Beer never stands still. It seems like every week there’s another story about changing consumer habits, drinkers’ renewed focus on healthy lifestyle, beer’s slowing growth among a new generation of drinkers, or pressure on the industry from legalized marijuana. Each story seems to presage the announcement of a new brand of seltzer, kombucha, or nonalcoholic (NA) beer.
As craft brewers have shown—while contributing to the proliferation of variously flavored hard seltzer brands—if there’s demand for a drink, then there’s a will to produce it, regardless of whether they’re excited about doing it.
However, there’s a new breed of beverages developing in parallel with the nascent cannabis industry that has some craft-beer veterans particularly excited.
From CBD seltzer to THC-infused (near) beer, the vanguard of these cannabis-tinged functional beverages is already available, with more on the way. It’s a space that’s changing quickly, as technologies develop and techniques are tried and refined. It’s exciting for brewers who get to attack new process challenges, for businesspeople launching brands and developing supply chains, and—as always—for the intrepid homebrewers whose reaction to seeing something new on the shelf is, “I can do that too.”
Most exciting of all, perhaps, is how the technologies behind these infused beverages can be applied inside the brewery.
Function Before Form
The “functional beverage” category is nothing new, and the marketing lingo has applied to everything from fortified chocolate milk to VitaminWater. This new wave of beverages leverages marijuana’s unique compounds—called cannabinoids—with a long list of effects. From the undeniably psychoactive THC to the less understood actions of CBD and the undiscovered country of terpenes and other compounds, these drinks make a lot of promises.
Former Coors executive and Blue Moon creator Keith Villa launched a brand in this space in 2018. CERIA Brewing’s ultimate goal, he says, is to “bring cannabis to the masses in a socially acceptable format.” He wants to change widely held perceptions, and he sees the old ways of cannabis consumption—smoking in particular—as a roadblock.
“Beer is social,” Villa tells me. “It’s for celebrations and for toasts.” He sees CERIA beers fitting into all those settings because it’s still beer—it just has a different active ingredient.
Notably, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, and products that include both alcohol and THC are likewise illegal. So, CERIA focuses on NA beverages.
Another brand branching into the THC drinks biz is Bale Breaker in Yakima, Washington. With both hop farming and beer brewing at the core of its business, Bale Breaker’s experimentations with hemp crops were an obvious path for the company to explore. The hemp-growing led to discussions about marijuana cultivation. That led to market research, then to partnerships with local grow operations. Eventually they launched a new brand: Sungaze Cannabis Company.
“Marijuana has never had a seat at the beverage table,” says Kevin Smith, co-owner and brewmaster at Bale Breaker. He says he wants to destigmatize the consumption of THC—marijuana’s most psychoactive compound—and dispel the burnout stoner stereotype that lingers even as state prohibitions against the plant crumble. “We want people to use marijuana like they would use a pale ale—socially.”
Weed by Any Other Name
The idea of a marijuana-infused beer is by no means new. Beyond any examples of historical cannabis beverages, both ancient and modern, the biological similarities between cannabis and its cousin Humulus lupulus have led to many experiments that attempt to marry hops and pot. A 1997 book written by Ed Rosenthal—Marijuana Beer: How to Make Your Own Hi-Brew Beer—remained the bible for infusing homebrew with pot for decades. The slim volume details a rudimentary homebrewing process, covers the handling of marijuana, and includes a handful of recipes plus 16 pages of ready-to-use beer labels.
Rosenthal’s infusion method was straightforward: Infuse several ounces of pot leaves and trimmings post-fermentation, almost like dry-hopping. Ethanol in the fermented beer extracted the active compounds from the plant matter. However, other things besides THC would end up in the beer. Off-flavors were tough to avoid, and it was virtually impossible to know how much THC you would get in each bottle.
To address advancement in the processes, and to demystify the tangle of laws governing cannabis and brewing, Villa wrote Brewing with Cannabis: Using THC and CBD in Beer, published in 2021 by Brewers Publications. The more modern, preferred procedure for infusing THC into beer (at home, anyway) is to first use high-proof spirits to extract the THC from the plant matter, then use the resulting tincture to dose the finished beer. It’s straightforward, and it works—though the question of just how much THC you end up with remains.
This is fine for the adventurous homebrewer, but the federal prohibition on mixing THC and any amount of alcohol precludes the use of ethanol extraction in craft breweries. Any brewery or beverage manufacturer playing with THC and CBD—for now, anyway—can only use them to make alcohol-free beverages.
Another problem: THC is oil-soluble, but oil and beer don’t mix—at least, not without some persuasion.
Food scientists have solved the problem of creating stable emulsions. The unbreakable vinaigrette is reality on grocery-store shelves, and mustard is no longer the only emulsifier available to salad-dressing manufacturers.
Villa shares a story he’s heard from sources in the pharmaceutical and food-science fields. It’s a story of Cold War–era athletic doping projects, in which Soviet scientists developed an emulsification process that dissolved testosterone into water invisibly, so that athletes could consume it in the open without drawing suspicion. After the Cold War, the technology made it to the West and caught on with pharmaceutical researchers and then with food scientists.
