There’s a new wave of flavour coming to your trendier small bars and bottle shops. Since November last year, it’s been legal in Australia to use low-THC hemp seed as an ingredient in food. And now we’re seeing an array of serious spirits and beers to showcase what it can do.
“Why have we done this? That is an excellent question,” says Oscar McMahon of Young Henrys, about the brand's new Hemp IPA. “I guess there’s not really any huge oversweeping thought, apart from the fact that hops and cannabis come from the same family and that has always been something that’s interested us.
“The big difference is how hearty a crop hemp is. For us, the flavour and aroma profiles of our beers, that’s almost like the trademark to our recipes. A couple of years ago, the Australian hop crop in Southern Victoria got hit with a hailstorm and 40 per cent of the hop crop was affected. That meant there were hop shortages for brewers all over Australia. Hops and hemp actually have quite a few terpenes or essential oil flavour profiles in common. So we started having a look at that and it just sparked the interest of whoa, hang on, could we use this in some way to make a beer?”
It isn’t just beer that’s a great candidate for hemp-inclusion. The Cannabis Co has an array of products for sale (including hemp flour, hemp protein, hemp seed oil and even hemp doggy biscuits), and this November they’re releasing a bespoke gin. “Gin is quite adaptable,” says chief marketing officer Cormac Sheehan, “and both gin and cannabis are known for strong olfactory identities. Gin as a spirit can be something of a blank canvas. When you introduce hemp, you’re really getting those earthy, woody tones.”
The first hemp gin on the Aussie market comes from the aptly named Hemp Gin. “On initial tasting, the juniper is present, however the hemp adds an earthier note, closer to that given by legumes and pulses,” reveals founder Andrew Kerrigan. “Some describe it as beany or lentil-like. This makes it ideal in your more savoury cocktails such as the martini or Negroni. It also works well sipping neat over ice.”
“It took quite a few goes to get to a good product,” Sheehan explains. “As we started adding in botanicals, we began to uncover a gin which was great, but not quite award-winning. That wasn’t good enough – from day one we didn't want novelty gin. It had to stand on its own two feet as a gin, regardless of the cannabis element. If you never knew it had anything to do with hemp, you still had to be able to enjoy it as a gin. The real breakthrough came when we started adding terpenes to the distillation process.
"When you introduce hemp, you’re really getting those earthy, woody tones.”
“We settled on one, myrcene, which was head and shoulders above the others. Because of the flavour, first of all, but as we did more research we found that it composed up to 50 per cent of the total terpene content in individual strains of cannabis. And it's reputed for producing joyful and euphoric effects alongside an overall feeling of relaxation … so it goes perfectly with gin!”
But there’s more than one way to gin a cat, says Kerrigan: “At Hemp Gin, we use the vapour-infused method. This allows the flavours to be extracted into the spirit without being in direct contact. Vapour infusion is a method whereby the botanicals are held in a basket and the vaporised spirit passes through, pulling flavour from the various botanicals. You do need to be careful with the combination and ratio to get the right profile.”
That same care goes into Young Henrys’ Hemp IPA. “We've used a water-soluble organic hemp seed oil,” McMahon explains. “The product goes in raw and it’s a little bit spicy, a little bit grassy, a little bit herbaceous. They are some of the flavours you’re trying to get out of hops, so it’s actually a nice complementary flavour and aroma. When used cold in a beer, it actually had a really great effect.
“It’s a fantastic easy-drinking beer. I’m really happy with it. It’s five and a half per cent alcohol, and the balance of the tropical fruit punch with this grassy, herbaceous hemp note – it’s really well-rounded and drinkable. I think a lot of people are really going to like it.”
The politics of pot hemp
Once you have your flavour down, it turns out there are quite a few rules around what you can say and do on your hemp-featured labels.
“What’s really interesting is that everyone knows where hemp comes from, but in marketing you’re not allowed to use a bunch of different words,” explains McMahon. “We'd been working with Afends from Byron Bay on this beer concept for over a year. They’d been getting a bunch of their artists to create concepts for the artwork and we just kept having to say no, it won't get past, it'll be illegal. Finally, people started getting fed up, saying, ‘What is this – the fun police?’ So the fun police became the theme of the artwork.”
Things were even tougher for The Cannabis Co: “Yeah, we actually ran afoul of this because they changed the law, unbeknownst to us. They brought in a new bylaw that said you can't say the word ‘cannabis’ on a product. This meant that we wasted a couple of thousand dollars on packaging because we had to get it relabelled, so some of our products are CannaCo instead of the Cannabis Company.
“We had to be very careful with the copy on the labels because we can’t make any direct reference to anything to do with cannabis culture, so we have to dance around a bit, saying ‘Mary Jane’ or ‘That Which Cannot Be Named’.”