Written by Greg Kitsock
Copyright 1997 Greg Kitsock
It was called Brain Death, and it was a highgravity brew in more than one sense of the word.
Brain Death was the creation of two homebrewers and certified beer judges, both brewers of whom are highly respected in their hobby. (For reasons that will become apparent, they wish to remain anonymous.) A potent barleywine (OG 1,100), Brain Death contained an extra ingredient that one of the euphemistically calls “special hops”.
In fact, the beer was “dryhemped” with flowers of the female marijuana plant, homegrown by an acquaintance in Texas. The alcohol and tetrahydrocannibanol (THC) made a mindrattling combination.
The creators of Brain Death brought some samples to the 1988 American Homebrewers Association convention in Denver, CO. There, the brewers were approached by Michael Jackson. Recalled one of them: “We told him what was in it, and poured him a pint. Fortyfive minutes later, he came back and asked, ‘Is there any chance there would be some Brain Death left?’ We gave him our last bottle.”
The brewer later had his copy of Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion inscribed, “To [NAME]. Ever since we met, I’ve been suffering from Brain Death. Cheers, Michael.”
Cannabis sativa…some call it the hop’s shady relation. Both plants belong to the family Cannabinacea, and hail from Central Asia. Both are dioecious, meaning the species consists of male and female plants with separate sex organs. Both are prized for the sticky secretions of glands on their flowers and leaves, which have narcotic properties. (Lupulin, the active ingredient in hops, won’t get you high, but it does have a narcoleptic effect; hop pillows have been used for centuries to treat insomnia.) However, hops are green gold, a billion dollar cash crop, while cannabis is an outlaw, banned in the USA since 1937.
Actually, it’s the cultivation of cannabis that’s banned. It’s still permissible to import byproducts of industrial hemp, a low THC variety grown in Europe and Asia. Hemp seeds used to find their way into bird feeders across the country. Now, their primary use is as a brewing adjunct. Hempen Ale, a new release from the Frederick Brewing Company in Frederick, MD, contains between 10 and 30% hemp seeds in the mash. The seeds are laboratorycertified to be THC free, assures Steve Nordahl, VP of brewery operations. But they’re rich in proteins and fatty acids, lending this brown ale an oily mouthfeel and creamy white head, as well as a mild herbal/spicy aftertaste. By this fall, estimates Nordahl, the brewery will be running through about 45,000 pounds of hemp secds a month…about 75% of the total entering this country.
The Creston Brewing Company in Creston, CA also has a hemp flavored brew on the market. Olde Hempinstead 420 is an amber ale filtered through sterile hemp cloth. The name “420,” claims brewer Kip Andersen, comes from West Coast police jargon for a pot party in progress. Olde Hempinstead claims to be a stone (if not stoned) beer. “A portion of the beer in every batch is brewed by immersing superheated brewing rocks into wooden bowls…,” states the label, which features two “dancing Tibetan skeletons.” Rubber banded to each 22 oz bottle is a pamphlet titled “Hemp, Beer and Civilization,” which argues for hemp’s relegalization.
Cannabis brews are probably quite old, considering that alcohol and pot vye with one another for being mankind’s earliest intoxicant. Where fermentation originated, we have no idea, but the mindalteringproperties of pot were first exploited in India and China. According to 100 Years of Brewing (Chicago & New York: H.S. Rich & Co., 1905), the sacred literature of the ancient Indians and Persians mentions bonga, a “beverage strongly intoxicating…which was probably prepared from flaxseed (cannabis).” Bonga-alternately spelled banga, bangha and bhang-was prepared from marijuana leaves and was less powerful than similar preparations called ganga and charas, argues Ernest L. Abel in his book Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. “A host would offer a cup of bhang to a guest as casually as we would offer someone in our own house a glass of beer.”
Abel offers a turn of the century recipe for bhang which calls for 220 grains of cannabis added to 20 oz of milk, along with varying amounts of sugar, poppy seed, pepper, ginger, caraway seed, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, cucumber seed, almonds, nutmeg and rosebuds, all boiled together.
