By Keith Villa, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This article is an edited excerpted from chapter 4 of Brewing with Cannabis by Keith Villa, Ph.D., available now from Brewers Publications.
Brewers have explored various strategies to put cannabis into alcoholic and non-alcoholic brews. Since cannabidiol (CBD) is very similar to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids, and since alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are very similar and usually greater than 95% water, any methods described below should apply generally to CBD, THC, and/or many other cannabis phytocannabinoids used in a malt beverage. Additionally, beer is described below, but the beverage can be hard seltzer, non-alcoholic beer, or even sparkling water.
Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, and it is important to note that the addition of any cannabinoid to any kind of alcoholic beverage is illegal. At our brewery, CERIA Brewing Company, THC and CBD are dosed into non-alcoholic beer only and never into beer with alcohol. Other beverages for sale that contain CBD, where legal, are also non-alcoholic, usually sparkling or still flavored waters. Finally, consumers of cannabis beverages should avoid overconsumption at all times. Perhaps a friend or budtender suggests that 100 mg of CBD is optimal, or a popular TV personality suggests that 1 mg per pound of body weight is most effective. Taking advice from unproven sources should be avoided at all costs.
Prior to the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (often referred to as the 2018 farm bill), in which hemp was removed from the Controlled Substances Act, professional brewers were very hesitant to consider brewing with hemp for fear of losing their federally issued brewer’s permit. In contrast, homebrewers experimented with hemp and even posted recipes on websites for others to try to replicate. Some craft breweries made a name for themselves by naming beers after marijuana strains or after cannabis vocabulary, such as “420” Extra Pale Ale by Sweetwater Brewing Company in Georgia. However, none were daring enough to try brewing with hemp, even though hemp contains less than 0.3% dry weight of the psychoactive component, THC.
It should be noted that hemp seeds are specifically mentioned in the 2018 farm bill as a part of the hemp plant that can be harvested and sold in the food chain in the US because they do not contain cannabinoids; specifically, they do not contain THC or CBD.
Using CBD in Beverages
Much like liquid hop extract, CBD and other cannabinoids have an oily, sticky texture when extracted from the cannabis plant, and these oils do not readily mix with water and water-based beverages. Therefore, any brewer who uses cannabinoids or cannabis extracts in the brewing process must figure out a way to get the oily components into beer successfully. Certainly, innovators like Mason Hembree proved that processes exist or can be created (see “Hemp Ale and Washington’s Secret Stash” sidebar), but some of the known processes are not suitable for the food industry. Additionally, most processes to make cannabis oil mixable with aqueous liquids are proprietary, such as one for water soluble cannabinoids (Martin, Razdan, and Mahadevan 2008), or classified as trade secrets.
In layman’s terms, emulsification is simply the forced mixing of two liquids that normally do not mix together, such as oil and water. For example, when a chef is making a vinaigrette dressing it is necessary to add an emulsifier so that the oil fraction does not separate from the vinegar (water-based) fraction. In this case, many chefs will use a small amount of egg yolk or honey, or more refined ingredients such as xanthan gum or soy lecithin, to emulsify or “mix” the two immiscible ingredients. The end result is a salad dressing that is well blended and pours smoothly without separating because the oil has been formed into microscopic droplets that remain stable in suspension. The same can be done with cannabis oils. Although most cannabis emulsification processes are proprietary, they can generally be grouped into two categories: a conventional emulsification process, and a more complex process that makes CBD water compatible.
Emulsification of CBD
The first method to emulsify CBD is to mix the extract with a specific amount of emulsifying agent, such as vegetable gum. This is mixed at a very high speed, sometimes using ultrasonic waves, to create a stable solution that can be mixed into aqueous solutions like beer. While the final CBD oil solution can remain stable for weeks or months, eventually it will settle out in the same way many oil-vinegar dressings do when they have been sitting on grocery store shelves for a long time. Settling out or “layering” of the oil and water components causes inhomogeneity that can only be reversed by agitation, clearly undesirable for a beer or soda. To ensure that every serving contains a reasonably consistent amount of bioactive “oily” molecules, it is imperative to verify that the CBD oil solution does not settle out during the time between mixing and packaging. This forced mixing is similar to the naturally occurring “ouzo effect” (see sidebar). Depending on the emulsifier, the final product can be milky white or have a slightly hazy appearance due to the presence of very small, microemulsified oil droplets.
