process and would not likely be a good additive.