Thomas Bowrey, an English sea captain who visited India in the late 17th century, was one of the first Europeans to sample bhang. He described its preparation:
“Pound or grinde a handfulle of the Seed and leafe together, which mixt with one Pint of fresh Water, and let it Soake neare one quarter of an houre or more, then strained through a piece of Calicoe or what else is fine, and drinke off the liquor, and in less than half an houre it’s Operation will Shew it Selfe for the space of 4 or 5 hours.”
Bowrey reported that the concoction affected different men indifferent ways: some wept, some cringed in fear, one angrily pounded his fists against a wooden beam for no reason, while Bowrey sat sweating profusely.
None of these sources mentions bhang as containing alcohol, but the Indians have long been skilled in the art of fermentation. Ancient Sanskrit documents mention soma, a beverage made from the fermented juice of a species of creeper blended with malt, warm milk or butter; and sura, a libation made from millet, barley, water, curds, butter and honey. It would have been a simple matter to mix in some cannabis to give the drink more bhang for the buck.
At any rate, the Chinese did blend the two drugs for cumulative effect. According to Abel, Elua T’o-a surgeon from the 2nd century AD-created a potion called mayo from cannabis resin and wine. As an anesthetic, it was supposed to knock the patient senseless in minutes flat. Abel is skeptical of the claim. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that Michael Jackson, in discussing the marijuana- barleywine, claimed that he “slept very well that night.” Sounds like a pretty good alternative to acupuncture.
Europeans were raising hemp by the Middle Ages, possibly right alongside the first hop gardens. The plant was used more for rope than for dope. Cool, humid climates, writes Abel, favor the growth of the stalk with its strong, supple fibers, and discourage the production of the THC rich resin. At times, hemp was more valued than its botanical cousin, the hop. Henry VIII, for instance, warned his brewer not to use any hops in the royal beer, regarding them as an unsavory weed. However, he ordered that farmers plant; one quarter acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned, on penalty of a major fine. The hemp was processed into rope and sails to equip His Maiesty’s Navy. Within a century after Henry’s death, Kentish hop growers were stuffing the newly picked cones into huge ‘sacks of crudely woven hemp.
“Drugging” beer-spiking the brew with narcotics to increase its potency-was a common practice in early 18th century England. Some of the more dangerous additives included opium, wormwood, and cocculus indicus, a poisonous berry native to India and Sri Lanka. But there is no indication that cannabis was used as an adjunct. Most Europeans were ignorant of the plant’s psychoactive effects until after the Napoleonic Wars, when scores of French soldiers returned from Egypt addicted to hashish.
According to beer historian Alan Eames, a marijuana beer was brewed in the late 1960s by a couple of underground homebrewers who operated out of an airplane hangar on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The brewers distilled the cannibanol oil out of the leaves and blossoms, then added it to their base beer-a brown ale-after the boil. What they didn’t drink themselves, they sold for about $45 a case. “The levels were very high,” states Eames. A few bottles of this and you’d have “some real time and spatial problems.”
Another pioneer marijuana brewer was U.B. (“Unknown Brewer”), coauthor of the slim volume Marijuana Beer (see review in the February/March 1997 issue of Southwest Brewing News). U.B. turned to brewing as a way of utilizing the lower leaves and trimmings of the cannabis plant, which are lower in THC than the bud and yield a harsh taste when smoked. Between 1979 and 1983, U.B. experimented with a variety of recipes and styles. But this was the dawn of amateur zymurgy, and U.B’s recipes incorporate ingredients like corn and cane sugar that most current homebrewers would eschew. Even in the updated 1996 version, the bibliography lists no source more current than 1981. The name Charlie Papazian is nowhere to be encountered.
The brewers of Brain Death made two five gallon batches in 1988. The first, which was infused with 21/2 ounces of “special hops,” was judged superior to the second, which received only 1 1/2 ounces. Both times, the brewers steeped the flowers beforehand in water heated to about 150 degrees. Two 45 minute rinses allowed most of the chlorophyll, tannin, and other undesirable chemicals to leech out. “Otherwise, it would have given the beer a leafy taste and color,” said our source.
