As the craft beer industry thrives, brewers are increasingly looking to novel ingredients to help their brews stand out on retail shelves. For Colorado craft pioneer New Belgium Brewing Company, one such new and exciting ingredient is hemp, a biological cousin of hops that contains none of the psychoactive THC found in cannabis.
Earlier this month, the well-known Colorado brewery added the Hemperor HPA (Hemp Pale Ale)—a THC-free pale ale brewed with fragrant oils extracted from hemp plants—to its permanent line up. While craft brewers have experimented with hemp seeds before, the Hemperor is noteworthy as the first craft beer made with hemp terpenes (organic compounds that give cannabis its signature aromas). New Belgium’s Research and Development Brewer, Ross Koenigs, has been perfecting the revolutionary process for the past two years.
“Brewers have been trying to get cannabis-like aromas from hops for years, but it’s always missing a certain something,” says Koenigs, whose plight to brew with hemp was inspired by a discussion with professors at Colorado State University’s biology department. Although hemp, like cannabis, is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug (deemed unsuitable for medical use with a high potential for abuse), 2014 updates to the United States farm bill loosened regulations on the research of industrial hemp. Shortly thereafter, CSU began experimenting with growing hemp through greenhouse trials and called up Koenigs and his team at New Belgium to see if they wanted in on the action.
“It really gave us an interesting look into a variant of hops, which are something that we know quite well,” Koenigs says. “We identified a couple of particularly aromatic hemp varieties and went through and did a lot of due diligence on them.” After more than a year of experimental brewing with the hemp plant, New Belgium sent its hemp-inspired beer off to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for approval. Their request was ultimately denied, forcing the brew team to find another approach.
“We found a creative way to more or less back-construct the original flavor,” Koenigs says. “Our next step was to identify those hemp terpenes and then find natural plant materials that would best emulate them.” That they did, and when those fruity, tropical, herbal, and slightly skunky notes from the hemp combined with floral Cascade and piney Simcoe hops, it resulted in a flavor bomb of a beer that any hop head will enjoy. “The flavor kicks ass,” Koenigs says. “At the end of the day, I’m in it for the flavor and I’m in it to create interesting beer.”
For New Belgium as a company, utilizing hemp as an ingredient became something more than just discovering an new flavor—it became an opportunity to champion the benefits of hemp, a highly sustainable crop that boasts numerous environmental benefits (such as extracting metal from contaminated soil).
The launch of the Hemperor HPA coincides with the launch of the brewery’s partnership with GCH Inc., a Colorado company that markets Willie Nelson’s brand of cannabis. The partnership will be in support of the Hemp 4 Victory campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the benefits of hemp and connect New Belgium drinkers with local legislators to encourage a change in the way industrial hemp is regulated.
“We’re happy with where we landed and we’ll be working to change federal regulation so that one day, we can brew the Hemperor HPA with hemp flowers and leaves as we originally envisioned,” Koenigs says.
The Hemperor HPA is available on draft in area restaurants and bars now; six-packs of 12-ounce bottles will roll out to retail stores on May 21. Click here to find the Hemperor near you.