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Is the pot calling the brew kettle black?

Posted on June 1, 1997

Hempen Ale just says beer

Grass, Mary Jane, reefer, herb, pot, ganja, weed, cheeba and collie are just some of the colorful and diverse appellations for a particular strain of cannabis captiva or the marijuana plant. From Rastafarian culture to Deadhead revelry to California’s Proposition 215, marijuana use has long been a lifestyle and a medicinal tool prohibited by the United States since 1937.

But hemp, the same plant as marijuana, also provided the fiber that absorbed the ink on the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence; until 1883, almost 90 percent of the world’s paper was made from hemp. In fact, the worldwide market for industrial hemp (grown with trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in its flowers and leaves) reached $100 million in 1996, according to US News & World Report, and is cultivated for its strong fibers and seeds, providing versatile benefits to automotive and building materials, fabrics, textiles, paper and lubricants. Now, the hemp plant is found in beer.

Frederick Brewing Company, Maryland’s largest brewer, has launched Hempen Ale, the first US craft beer brewed with hemp seeds. From conception to final label approval, it took two years to get the mellow micro on the shelves.

“The fact that it took so long allowed us to spend a lot of time on the creative aspects like recipe and packaging,” says Marjorie McGinnis, president of the brewery. The micro is a brown ale with subtle herbal flavors and earthy aromas that master brewer Steve Nordahl calls “a tasty alternative in a beer market flooded with fruit and spice beers.” By law, only sterilized hemp seeds may be imported into the US. The brewery purchases the seeds from the Ohio Hempery, which imports them from Europe and China. Hemp seeds, which have a nutty flavor, and hemp oils are excellent sources of proteins and fiber, according to the folks at the brewery; the seeds and oils also provide fatty acids essential to the body’s immune system. “It’s an amazing plant,” says McGinnis.

The brewery, which has been in operation since 1992, with an annual capacity of 50,000 barrels, produces its Blue Ridge line of regional craft concoctions also. But McGinnis says that Hempen Ale is a separate brand with distinct sales expectations. “It’s separate for marketing reasons. We wanted a distinct identity for packaging and for distributors, we didn’t want it to cannibalize Blue Ridge. Also, Blue Ridge is a regional brand whereas Hempen Ale has broad appeal beyond the Eastern Seaboard.” Reflective of this approach, Hempen Ale is distributed in 23 states as far west as California; Blue Ridge is available in 12 Eastern states. “So far, the strategy has been successful,” says McGinnis.

Indeed. According to McGinnis, the brewery was back-ordered some 20,000 cases without orders from outside distributors one week after the introduction of the groovy libation. Apparently, the response for Hempen Ale has been more than favorable, something that surprises McGinnis. “We expected more flak,” she says. “But there’s a difference between marijuana and industrial hemp and people are aware of that. We are not advocating marijuana use, but we do support advocates of a renewed American hemp industry. And we’re offering an interesting, innovative product.”

Copyright © 1997, Beverage World. All rights reserved.