Non-alcoholic craft

All of the flavor, none of the regret


So you want to brew with cannabis.

If you’re a homebrewer, you’ve probably felt this urge. Commercially published in 1996, Marijuana Beer: How to Make Your Own Hi-Brew by Ed Rosenthal and the Unknown Brewer follows the time-honored tradition of homebrew innovation leading to commercial replication. But there’s a catch: Homebrewers need not worry about the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which issues brewing permits. Commercial breweries do, so as long as cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level, anyone wanting to sell marijuana beer must de-alcoholize the product. But, as Keith Villa of CERIA Brewing explains, those restrictions might be beneficial beyond legal scrutiny.

“Cannabis stimulates the vagus nerve, which is in the back of the throat,” Villa explains. “That’s what makes you gag when you put your finger down your throat.

“But if you smoke cannabis, that nerve is stimulated to the point where you can touch it, and you won’t gag,” he continues, “[which] helps people on chemo, because they can be on chemo and having a couple hundred dry heaves a day from the chemo. But with cannabis, it’s like you’re fine.”

However, if you’re not on chemo and you’re just pounding booze, then you need the vagus nerve to do its job. Throwing up from drinking too much is your body’s way of ridding itself of poison, but if the vagus nerve is stimulated because you’re consuming cannabis as well: “You won’t have that urge to throw up, and can just keep going until you black out,” Villa says. “Some people could potentially end up dead from blood alcohol poisoning. So, yes, there are some issues that are unknown that make [combining cannabis and alcohol] potentially dangerous.”

That said, there’s another benefit to producing de-alcoholized beer: The market share is growing. Data over the last few years suggest that age-appropriate consumers are drinking less and less alcohol. This has given rise to non-alcoholic (NA) craft beer filling the gap when the occasion calls for a beverage, but the consumer is a sober-conscious, or calorie-conscious, drinker.

Some producers are staples—Brooklyn Brewery has two under its NA label, Special Effects—but most are newcomers. Canada’s Grüvi, which took home Naturally Boulder’s 2020 Pitch Slam and People’s Choice Awards, makes alcohol-free beer and sparkling wine. Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing Co. has a half-dozen NA styles, from IPA to stout. 

Those three are good and easy to find, but CERIA Brewing’s Indiewave IPA might be the best around. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering Villa’s brewing legacy (see Boulder Weekly, Aug. 12). But Indiewave isn’t just dank, snappy, and refreshing; it tastes like a regular beer. NA beers, much like decaf coffee, can taste hollow and thin. Indiewave is the type of beer that you don’t know is non-alcoholic until you’ve had your second and still feel clear-headed.

“We use vacuum distillation,” Villa explains, adding that the brewing techniques CERIA uses to maintain body and flavor are proprietary. “We can actually pull out all the alcohol to get it down to zero point zero.”

And it’s on the backs of CERIA’s non-alcoholic beers—not their THC-infused versions—that Villa is spreading the good word. As of this writing, de-alcoholized CERIA beer can be found in 19 states, with California next on the list.

The future of cannabis and beer

Villa is probably correct in thinking that legalized cannabis on a federal level is a question of when and not if. That puts him in a pretty good position, business-wise. But is cannabis the future of craft beer? That’s hard to say. It depends on how consumers approach it. Will they view marijuana beer as a complementary style—like amber, IPA, or stout—to their standard go-to’s? Or is cannabis beer a replacement, like hard seltzer, wine, or spirits?

Interestingly, non-alcoholic beer might be both. It’s attractive to drinkers watching their intake while also giving sober-conscious drinkers an option to enjoy the flavor of beer without the consequences of alcohol. Ditto for terpenes: Their use in the brewing process won’t just break new flavor frontiers, they’ll help reduce the cost of materials and benefit the ecologically-conscious drinker.

It’s an interesting time to be a beer drinker. Craft sales have plateaued while national sales slip. If those numbers bear fruit, then that means there are more beers out there to discover and fewer drinkers discovering them. As brewers compete for relevance and attention, innovation is a necessity. As the old saying goes, the future comes fast. It might already be here.

This concludes our series on the intersection of brewing and cannabis. For more, see Boulder Weekly’s Drink columns for Aug. 12, 19, 26, and Sept. 2, and Cannabis Corner columns for Aug. 19 and Sept. 2.

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