Md. brewer going to seed Hemp: A beer maker in Frederick is adding an unusual nutty flavor that is attracting attention from connoisseurs -- and federal regulators.

June 23, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

There's the hemp trend. There's the microbrew trend. And where they meet, a pile of money appears to be forming.

"The sky's the limit," says Marjorie A. McGinnis, whose Frederick Brewing Co. in Frederick makes beer flavored with hemp -- or cannabis -- seeds.

"We're just going to make it as fast as we can," she says.

Note to concerned parents and curious potheads: You can't get high off hempseeds. They contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical abundant in the flowers of marijuana plants.

But the seeds do offer a nutty, earthy flavor to the beer, called Hempen Ale. They also make it more creamy.

Frederick Brewing, which started shipping cases last month, is the only brewery in the nation making beer with hempseeds, according to a hemp association.

"Every time they send it in, it flies out the door," says Bob Pearlstein, who sells Hempen Ale at $6.49 a six-pack from his liquor store in Federal Hill -- the epicenter of Baltimore microbrew drinking.

At the Total Beverage store in northern Virginia -- a warehouse-style vendor -- beer salesman Jason Portell said the store moved 30 cases the first weekend.

Frederick Brewing already has back orders for more than 10,000 cases.

For those not in sync with the latest trends, microbrew is simply beer brewed in small, local breweries.

Americans are buying more than a million barrels' worth every year -- a volume that hasn't gone unnoticed. A computer search of major newspapers -- using the keywords "microbrew" and "trend" -- found 631 articles published the past three years.

Industrial hemp is a nonpsychoactive strain of cannabis often confused with marijuana plants. To hear hemp activists tell it, their strong, protein-laden product can be used for just about anything: flour, cooking oil, paper, soap, clothes, rope, curtains, even car upholstery.

Annual worldwide hemp sales are topping $75 million. Hemp stores -- selling everything from hemp hats to hemp granola bars -- are sprouting in college towns throughout the nation. A similar database search -- using the keywords "hemp" and "trend" -- yielded 157 articles.

Which brings us back to Frederick Brewing, founded in 1992 by McGinnis and her husband, Kevin Brannon.

Growing operation

By 1995, Beverage World magazine ranked it the fourth fastest-growing, publicly held beverage company in the nation. Its line of traditional lagers, ales, stouts and porters enjoys a tasty reputation in the eastern United States.

By last year, though, Frederick Brewing had fallen behind a trend within a trend: the practice of adding to microbrews -- raspberries, pumpkin, white chocolate, dark chocolate, coffee, garlic, even hot chilies.

Then one day -- somewhat out of left field -- Frederick Brewing's chief brewer, Steven T. Nordahl, proposed hempseeds. He started experimenting with quantities and roasting temperatures.

But the real fight was brewing in Washington. Three federal agencies -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration -- became involved. After all, it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States, though sterilized hempseeds may be imported legally.

One particular concern for federal regulators was the Hempen Ale label, with its drawings of whimsical little men and Japanese maple leaves, the latter bearing a striking resemblance to

marijuana leaves. After almost $20,000 in legal fees, though, Frederick Brewing won approval with its catchy label intact.

Frederick Brewing officials say drinking Hempen Ale will not produce a positive drug test. That's probably true, says Edward J. Cone of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, who is a drug-testing expert affiliated with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The THC level in hempseeds is "very little to none," Cone says. Still, his lab plans to analyze Hempen Ale's effect on urine samples.

As for quantities of hempseed in the beer, Frederick Brewing's McGinnis is vague, saying she doesn't want to give away recipes. She'll only allow that hemp is 10 percent to 30 percent of the final product -- a sizable additive.

"It's not like we're waving a bag of hempseeds over the beer," she says.

The beer has a creamy feel, somewhat like Guinness Stout. "It has such an herbal, nutty, almost vegetable -- not that it tastes like celery -- sort of green flavor," explains Maura F. Conyngham, one of the company's six brewers.

Thanks in large part to Hempen Ale, Frederick Brewing expects to brew enough beer this year to easily top the 15,000-barrel cutoff for microbreweries, technically making the company a craft brewer. Hempen Ale even has received international attention -- good news for a company that has had some recent troubles.

In January, Frederick Brewing was in default on a $976,000 bank loan, according to a filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. That problem has been resolved, the filing shows.

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