The Rise Of Hemp

Photo Credit: Eileen Mellon

On Saturday, April 21, approaching The Camel on Broad Street, I was hit with the pungent smell of marijuana. As I entered the music venue, I didn’t walk through a cloud of hazy smoke, though, and I didn’t see anyone passing joints. The aroma that filled the building came from New Belgium Brewing’s newest beer release, The Hemperor HPA, one of the first beers made using hops and hemp.

The golden beer is perfect for warm-weather drinking, offering a slightly earthy taste — it’s a smooth 7 percent IPA with a subtle hop — and a not-so-subtle scent.

“There’s a very distinct aroma, and when you pour it, your friend at the table next to you will smell it,” says Jared Burton, activation manager for New Belgium. “It smells like a loud bag of cannabis, and it’s very aromatic. The beer itself is going to drink super smooth and doesn’t taste like it smells.”

The scent behind the beer is emblematic of one of the biggest issues surrounding hemp — the misconception that it’s marijuana. Though it’s one of the oldest and fastest-growing plants in the Northern Hemisphere, hemp is also currently illegal in the United States at the federal level.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified all forms of cannabis, which includes hemp, as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow in the U.S. In 2014, the Hemp Industries Association estimated that the retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. was $620 million. All the hemp materials used to make them had to be imported from other countries at the time.

Although illegal on a national level, there are 13 states that allow industrial hemp farming for research and commercial purposes, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. Most of the hemp for cultivation comes from Europe and Canada.

However, that could change: In early April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which seeks to treat hemp like any other agricultural commodity.

Dr. Wondi Mersie, associate dean and director of research at Virginia State University, is one of the leaders conducting hemp research in the commonwealth, but he says it hasn’t always been easy to study.

Before the Virginia General Assembly’s 2015 enactment of the Industrial Hemp Law, which made it possible for universities to conduct hemp research, it it was illegal to do so. In 2016, VSU began field research to identify the uses of hemp as a crop and its role in the farming system.

Mersie says that in two years of research, he has seen promising varieties of hemp that could grow well in Virginia.

“It’s adapted to the mid-Atlantic region, and I hope [the law] changes to give our farmers one more alternative crop to grow,” Mersin says. “The research began because people realized that it has a lot of potential, and the seed and the stalk can be sources of many products.”

Those products include clothing; paper; oil-based products like paint, fiber and nontoxic diesel fuel; personal-care products such as body lotions; food; and, of course, beer.

New Belgium, based out of Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina, spent three years crafting its recipe for The Hemperor, mostly because of legality. Colorado leads the nation in hemp cultivation, planting 9,700 acres of the crop last year, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Even though the hemp plant produces no psychedelic components, federal law says that the hemp plants are illegal to use in goods that are consumed.

The brewery instead uses hemp hearts — shelled seeds of the industrial hemp plant that are essentially the meat of the hemp seed. Hemp hearts are coincidentally cousins of hops, the flowers used to give beer its flavor, and both produce similar aromatic compounds that complement one another.

Burton says the stringent laws made releasing the beer a laborious process, and it took months after they crafted the recipe before they were able to bring it to market. Kansas didn’t allow the beer to be released in its state, and Texas only approved it at the very last minute.

Burton says he hopes the release of The Hemperor will spark conversation in the Southeast about hemp’s benefits, and he believes Richmond is a city to get the conversation started.

“We chose to do a release in Richmond because it seems a little more hip-friendly, and when I’m here, it feels like it wants to be counterculture, and that’s basically what this beer is,” Burton says. “The hemp plant being illegal never made sense in industrial terms … we would love to see it made easier for people to access.”

There are currently three different kinds of industrial hemp varieties — oilseed, which is primarily grown for the seed and used for food; fiber used for making clothes; and hybrid (dual-purpose) that is good for seed and fiber.

Mersie says that besides its industrial uses, hemp also improves soil quality. It detoxifies the soil, prevents soil erosion, releases nutrients into the soil and requires few pesticides, if any. “You get so much biomass per unit area, and the roots, which remain in the soil, improve the health,” he says.

Despite its obvious benefits and uses, hemp remains illegal for one equally obvious reason: “Because of its association with marijuana,” Mersin says. “It is a cousin of marijuana, and you cannot tell the difference between the two plants, but industrial hemp has less than .03 of the chemical [THC] that makes people high. They are identical when you look at them, so it’s a challenge sometimes.”

Although they are physically identical, they are not chemically identical.

“You cannot obtain a high from the plant or stalk, there is no way to get high,” Mersin says.

When Mersie and his colleagues receive seeds to plant for research, their acquisition is conducted through the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Although they use seeds from specific vendors, they cannot contact the vendors directly, and most vendors are worried about transporting the seeds.

Mersie hopes that hemp can be promoted as a crop for the future.

“I think the times are changing, and we had a hemp field day last year at VSU, and there was a lot of discussion,” Mersin says. “I think the bill out there [the Hemp Farming Act of 2018], if that passes, that would change everything.”

New Belgium also hopes the release of The Hemperor will shed some light on the potential of this versatile crop. The brewery partnered with GCH Inc., Willie Nelson’s advocacy brand that supports hemp legalization through the Hemp for Victory campaign. For every barrel of The Hemperor sold, $1 is donated to promote hemp legalization and shed light on its industrial uses.