The second method for emulsification is to make the cannabis oil into a more water-compatible mixture. This is not the same as water soluble. For example, a compound that is water soluble, like table salt (sodium chloride, chemical formula NaCl) will dissolve in water by dissociating into separate ions of sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl–) and not affect the clear appearance of the water. An oily compound, such as cannabis extract, will never dissolve in water, but can appear to dissolve under the right conditions. This is called water compatibility.
Water compatibility also involves emulsification, but it requires more complex ingredients and methodologies. The aim is to form nanoparticles, that is, particles much smaller than the microparticles seen in conventional emulsification. In speaking with anonymous sources in the cannabis emulsification industry, I found that the main strategy for this concept emerged from the former Soviet Union, with the technology becoming more widely available after the country’s breakup in 1991. In short, Soviet scientists discovered that a specific form of vitamin E known as d-a-tocopherol could be combined with other ingredients and then subjected to ultrasonic mixing to form nanoparticles, called micelles, that contained vitamin E. Micelles are extremely small, globular objects that have a lipophilic (“oil-loving”) core and hydrophilic (“water-loving”) outer shell; they are very stable and water compatible. Vitamin E is an oily compound that does not readily dissolve in water. The critical aspect of the Soviet scientists’ discovery was that the micelles could be made to contain small amounts of oil-soluble compounds, such as certain drugs, providing a mechanism that allowed these compounds to readily pass through the cell membrane structures of the human body and deliver them to desired targets with a high degree of speed and efficiency.
According to two cannabis processors I spoke to, one application of this method involved doping athletes with steroids using this highly effective delivery system, and the athletes displayed the effects within minutes. These athletes could theoretically get tested for steroids prior to an event, then drink a liquid that looked like water that had nanoparticles of steroids for quick uptake immediately prior to a competition. This method was difficult to recognize because most performance steroids at the time had to be delivered by injection. More recently, researchers have found that this technology is suitable for the delivery of anticancer drugs and other helpful pharmaceuticals into the human body, especially since the FDA has approved its use as a safe pharmacological adjuvant (Guo et al. 2013).
In the world of cannabis, it is easy to see that the micelle emulsification technology can be used to create nanoparticles of cannabinoids that are water compatible, and therefore able to be put into beverages. Indeed, it appears that some suppliers are using these methods, creating products that have an almost crystal-clear appearance yet contain relatively high doses of CBD. I have tested at least one such product and found it to be very compatible with beer and it does not cause problems with haze or foam over its six-month shelf life, even though the oily characteristics of CBD would predict poor foam stability.
In addition to appearance and accurate and consistent dosing, the important aspect of the emulsification process is that the nanoparticles increase the bioavailability of pharmaceuticals, which could include cannabinoids, by delivering them into the body more efficiently (Guo et al. 2013). This is unlike cannabinoids ingested through edibles, which can take up to two hours to get into the bloodstream because they go through the digestive tract and can be altered into a more potent form by the liver (Huestis 2007).
The flavor of the final product can also be affected greatly by the type of CBD that is used in the emulsion. If the CBD is a pure distillate then flavor-active terpenes are not captured and the resulting product usually has no or very low aroma, but a slightly bitter taste due to the natural bitterness of cannabinoids. This natural bitterness does not usually lead to a palatable flavor in sweet beverages, but can complement drinks that are inherently bitter, such as beer, coffee, and tea. CBD might also be isolated as a full-spectrum or a broad-spectrum (or crude) extract rather than a distillate. A full-spectrum extract refers to a complete extract of the plant and will therefore also contain whatever THC was present, which should be below the legal limit of 0.3% THC by dry weight. A broad-spectrum CBD extract refers to an extract from the plant that has all cannabinoids except THC and is usually extracted from industrial hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC. Either extract will generally have a bitter taste because of the naturally bitter tasting cannabinoids. Both extracts can be refined to remove any aromatic terpenes and, thus, can either smell like cannabis or have no aroma.