The beer itself was described as a “pretty dry barleywine, but with good residual sugars.” After a ten day fermentation, the cannabis blossoms were added directly to the beer, where they remained for two weeks. The barleywine was then racked off and bottled.
How potent was Brain Death? En route to the 1988 AHA convention, our mystery brewers stopped off in western Kansas one fine morning and enjoyed two bottles apiece. “We experienced another level of perception,” recalled the brewer. “Of course, we already had a good buzz on from drinking without breakfast.”
Apart from its time and space altering properties, the beer had a taste like no other. it was described to us as resinous but not piny, with a flowery aroma similar to “really fresh, whole noble hops.” Commented its creator: “I’ve tried one other marijuana beer that tasted green and grassy. But Brain Death was sophisticated.”
Taking a slightly different approach was the brewer of Canabis Porter and Sixth Quarter Porter. This gentleman is a professional brewer who used to work for a brewpub in the Southwest US which is no longer active. Mystery brewer #2 obtained “OK quality” Mexican weed which was a blend of seeds, stems and buds. He removed the seeds and cut up the marijuana, then funneled it into an empty carboy. Next, the base beer-“a nice, simple, three grain porter-was poured over the pot. The brew was allowed to age for about a month.
Our second brewer did not steep the cannabis in hot water beforehand, and reported that his beer had a “green” taste . “Right out in front, but not unpleasant” is how he characterized it.
For his first batch, the brewer used about a quarter ounce of marijuana per five gallons. The beer came out “mellow and awesome,” he recalls, but had little THC kick. For the followup batch, the dose was upped to half an ounce. Drinking a bottle, he recalled, was like eating a hash brownie. “A quart split among three people would give you a nice relaxing sensation throughout your body. Twelve ounces, and you’d most definitely feel it.”
He had three pieces of advice for homebrewers doing a pot beer. First, don’t insert the cannabis during the boil-“you’ll only destroy it!” Since THC dissolves in alcohol but not water, the beer should ideally have undergone primary fermentation before it’s dry hemped. Secondly, for a base, marijuana brewer #2 recommends a beer style that can tolerate a vigorous dry hopping, such as a porter or American pale ale . Lastly, the beer should be consumed as soon as possible for the cannabis to have maximum effect. It’s the brewer’s experience that THC breaks down in the presence of heat and light, and deteriorates with age. “After a year, your beer may be interesting, but it won’t be psychoactive.”
On the other hand, the brewer of Brain Death cited earlier believed his beer peaked after 11/2 years. However, his recipe incorporated pure flowers of “extraordinary” quality. The Brain Death brewer noted that a pot beer is “not something you do for economy’s sake.” Diluting your stash in several gallons of beer will give you nowhere the kick of smoking it.
A word of caution:
…marijuana remains a controlled substance. In Washington, DC, this writer’s neck of the woods, mere possession can get you a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail. Penalties for selling and distributing pot are generally much stiffer. Readers of this publication may remember the case of Dave Harvan, who ran Electric Dave’s Brewery in South Bisbee, AZ from 1988 to 1993. Four years ago, he was arrested for mailing a large quantity of marijuana to a friend on the East Coast. Although it was his first offense, he received a five year prison sentence. The brewer of the potted porters described above was once arrested in Texas for having two grams of marijuana in his possession. He got off with a year’s probation, but had to pay $2,500 in fines and court costs.
As a legal alternative, homebrewers may want to experiment with hemp seeds. The Ohio hempery in Guysvile, OH, the supplier of Frederick Brewing Company will sell you a one pound bag for $7. The price includes a cookbook with hemp recipes ranging from hummus to chocolate chip cookies. Phone 1-800-BUY-HEMP.
Kitsock is the associate editor of the Virginia-based BarleyCorn beer newspaper and a frequent contributor to Southern Draft. This article originally ran in the August/September 1997 issue of the Southwest Brewing News. One year subscriptions (6 issues) to Southwest Brewing News are available by sending a check for $15 to the paper, at 1505 Lupine Lane, Austin, TX 78741