Sometimes called “nano-emulsification,” the process uses modern emulsifying agents called surfactants, which disrupt the typical hydrophobic qualities of oil. Machines such as the ultrasonic mixer or the microfluidizer create miniscule surfactant bubbles—measured in nanometers—filled with the oil. The assorted processes at the core of these emulsions are less exciting than the effect they have: The ionically charged droplets are not only tiny, but they also repel other droplets so that they stay suspended in water (or in beer). Previously immiscible liquids are not only mixed, but the emulsion is stable. The tiny droplets also change how the body absorbs the active compounds. In the case of THC emulsions, this means a faster and more predictable onset of effects.
When you eat an edible containing THC—be it one of today’s dispensary treats or a “special brownie” from yesteryear—you don’t feel high until your liver processes the THC. However, when the THC is emulsified into such small droplets, the digestive tract can absorb them sooner.
“Think of your stomach lining or the mucus membrane in your mouth as a chain-link fence,” says Paulo Sobral, a cannabis-beverage consultant. In his analogy, the brain is on the far side of the fence, and “the THC in edibles is like a beachball—you can’t squeeze it through the fence.” The emulsification technology makes droplets comparatively the size of “marbles,” and these pass right through the gaps in the fence. Instead of waiting for the liver to turn you on, the THC hits your brain in just minutes.
This faster onset is a big deal, especially in relation to making cannabis more socially accepted, and more social. To understand why, imagine if the alcohol in your beer or cocktail took an extra hour or two to hit your system. Think about how that might change your next night out, networking event, or happy hour: You’d have an IPA or two and then sit around awkwardly for a couple hours waiting for the social lubricant to start lubricating. (That assumes, of course, that you don’t get frustrated and consume far too much trying to get it to work, and then it kicks in—a well-known and long-running problem with THC edibles.)
Instead of trying to “time” the unpredictable onset of an edible, or engaging in the increasingly antisocial practice of smoking, the prompt elevation offered by emulsified THC can mirror the pace of that relaxing first pint.
Express Elevator Maybe that all sounds too good to be true. Yet everyone I spoke to in the space agreed that the effect is real, offering anecdotal experiences of lab tests with timed blood draws or white papers backing up the science. Soon after I started my fact-finding, I saw that a local dispensary here in California was offering a sale on CERIA Brewing cans. In the name of research, I ordered a couple cans of Grainwave “cannabis-infused beverage.”
One of CERIA’s contract partners brews the NA base beer—“excess capacity isn’t hard to come by,” Villa says—then CERIA adds the THC and/or CBD before packaging at a massive co-packing operation in the California desert. Fittingly, since it comes from the creator of Blue Moon, Grainwave is styled after a white ale, including blood-orange peel and coriander. The beer looks the part, too, pouring pale and pearlescent, though with little foam to speak of and a certain fizziness that belies its lack of ethanol.
Villa is cagey about how CERIA de-alcoholizes its brews; he describes the technology as proprietary and “patent pending.” He does say that beyond pasteurization capabilities, most commercial brewers already have the equipment to make alcohol-free beer with his techniques.
Its lack of alcohol notwithstanding, Grainwave is tasty—like a malty grapefruit soda but considerably drier. There is none of that “weedy” botanical twang that’s often present in edibles—that’s another benefit of the emulsified THC. With just 5 mg of THC, the 12-ounce can hit about as hard as a pint of session beer: almost imperceptibly relaxing. (Notably, CERIA’s cannabis-infused Indiewave IPA, also nonalcoholic, has 10 mg of THC plus 10 mg of CBD. It may hit differently.)
After nursing the glass of infused near-beer in my office, I sat back and imagined a sunny patio bar in the springtime, a breeze in the trees, and high puffy clouds. I could easily imagine ordering another glass of Grainwave.
The actual product making this emulsion possible, be it THC or CBD, is a milky liquid that mixes readily in water; brewers add it on the cold side before carbonating. “It’s even easier than hard seltzer,” says Smith at Bale Breaker. The emulsions do impart some flavor—CBD, in particular, imparts more bitterness than caffeine—but with careful recipe design they are almost imperceptible.
One manufacturer of THC and CBD emulsions being used by craft brewers is SōRSE Technology in Seattle, Washington. They offer an array of “delivery systems for functional ingredients,” from THC, CBD, other cannabinoids to nootropics and even hop compounds.
SōRSE uses the same technology behind THC and CBD emulsification as they do on hops in their line of water-soluble beer additives. Offering solutions for on-demand haze, mouthfeel enhancement, or even the Hop Topper—a customizable aroma enhancer—the promise is a better beer through technology.
“It’s a first-aid kit for the brewer,” says Michael Flemmens, executive vice president at SōRSE. They design each additive to give the brewer more control and flexibility without adding equipment or costly process changes. Craft brewers aren’t shy about additives and experimentation, so I’d be surprised if these water-soluble emulsion products don’t take off in the near future—even if it’s at the homebrew store before it’s at the local taproom.
The bold, tinkering homebrewer has a lot to gain from easy-to-add emulsions. Whether correcting lighter-than-expected body or turning a bright brew into a haze-bomb with months of stable shelf life, the flexibility promised by the products is outsized on the small-batch scale. The biggest challenges to opening up the homebrew market, Flemmens says, are simple manufacturing and packaging concerns.
However brewers apply these technologies, there are sure to be more innovations and creative applications of water-soluble emulsions. Whether it’s homebrewers testing new hop-derived additives or developing cross-fading THC-laden beers or functional beverages trickling into craft breweries where whole new styles are born, there is one thing you can count on in modern brewing: change.