When Australia legalised the consumption of cannabis-related hemp a year ago on November 12th, it lit up the alcohol industry. Ironically enough, it was in the coastal paradise of Byron Bay, renowned for its hippy lifestyle, that Oscar McMahon, co-founder of Sydney's Newtown-based craft beer company Young Henrys, first sparked the idea of using it in their brewing.
"We sat down for a beer with the guys from independent punk rock clothing company Afends, lovely dudes who've been advocating for hemp used as a sustainable textile for years," McMahon recalls.
"This was before the law changed, but we thought it would be a cool idea to brew with it too."
Alchemy and creativity
Described as a big sticky number with citrus and spice aromas and resinous vegetal notes, Young Henrys and Afends Hemp IPA is the product of that collaboration, alchemical creativity and a few dead ends. "It was important to us that it's not a gimmick beer," McMahon insists. "We didn't want a product with a novelty amount of hemp in it. We wanted people to be able to taste it."
Feeding the yeast culture with hemp protein didn't cut it, neither did cooking it with hemp seeds in the kettle. "It wasn't bad, but it wasn't an overly interesting flavour," he notes.
Recruiting Daniel Schultz of Halcyon Bioscience, they investigated the idea of using terpenes, the essential oils found in hops, a traditional beer ingredient, and a related species to marijuana. "They were doing really interesting stuff, working on food products like water-soluble pepper, and he told us they could do that with hemp seed oil," McMahon reveals.
Oil and water aren't exactly a natural fit, and it ruins the head retention of beer too, but the Halcyon guys figured out how to create a water-soluble version. McMahon and added that into a cold, finished beer brewed with hops as normal, then adding by-product hop hash. "So you get this big punchy, grassy, minty, almost fennel-like aniseed flavour which is unlike any hop, but is completely complementary," McMahon says.
Driven by challenge, the science fascinated McMahon, as does the sustainability angle. "Hops are a much more delicate crop that only grows under certain climates and conditions and uses much more water than hemp, which grows like a weed."
Hops won't disappear from their beer, with the acidity they produce needed to keep it safe from pathogens, but it hemp has produced an eminently drinkable IPA that treads lighter on the planet and won't get you high either, with a teeny THC percentage. "This beer proves you can use hemp and get a great flavour, and it also starts the conversation around all these other uses of hemp, like as a building material or a textile. It's insane that we're not using it more widely in Australia."
Your local weed
Cormac Sheehan, an imported Irishman and co-owner of The Cannabis Company, agrees. "The legalising of hemp products is going to be huge for the Australian economy. We have a lot of love for our farmers, but a lot of farming families are finding it very hard to keep up and I believe hemp, and cannabis, is the answer," he says.
While several Australian companies import hemp seeds from China or Canada, The Cannabis Company works directly with local farmers and is actively encouraging more to get involved. "There's going to be a huge export potential, because [Australia] is known for very high quality food and drinks."
Exploring multiple uses of hemp as led by CEO Dr. David Stapleton, a senior researcher at The University of Melbourne with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, like McMahon, they weren't interested in gimmicky applications.
They also hit on harnessing the unique flavour profile of cannabis terpenes in their Myrcene Hemp Gin, a small batch spirit distilled in leafy Victorian town Healesville. Sheehan describes eh combination of lavender, pine forest, sage, violet, rosemary and spice flavours. "Gin, in particular, takes on the characteristics of the botanicals used in it, it's sort of a blank canvas. So we use elements of the plant from the stalk to the seed in the first part of the distillation process, then the myrcene comes in in the second distillation, and that's where you get the real body, the earthy flavour. We were blown away."
The last laugh
So were Australia's gin drinkers. All 300 bottles of the first batch sold out in three days. "No one had tasted it yet, so it was all hype, but as soon as they did, they realised it was something extra," Sheehan says. "It's a good balance of fresh, springtime flavours with earthy woody ones."
Myrcene Hemp Gin had to be more than just a stoner's joke.
"That was crucial for us. Australia has been getting a lot of attention for its gin, with our Healesville neighbours Four Pillars and places like Archie Rose, so it was important for us to own that identity with a gin that really stood out, embracing that hemp flavour."