Randolph Ware is one of the founding fathers of Boulder County brewing. Along with David Hummer, Ware—“Stick” to family and friends—started Boulder Beer Company back in 1979: The first brewery in the county. And, like practically every other commercial brewer, Ware was a homebrewer first. And, like practically every other homebrewer out there, no ingredient was off-limits.
When I interviewed Ware for my book, Boulder County Beer—a firsthand account of the county’s rich brewing history—in 2019, he recounted a story of his homebrewing days when he was a CU-Boulder nuclear physics grad student. Space dictated that the story had to be cut, which was a pity—especially since Ware’s story of Laughing Beer has not been told in print. Well, a book’s loss is the paper’s gain. Enjoy.
“The physics department would have picnics, and they would have a keg,” Ware begins. “They didn’t really drink a lot of the beer, so the keg would end up in the physics lab after the weekend.
“It was a Wednesday afternoon, and it was summer,” Ware continues. “And the keg was sitting in the laboratory. There was this other grad student I was working with, and he was a big Swede from Minnesota—his nickname was ‘Thermostat.’ And Thermostat was very supportive of all the homebrewing.
“[The] beer was flat, and it was hot, and we’re getting ready to get rid of it and take the equipment back,” Ware says. “Then—I don’t know—both of us seem to have simultaneously thought: ‘Gee, I wonder what the solubility of nitrous oxide is in water?’”
The answer: Two-thirds the solubility of carbon dioxide.
“So, that was very interesting,” Ware continues. “I foraged an interdepartmental memo” asking for a lecture bottle of nitrous oxide from chemistry stores.
“This little bottle, 2 inches in diameter, about a foot long or so,” Ware explains. “We had to buy things all the time, so it was common practice. [The nitrous] didn’t exactly conform to the project we were working on, but it was not much of an expenditure, so we just did it.”
Lo and behold, the bottle arrived.
“It was a physics lab, so it was easy to plumb this thing up,” Ware says. “I remember opening the valve on the nitrous oxide bottle, whoosh, right into the keg. And then we started pulling the beer off it. It was still warm, but it had a nice head on it. So we started to taste, swill it a little bit. And it was really curious.”
First came the giggles, then came “some different sensations in your legs,” Ware recalls. “All very pleasant and very jovial . . . It was so curious, three of us finished off a half-keg on a Wednesday afternoon.”
They barely survived the next day. “We were so hungover,” he says. “So, that was one step.”
“Later on, I discovered that in the hop family, there are two members of that family of plants: There’s hops, and there’s cannabis,” he continues. “And they both have psychoactive alkaloids. The beer alkaloids are different from marijuana, but they’re in the realm of CBD, THC.
“So, I got a hold of Thermostat and said, ‘Hey, let’s try this again,’ Ware says. “I think there was another keg; it was the next summer, probably. And I got the nitrous again, and we got sinsemilla, which, of course, was highly illegal at that time. And we dry-hopped [the beer].
“You’d drink it and start to giggle,” Ware says, “but somehow the sinsemilla allowed us to get better control over ourselves, and we didn’t end up over-indulging. Maybe the memory of what happened before had helped, but it turned out to be a really, really superb drink. We called it ‘Laughing Beer.’”
Years rushed by, Ware started the brewery, navigated it through ups and downs, and then, in 1986, he went to Boulder Brewing’s Board of Directors and said: “Is America ready for Laughing Beer?”
“And the answer was very clear: No,” Ware says with a chuckle. “Reagan was in the White House at the time, and ‘Just say No’ was the official word.
“At that time, the big challenge was the marijuana,” he continues. “Now, that’s gone. And the nitrous oxide is regulated, to some extent, but somebody’s going to come out with that [beer], and it’s going to be a hit . . . If the word gets out, people will figure out how to do it, and the law will eventually catch up.
“It’s really a superb drink, and you can imagine all the different nuances of different types of weed, different types of hop—it’s just going to be overwhelming . . . I’ve been spreading the word for a long time, trying to get homebrewers or somebody else to go after it, I don’t know if anybody has. The cannabis is easier to get now. The nitrous is a little harder.”
Michael J. Casey is the author of Boulder County Beer and a regular contributor to Boulder Weekly.