For Keith Villa, it started about a decade ago, when Colorado legalized recreational cannabis.
“At that point, I started doing some home experiments,” Villa says. “I was still with Molson Coors/Blue Moon back then [see Boulder Weekly Beer, Aug. 12, for more], and it became clear that they did not want any part of cannabis — even though it was legal in Colorado. They said that they would never get into it because it’s federally illegal.”
Though legal in 19 states as of publication, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in the eyes of the federal government. And since breweries are regulated through the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), it’s no surprise that a multi-national corporation didn’t want experiments in Colorado jeopardizing its international brand.
Alright, Villa thought, I’ll continue to experiment at home and see what happens.
What happened was CERIA Brewing — Villa’s cannabis-focused brewing venture launched with wife Jodi in 2018 after retiring from Coors.
“We said: ‘Let’s bring cannabis to the people in a way, a format, that’s easy to consume and that’s familiar to them,” Villa recounts. “Beer has been with us for thousands of years. People know how to drink it. Our Western culture is such that we almost always have a drink in our hands as we’re socializing.
“So we said: Let’s use beer. That’ll be our vehicle to bring cannabis to the masses,” Villa continues. But there were hurdles to cross. First: “You cannot put cannabis in an alcoholic beer. It’s got to be non-alcoholic, so I had to create recipes for non-alcoholic beers that actually tasted good — because most non-alcoholic beers don’t taste good.”
Second, they had to figure out how to make the cannabis extract water-soluble “because it’s an oily substance and it’ll either be a clump down at the bottom, or it’ll be an oil that floats at the top,” Villa explains.
Third, they had to build a new brand, one not related to a previous alcoholic manufacturer. For that, Villa drew inspiration from the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres, and trademarked CERIA as a non-alcoholic beer because “you can’t trademark anything with cannabis.”
Legal hurdles are one thing. Technical ones, like getting cannabis emulsions into the beer, dosing it properly, making it taste good, etc., that’s where things get interesting. And it starts with emulsions. Cannabis extracts are slippery, oily substances, and beer is 90-95% water. Trying to get the two to play nicely isn’t easy but can be achieved through emulsification — the forced mixing of two liquids that usually don’t mix.
“CBD, CBG, THC — you can use these emulsions to carry the cannabinoids into a liquid and have it stay there,” Villa says. “When we started, that didn’t really exist. We had to work with a local company and figured all that stuff out.”
That included what to do about the hydrophobic polymer can liners found in standard aluminum cans: “The liner is an organic compound that just so happens to have the qualities cannabinoids love and will just stick to,” Villa says. “People figured out how to make the emulsions slippery enough that they don’t stick to the liner. But, there are still people who don’t know that getting into the industry [who] run into that issue.”
That’s why Villa took what he learned while developing CERIA and set it down in Brewing with Cannabis: Using THC and CBD in Beer.
“When we started CERIA, we didn’t have a blueprint to follow,” Villa explains. “It was all trial and error, and it took a long time.” Additionally, “It’s a category that’s changing almost daily.”
Villa went into the project knowing that by the time Brewing with Cannabis would be published, some of the material would already be out of date. Regardless, “We need to at least have a starting point for brewers to pick up a book and have a blueprint or guide,” Villa says.
But Brewing with Cannabis is not just for commercial brewers; Villa’s written it for anyone interested in using it on a personal level: “How to make it water-soluble to put in their morning coffee, or their tea. You can do that with this book.”
Brewing with Cannabis: Using THC and CBD in Beer was recently released by Brewers Publications and is the first of two books the company will publish on the intersection of cannabis and beer. You can find an excerpt in this week’s Cannabis Corner on page 37.
Next week: More with Villa on dosing, beer styles that lend themselves better to cannabis and, of course, a word on seltzer.