Walk into a taproom, bar or home where New Belgium Brewing Co.’s The Hemperor HPA is being served, and one would be forgiven for thinking someone was smoking marijuana. The unmistakable aroma is one of many components of the beer’s appeal, and thanks to the Asheville brewery, the largest U.S. producer to distribute a hemp beer thus far, the ingredient is gradually working its way into the national market.
The Hemperor’s origin story began when New Belgium was approached by people who were working on early hemp breeding programs after the Farm Bill passed in 2014. The agriculturalists invited brewery representatives to visit their crops, and once research and development brewer Ross Koenigs and his colleagues walked into the first greenhouse, they knew they wanted to make a beer with the ingredient that highlighted its distinct qualities.
“Most of the commercial hemp beers [already] out there tasted like regular beers before ours came along,” Koenigs says. “I’m fairly confident that we were the first brewery to explore hemp flavor in beer. We wanted to make sure that we gave the drinking public an accurate representation.”
More specifically, Koenigs says hemp brings a wide variety of new terpenes — a class of aroma compounds — to beer that isn’t normally seen in its cannabinoid cousin hops. He describes the terpenes as “dank, grassy, woody, spicy and green.”
The Hemperor is being brewed at both the Fort Collins, Colo., and Asheville locations but was developed in Colorado due to New Belgium’s hemp suppliers being nearby and the nation-leading levels of hemp production and research occurring in that state. The brewery chose an IPA base for its familiarity among craft beer drinkers and conduciveness for hemp and hops to interact.
“We decided on Cascade, Simcoe and HBC 522 [hops], each for their unique properties for pairing with our hemp strain,” Koenigs says. “Cascade brings a floral, citrus and pine note. Simcoe brings a pungent and dank note. 522, a hop variety we helped develop, gives a big note of peach and grass to the beer.”
Due to hemp’s controversial reputation and the beer’s strong herbal cannabis aroma, customers frequently ask Koenigs if they will pass a drug test if they drink it. Since the beer does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoacitve component of cannabis, he assures them that they will be fine.
A strong proponent of the ingredient, New Belgium has partnered with Willie Nelson’s advocacy brands, Hemp 4 Victory and GCH Inc., to help legalize industrial hemp nationwide — it’s been legal in North Carolina since 2016 as part of the pilot research program — and thereby encourage more brewers to test the ingredient and explore its potential.
“I could see it working beautifully in pilsner or lager beer, perhaps even dark beer,” Koenigs says. “Hemp is in its infancy as a crop and has as many aroma outcomes as hops. I think it will be interesting to see where brewers take it.”
While The Hemperor is Asheville’s most widely available hemp beer, it’s not the first to emerge from the local brewing scene. Wedge Brewing Co. has made 10 batches of Derailed Hemp Ale since 2009, many of which have appropriately been released on April 20.
Wedge owner Tim Schaller was approached by pro-hemp Asheville residents and asked brewmaster Carl Melissas to use the ingredient in a beer as a way of promoting its many uses, including as a food and for fiber. Melissas based the recipe on his Payne’s Pale Ale and drew inspiration from fond memories of snacking on hemp seeds while living in California nearly three decades earlier, which got him thinking that they could work well in a nut brown ale. The brewery orders three 50-pound bags of hemp seeds from Canada for each 600-gallon batch, and they’re shipped in a certain condition.
“They have to, by law, be toasted before they enter the country,” Melissas says. “If they’re not toasted, then they’re not denatured, so you can grow weed from them.”
Hemp seeds are smaller than barley kernels, and in order to run them through Wedge’s mill and break the seeds in half, a tighter-than-usual setting is required. Melissas learned to make this adjustment the first year Derailed was brewed and became illuminated on hemp’s high oil content, which gummed up the roller mills when run through on its own. Milling the seeds along with dry barley malt balances out the gummy qualities and keeps the machine running smoothly.
For the beer’s hops, Melissas stuck with Payne’s use of Cascade as a nod to it being harvested close to Humboldt County, Calif., where it shares some of the same land as the strain of marijuana famously grown in the region. Cascade has a “dank” aroma similar to marijuana, and Melissas jokingly likes to say, “The new hopheads are just the old potheads.” But he’s quick to note that hemp “has the most amino acids aside from eggs, second only to soybeans” among nonanimal products, and that it works as a great yeast energizer in the brewing process.
The health benefits of hemp also appealed to Pete Langheinrich, head brewer for Asheville Brewing Co., in working with the ingredient, though the main inspiration for his Abra-Kolschdabra Hemp Pale Ale was rooted in lightheartedness. Brewery President Mike Rangel selected the stoner comedy Half Baked as one of four films screened at the brewery’s Merrimon Avenue location as part of National Comedy Month in 2017 and booked it for April 20. He then tasked his brewers with crafting a complementary beer for each movie.
“Of course, the idea of doing something hemp-related came up,” Langheinrich says. “Not every beer is going to be a funny beer, but it’s a lot of fun seeing people go to these movies and see the name of the beer and the ingredients and get a chuckle out of it. And that was definitely one of the top ones that we did along those lines.”
Since fat can be the enemy of foam in beer, Asheville Brewing found a Canadian company with a low-fat hemp powder. Langheinrich adapted an existing pale ale recipe with Nugget hops “to further the tie-in with Half Baked” but additionally use its bittering qualities and pleasant herbal aroma. Columbus hops, often described as potlike, were also used, as were Chinook for their piney nature. He then essentially used hemp as a substitute for Victory malt to bring out its nutty flavors in the one-off beer.
“We really wanted to attack the flavors of it,” Langheinrich says. “I think it would be really easy just to do a hemp beer because it’s hemp, and people are going to want to try it, but we really wanted to meld the flavors together.”
Noting the strong aromatic nature of The Hemperor, which he calls “a different animal” compared with other hemp beers, Langheinrich is already seeing a diversity of the ingredient’s use and thinks it could work well in many different styles.
“It would be a little bit harder to get it into some sour beers, maybe, but even a nice sour IPA with that kind of aromatics would be kind of nice,” he says. “It definitely has its place in the beer world.”