Recreational Marijuana Finds Traction in Shadow of Craft Brewing

The Blending House by | Jan 2016 | Issue #108

Here’s a bit of trivia to discuss over your next pint: of the four states with the most craft breweries, three—Washington, Oregon and Colorado—have enacted voter approved recreational marijuana laws. The fourth, California, will float the legal pot issue to voters on the ballot in 2016.

Is this link between the growth of recreational marijuana and craft breweries just a bit of cosmic, double-hopped coincidence? Have ordinary citizens and elected officials taken notice? According to a marijuana policy expert and brewers who make beer in these states, obvious cultural and economic factors explain the evolving connection.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has had a front row seat to the recreational marijuana debate for the past 25 years. He has seen the recreational pot issue evolve from a “War on Drugs” mentality through today when Vermont appears to be on the verge of becoming the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through legislative action (rather than by voter approval). According to St. Pierre, public approval for legal recreational marijuana has gone from a meager 12 percent in 1969 to 58 percent in a Gallup Poll conducted in October.

The parallels between pot and beer don’t surprise St. Pierre, either. “There is definitely a strong cultural link between craft beer and marijuana,” he says. “And it’s called baby boomers. The people in this age group grew up smoking pot and don’t view it as a hard drug. Craft beer has largely been led by baby boomers.”

He maintains that home brewers have been illegally infusing marijuana into their beer for decades. By his recollection, 1997 marked the first legal hemp-infused microbrew beer when Frederick Brewing Company introduced Hempen Ale, a Brown Ale made with hemp seeds. While St. Pierre said he personally doesn’t advocate infusing craft beer with marijuana because each is so good individually, the idea has been revived.

Earlier this year, Dude’s Brew’s, the packaged-beer arm of Dad & Dude’s Breweria in Aurora, Colo., announced “a successful campaign to bring cannabidiol (CBD)-rich, cannabis-infused beer to the US market.” The company also offered samples of its Sativa IPA and Indica Double IPA at the Great American Beer Festival this past September. According to Mason “Dude” Hembree, one of the owners, curious drinkers are driving from surrounding states to try the beer.

“We sell the cannabis beer through our tap accounts and there is a waiting list for it,” Hembree says. “A barrel is selling out in 24 hours.” But for now, production of both cannabis beers, which are made with a DEA-approved strain of hemp oil (a legal technicality that Hembree says is “one of the biggest loopholes I have ever seen”), will be limited. That’s because the brewery is working hard to keep up with demand for its Dank IPA.

First released in 2012, Dank (pot slang for good marijuana) is made with a water soluble, legal hemp high in CBDs (marijuana, hops and hemp are in the same family of flowering plants, Cannabaceae) and is meant to be a nod to Colorado’s emerging pot culture. Although there is no illegal substance in the beer, this tribute prompted the state of Colorado to investigate Dank IPA, forcing the brewery to halt production. But it’s back “after a run-in with the man,” according to the Dad & Dude’s Breweria website. This discord underscores an important point about the relationship between craft brewing and marijuana, explains Hembree.

“My personal belief is [that] the two cultures (craft beer and marijuana) overlap because of the rebellious nature you find in both. All of us craft brewers are fighting against the big beer companies,” he declares. “Just let us (craft brewers) go about the business of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I find that people in the marijuana business have the same mindset.”

A quick look at the facts confirms that Coloradans are big supporters of both cultures. And when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, the government definitely benefits. In recently announced tax revenue figures, for the 2014 fiscal year ending in June, Colorado collected $42 million in alcohol taxes and $70 million in marijuana taxes. Further, through October of this year, the state has seen marijuana tax collections increase 63 percent to $58 million compared to the same period in the prior year. And the Brewers Association reported in 2014 that the total impact of craft breweries in Colorado—including wholesale, retail and brewpub and taproom food and merchandise transactions—contributed $2.7 billion to the local economy.

If you ask Ron Lindenbusch, chief marketing officer at Lagunitas Brewing Company in California and Chicago, the link between rapid growth in craft brewing and attitudes about legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana can be traced all the way back to the end of Prohibition in 1933. “Marijuana is a stupid reason to send otherwise law abiding people to jail,” he says. “States that responded to the end of Prohibition with conservative and strict alcohol laws have not been on the forefront of the craft beer revolution,” he adds. Lindenbusch notes that in states where craft brewing was adopted early and marijuana has been legalized, legislatures are more open-minded, which reflects the people they represent. He believes that the referendum for legal recreational marijuana will pass in California next year.

St. Pierre of NORML agreed with this assessment. “I think, based on the poll numbers, in 2016 we’ll see voters in California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri and Maine approve legal recreational marijuana,” he says, adding that California is really the lynchpin. “I think once it’s approved there, the rest of the country won’t be far behind and we’ll even see recreational marijuana approved in Canada and Mexico, too.”

For St. Pierre, whether it’s craft beer or marijuana, the availability of both have been stymied by a basic truth. “Some people are just embarrassed by pleasure and don’t want others to enjoy themselves,” he says.

Lindenbusch, for one, remains optimistic. “I look forward to the day we can legally smoke pot and drink craft beer together, in moderation,” he says. “As far as society’s problems go, both are relatively harmless.”