Wine is not considered a bitter beverage, but at least one winery has been busy creating CBD-infused versions of its wines. This raises the question of how to balance the flavors so that the wine is not overtly bitter. The answer can possibly be found in the form of “bitterness blockers.” These blocking agents are found naturally in certain plants, such as mushrooms, and work by either masking bitter flavors, altering the perception of bitterness, or preventing bitter compounds from interacting and binding to taste buds on the tongue that detect this flavor. It is also conceivable that the tannins in wine help minimize the bitter effect of cannabinoids. In general, bitterness blockers can work very well to allow the use of cannabinoids in beverages and foods. However, there are some beverages, such as soda and flavored waters, where it can be very difficult to employ this strategy because of the simpler flavor profiles of these beverages. In these cases, other emulsifiers must be tested, such as alternative vegetable gums or other oils. In addition, other bitterness blockers should be explored, which can include alternative sweeteners or even salt or salt substitutes.
Why Include CBD in Beer?
Aside from creating a naturally bitter-tasting beverage like beer that can lead to intoxication, there are several reasons that a brewer might choose to include CBD. In the case of Dad and Dude’s Breweria, Mason Hembree wanted to use the perceived curative power of cannabis to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief to customers. Hembree did not make any health claims for his beer. Studies exist showing that CBD and other cannabinoids can provide relief from inflammation and pain (see further reading at the end of this chapter). Additionally, the perceived relaxing effect of CBD is something consumers look for; in the same way someone enjoys an alcoholic drink after work, someone can enjoy a non-alcoholic CBD beer while winding down from a stressful day at the office. Another reason to include CBD in beers is to provide a more flavorful experience when combining it with flavor-active hemp terpenes, so that the final product has an aroma of cannabis to complement the effect of CBD and the flavors of the beer. Certain terpenes, while non-intoxicating, have been suggested to work in conjunction with cannabinoids to amplify physiological effects (Russo 2011). Finally, CBD in a non-alcoholic beer has an allure due to its novelty, and customers may appreciate the convenience of a ready-to-drink beverage with CBD.
One argument in favor of using CBD is the suggestion that cannabinoids help cancer patients relieve the nausea caused by oncology treatments. Cannabinoids do this by inhibiting stimulation of neurones affected by signals from the vagus nerve, thereby greatly diminishing the need to vomit, or the “dry heaves” (Sharkey et al. 2014, 138–139). Although cannabinoids can be a source of extreme relief for oncology patients, this same effect can be detrimental during a binge drinking episode, when the body would normally react to excessive alcohol intake by forcefully expelling the contents of the stomach. In this scenario, the absence of vomiting could lead to alcohol poisoning, a very dangerous outcome. For this reason, extreme caution should be taken before combining cannabis with alcohol.
- “FDA Warns 15 Companies Illegally Selling Various Products Containing Cannabidiol As Agency Details Safety Concerns,” Press Announcements, US Food And Drug Administration, November 25, 2019, https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-warns-15-companies-illegally-selling-various-products-containing-cannabidiol-agency-details.
- S.A. Ross and M.A. Elsohly, “CBN and D9-THC concentration ratio as an indicator of the age of stored marijuana samples,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, December 1, 1999, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1997-01-01_1_page008.html.
- D.C. Hammell, L.P. Zhang, F. Ma, S.M. Abshire, S.L. McIlwrath, A.L. Stinchcomb, and K.N. Westlund, “Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain-related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis,” European Journal of Pain 20, no. 6 (July 2016): 936–948, https://doi.org/10.1002/ejp.818.
- E.B. Russo, “Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain,” Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management 4, no. 1 (February 2008): 245–259, https://doi.org/10.2147/tcrm.s1928.
- Sonja Vučković, Dragana Srebro, Katarina Savić Vujović, Čedomir Vučetić, and Milica Prostran, “Cannabinoids and pain: new insights from old molecules,” Frontiers in Pharmacology 9 (November 2018): 1259, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2018.01259.
- Wei Xiong, Tanxing Cui, Kejun Cheng, Fei Yang, Shao-Rui Chen, Dan Willenbring, Yun Guan, et al., “Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory and neuropathic pain by targeting a3 glycine receptors,” Journal of Experimental Medicine 209, no. 6 (May 2012): 1121–1134, https://doi.org/10.1084/jem.20120242.