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Province Brands of Canada's processing plant.

Courtesy of Province Brands of C

When he co-founded Province Brands of Canada two years ago to create what has since been hailed as the world’s first beer brewed from cannabis, chief executive officer Dooma Wendschuh knew he’d face a few technical challenges along the way. But one snag stood out as both distressing and comical. Nobody at his Toronto facility, it turned out, would be permitted to taste the brew during its development. In fact, they won’t be able to try it anywhere in Canada until October, 2019, when cannabis beverages and edibles are scheduled to be legalized for recreational use – one year after the smokable form gets the green light across the country in about 10 weeks.

If that sounds like a mere fine-print technicality (heck, one might imagine that workers would have been sneaking sips, no?), then welcome to the Big Brother world of legal cannabis commerce. “By law, these marijuana facilities have to have a lot of cameras watching the people inside,” said Wendschuh, who is originally from Miami and led a successful video-game production company prior to entering the cannabis industry. “There are cameras everywhere. We would never push our luck.”

To get around the problem, Province Brands, which has applied for patents around the brewing process and formulation, struck deals to produce a few test batches in facilities in Colorado and California, where potable pot is legal. “Can you imagine trying to start a normal beer company and every time you want to taste the beer you’ve got to leave the country,” Wendschuh said with a laugh. “It’s pretty hard.” Meanwhile, back in Toronto, the company has also been brewing with hemp, the non-psychoactive strain of the same plant species, to create “mirror” beers for sampling.

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Hurdles notwithstanding, Wendschuh says the company’s first product, an alcohol-free twist on a hoppy imperial pilsner, is well on track for launch. “It tastes like a pilsner,” he said. “In addition to the hoppiness, it has a sort of a savouriness, sort of an oily-nutty flavour that comes from the cannabis that we use. The thing that strikes you right away is just the lack of sweetness.”

Sounds enticing to me. But the beer won’t be the world’s first commercial beverage to contain ingredients from the plant. While Wendschuh’s pilsner is novel for being brewed directly from cannabis – replacing grains, such as barley, in the fermenting vat with the stems, stalks and roots of the cannabis plant – other companies, notably in the United States, have taken the shorter route. They’ve infused regular beer with cannabis-derived oils in a sort of glorified version of squeezing lime into a Corona. Mainly those products have been made with oil containing cannabinoids, or CBDs, the purportedly healthful, nonpsychoactive counterparts to the intoxicating compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. One example: General Washington’s Secret Stash IPA from Dad & Dudes Breweria of Colorado. The only buzz you’ll get from it is thanks to the 6.5-per-cent alcohol.

In what is likely to be the biggest commercial payoff of all, players, including several multinationals, are either eyeing or already testing the market potential of infusing dealcoholized beers and nonalcoholic soft drinks and juices with THC-rich cannabis oil.

Last year, Constellation Brands, the liquor giant that distributes Corona beer in the United States, bought a minority stake in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth Corp., whose chief marketing officer happens to be a former vice-president of marketing and sales for Molson Coors Brewing Co. More recently, Molson Coors president and CEO Mark Hunter announced that the brewer had assembled a team “to actively explore the risks and opportunities of entering the cannabis space” in Canada. “We have no further comment beyond this,” company spokesman Colin Wheeler told me. In California, Lagunitas, a Heineken-owned brewery, recently announced Hi-Fi Hops, a THC-infused sparkling water modelled after an India pale ale.

And already well on its way to releasing a THC-laced beer is none other than Province Brands, which in addition to its flagship cannabis-brewed pilsner, has been developing a blonde ale using dealcoholized barley beer and cannabis oil from a company called Element GP of Alberta.

As Canada waits to inhale, some in fact believe legalization could spark greater opportunity for potables than for puffing. It’s easy to see why. Imagine the thirst-quenching flavour and mellow buzz of beer with virtually no calories and none of the liver toxicity associated with alcohol. High time, indeed?

“There are a lot of weight-conscious people out there … who are saying, ‘Okay, I can have a beer at 140 calories, I can have a light beer at 90 calories, I can have a cannabis-infused beverage or inhale cannabis for zero calories,’” said Cam Battley, chief corporate officer of Edmonton-based Aurora Cannabis Inc., a major cannabis producer. “This is going to be, I’m telling you, huge.”

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Battley confirmed that Aurora has “very big plans to enter cannabis-infused beverages,” in both the medical and consumer markets.

Back at Province Brands, Wendschuh sees a natural kinship between beer and cannabis (and not just because the two have been linked in stoner culture since well before the Woodstock generation). Hops, a key flavouring of most beers, belong to the same family of flowering plants as cannabis. The two also share sensory properties. But flavourings are just that. Beer by definition is made from malted grains, and that’s what proved to be the most glaring, early technical obstacle to Wendschuh’s dream.

“When we started the company, we flew around and met with top master brewers from around the world and we asked them how we could brew a beer from the cannabis plant,” Wendschuh recalled. “What they said across the board was that it’s impossible.” To brew, you need carbohydrates that can be converted to sugar to feed yeast. Unfortunately the carbohydrates in cannabis stems, stalks and roots are not readily available for fermentation. Even with barley, the grain must be subjected to a mashing process that breaks down starches into sugars. So, Province Brands developed another mashing technology that could release the bound-up carbohydrates for fermentation.

Then they had to remove the alcohol, and not just for the sake of eliminating calories. Wendschuh says there isn’t a single jurisdiction in the world that currently allows having both alcohol and marijuana in the same product.

Sooner or later, all cannabis beverage makers will have to wrestle with another technical issue – the buzz lag. When inhaled, THC takes effect quickly. Consumed as a beverage or edible, it can take 90 minutes to two hours for the liver to metabolize it into compounds that yield the psychoactive effect. More problematically, the high can last six hours or longer, a phenomenon that won’t exactly fit into everyone’s lifestyle.

“This is a very different type of product from alcohol,” Wendschuh said, adding that Province Brands has come up with an accelerant to shorten the intoxicating onset as well as what he calls a “decelerant” to abbreviate the buzz, creating a dose-response curve similar to that of alcohol.

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With all the interest in cannabis-powered beers, one might wonder about wine. My take? It’s bound to be a dead end. Unlike with beer, wine without alcohol is a vastly different beverage – fruit juice with a cork. Alcohol, to say nothing of its intoxicating allure and, yes, often tragic effects, is intrinsic to wine’s texture and flavour. “Dealcoholized wine” is a contradiction in terms.

Cannabis sauvignon? I don’t think so.

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