Why is a Yakima hop company fucking around with pot? They wont tell us.
Why is a Yakima hop company fucking around with pot? They won't tell us. Getty

Pot and hops, already close relatives in the world of botany, are now close together in the world of business after a Yakima hop company received a permit from the state to process hemp.

Hopsteiner, an international hop company with business in the Yakima Valley, has two permits from the Washington Department of Agriculture to process and market industrial hemp. Botanically speaking, hemp is the same species of pot that you put into a bong and smoke—except hemp is the varieties of cannabis that have less than 0.5 percent THC, the pot compound that gets you high.

What is an international hop company doing playing around with pot plants in Washington’s Yakima Valley? I reached out to Hopsteiner to find out but a representative for the company declined to comment or saying anything on the record.

Hopsteiner appears to have an interest in hemp that predates the two permits they just received to process it, which were awarded in July and August of this year. One of the keynote speakers at their 2015 International Hop Symposium included a professor from Colorado State University that specializes in hemp genetics. And in 2016 Hopsteiner’s senior research scientist, Paul Matthews, told the New Yorker that he was keenly interested in hemp.

But perhaps the most exciting frontier, he told me, concerns the relationship between hops and cannabis: “Hops and hemp are both members of the Cannabaceae family, and they have many similarities. Both are grown as spice plants—that is, grown for their chemical content. And both are used medicinally.” It’s thus intriguing for scientists like Matthews to study the two side by side. Medical implications seem likely, but, in addition, for some craft brewers a hemp-hop marriage is a possible Holy Grail of flavor. “There’s a big crossover in flavor combination of the two,” Matthews said. “The flavor profiles are both based on terpenes, which are essential oils, like mint. By studying the terpenes in both we can learn a lot more about flavor and diversity.”

While it is entirely possible to make psychoactive beer, Matthews seemed uninterested in the concept. And while Hopsteiner is studying hemp, Matthews stressed that the company does not have a hemp-breeding program. But, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “It is being explored elsewhere. Brave people are doing that work right now.”

This connection between pot terpenes and hemp terpenes is what I am most curious about. IPAs owe their pungent flavors to hop terpenes, and brewers have started experimenting with what happens when you trade hop terpenes for pot terpenes in beer. Lagunitas swapped the two plants' terpenes in both directions with their Supercritical series. They used cannabis terpenes to flavor a beer and then took hop terpenes to flavor a pot vape pen. Magic!

While this might sound like some sort of marketing fad, using pot terpenes in beer is actually fantastically interesting. Bringing pot terpenes into the brewhouse gives new flavor possibilities to brewers; it would be like giving a painter an entirely new set of colors. While I was reporting a story about the subject for Kitchen Toke magazine, a nationwide quarterly that looks at the intersection of food and pot, I tried different terpene-infused beers made in San Francisco. Each beer was made by a different brewery and tasting the different attempts showed how the concept could be used in widely different ways.

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I tried a hazy pale ale made by Triple Voodoo Brewery that had terpenes from the Gorilla Glue strain of pot. This strain is famous for having earthy and herbal terpenes, and Triple Voodoo’s hazy had the herbal and fresh green flavor of a wet hopped beer.

The second beer, made by Harmonic Brewing, used an entirely different set of pot terpene flavors. Harmonic used terpenes from a Deadhead OG strain on a yeasty farmhouse beer. It was hard to find the weed notes when I was tasting the beer but that was part of the point—pot has such a wide variety of terpenes that many of pot’s flavors aren't actually what you would associate with weed. The head brewer of Harmonic told me at the time that those Deadhead OG terpenes brought out the floral and peppery notes that I was just attributing to the farmhouse yeast.

I haven’t found any brewers in Seattle or Washington playing around with pot terpenes. I wish that wasn’t the case, because the flavor possibilities are huge. Hopsteiner wouldn’t give me any hints as to what they are up to, but I’m hoping their permit with the WSDA brings us one step closer to pot flavored beer in Seattle.