A few weeks ago, I stopped by a recently opened restaurant in the northernmost reaches of Queens whose sole raison d'etre was to serve cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound derived from either industrial hemp or marijuana commonly referred to as CBD, on just about everything. You could order a burger dripping with CBD-laced sauce followed by chocolate cake topped with CBD-spiked whipped cream. For a few extra bucks, servers used an eyedropper to deposit several drops in my cocktail, thereby rendering it a “stoney negroni.”
Truth be told, none of the edibles were especially tasty or bore much resemblance to the restaurant's slick promo photos and PR. Yet if the CBD additions were a marketing gimmick, they were working. Customers had journeyed from other boroughs to see if the fuss over this heavily hyped cannabinoid was justified.
The couple at the bar cautiously sipping their "rolled fashioneds" weren't the only CBD-curious consumers in town. Last year, the CBD industry had an estimated value of $350 million, thanks in part to claims that it may be able to alleviate everything from social anxiety to physical pain. In high doses, it may even be helpful in treating intractable pediatric epilepsy.
While some of the studies surrounding CBD are promising, the fact that research on cannabis has been restricted for decades means there oftentimes isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence to back these claims up. Some of the regularly cited studies contained as few as 10 participants. Figuring out how to effectively use CBD for medical purposes, what correct dosages should be, and regulating it all accordingly is going to take time.
“Growing public acceptance of CBD is a positive shift towards realizing the health and nutritional benefits of using cannabis as a supplement,” says David Bienstock, co-host of the podcast Great Moments in Weed History. “As far as drawbacks, I do think we need regulatory oversight to keep consumers safe and make sure products are safe and advertised accurately.”
The lack of research hasn’t stopped CBD from popping up in everything from soft-serve ice cream to lattes to, yes, beer. A number of the brewing power players have already bet big on cannabinoids being the next big thing. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently committed to $50 million to researching uses of CBD and THC in non-alcoholic drinks, while the Heineken-owned brewery Lagunitas released a non-alcoholic THC-infused beer and Molson Coors Brewing Company joined forces with a Quebec-based cannabis company.
Megabreweries may be edging in, but a few craft breweries have been in on the game for a while now. In 2016, Coalition Brewing Co. in Oregon released Two Flowers, an IPA with 4 milligrams of CBD per 12 oz. Given the low dosage, the brewing team there is careful not to overstate the effect it might have on consumers.
“We can’t make any claims of how the beer might make you feel. It’s just a beer. Anecdotally speaking, we’ve heard different people say different things,” says Phil Boyle, general manager of Coalition Brewing Co. “A friend of mine said instead of having a couple of beers, it’s like having a couple beers in a hot tub.”
Rather than advertising their beer as some sort of miracle panacea, the team was interested in pursuing CBD beer for other reasons.
“At first, we thought the marketing value [of CBD] would make it worthwhile, but the more research we did, the more we saw a synergy between hops and cannabis,” Boyle says. “There’s a crossover in the flavor and aromatic compounds, as well as a crossover in the industries. We’re both focused on community and we’re both children of Prohibition, to a certain degree.”
Businesses will follow what the consumers want and politics will ultimately follow what businesses want. The more dollar figures that go along with it, the more it’s going to become a real thing.”
The botanical link between hops and cannabis is an oft-repeated line within the industry, although interestingly, the way it actually plays out in the beer isn’t quite what one might expect. In order to comply with regulations set out by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (OLCC), Coalition Brewing Co. uses an odorless, flavorless CBD isolate. To bring out those desired aromatic notes, they work with a company called True Terpenes, which isolates the aromatic compounds found in both hops and cannabis and produces concentrated versions that can legally be used.
If this seems like a convoluted method, that’s because the brewery has had to be careful with regulations, even in a state as accepting of cannabis as Oregon. CBD’s legal status elsewhere, meanwhile, remains even more precarious.
Earlier this month, the New York Department of Health banned CBD in foods and started cracking down. In other words, that restaurant I visited in Queens and other purveyors of CBD-laced edibles are now in dicey legal territory.
Much like activated charcoal, another substance with grandiose, poorly researched health claims, CBD has never been a federally approved food additive. And like CBD, activated charcoal was damn near everywhere until New York clamped down it last summer. Almost overnight, restaurants went from hawking their highly Instagrammable product to dumping $3,000 worth of jet-black ice cream in one go.
New York isn’t alone. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services also recently pulled the plug on CBD edibles and Ohio has been embargoing products with the ingredient. Whether more states will follow suit remains to be seen, although Boyle remains optimistic about the long-term future of CBD both in beer and in general in this country.
“I personally think it’s here to stay. Two years ago, if I asked a room full of people what CBD was, maybe 20 percent would raise their hands. Now that’s changing,” Boyle says. “Businesses will follow what the consumers want and politics will ultimately follow what businesses want. I think it’s just a cultural shift and one that’s happening strong and fast. The more dollar figures that go along with it, the more it’s going to become a real thing.”