In his suit and tie, Dooma Wendschuh stands out starkly in the conference room full of beer shirt and ball cap wearing brewers who came to hear him speak at the Canadian Brewing Awards and Conference in Halifax on May 26.
“How many people in this room have used cannabis?” he asks. Nearly all of the hands in the room fly up. One person shouts “Today!” and people laugh. “Great,” says Dooma. “You guys already want to hear what I have to say.”
Wendschuh is the co-founder and CEO of Province Brands of Canada, a start-up founded in 2016 that he says has created the world’s first true alternative to beer.
“When we started we were kind of the black sheep of the Canadian cannabis industry,” says Wendschuh. “We were running around telling people we had this technology to brew a beer from the cannabis plant and people thought we were crazy.”
But not for long.
In October, the federal government announced that cannabis beverages could be sold one year after recreational legalization came into effect. With the legislation recently passed, legalization is now scheduled to begin Oct. 17.
Within weeks of the announcement, the first Fortune 500 company to invest in cannabis in Canada announced. It wasn’t a tobacco company. It was Constellation Brands, brewers of behemoth brands like Corona and Modelo Especial.
“All of a sudden everyone needed a beverage strategy,” says Wendschuh. “We went from being the black sheep of the industry to being the whitest sheep of all.”
You might be thinking, THC and alcohol in a beer sounds like a recipe for a messy Friday evening. And you’d be right. Province’s beer doesn’t contain alcohol, only cannabinoids like THC, the active compound in marijuana that creates a high.
Beer contains water, grain, hops, and yeast. Brewers can add extras, like fruit, or age beer in a barrel to impart flavour, but you can’t make beer without those four ingredients. Unless you’re Province.
The company’s test brews replace the grains used in brewing beer (the second most copious ingredient used in brewing, after water) with the parts of the cannabis plant that medical marijuana facilities throw away: stocks, stems, and roots. Otherwise the boiling, cooling and inoculating with yeast to create alcohol is the same. Then Province dealcoholizes the beer, similar to near beer, leaving cannabinoids as the only psychoactive compound.
Currently, Province’s test batches contain 6.5 milligrams of THC, a total phytocannabinoid content of nine milligrams per serving. The first product it will bring to market when beverages become legal in 2019 will be a pilsner. “It’s accessible,” he says. “It’s really obviously a beer. We wanted to prove we could make something that tasted and smelled like a beer.”
Before you get too excited about trying the new Good Robot cannabis beer, understand that it will take years and a lot of money for our local producers to jump on the trend that Wendschuh says will completely disrupt the beer industry.
Producers need a cannabis licence (to the tune of millions of dollars) or must work with a company that does. This could mean sending dealcoholized beer to a facility to be infused with cannabis, or having a licensee brew the beer from start to finish with cannabis, and ship bottled or canned product to provincial cannabis stores. Either way, the price is high.
The other major challenge is getting on consumers’ radars. Established companies like Constellation Brands and numerous smaller breweries in American states where recreational cannabis is already legal have a leg up when it comes to early brand recognition. That’s already a challenge facing Nova Scotian craft breweries on the shelves at NSLC stores, where in 2017 craft beer represented $10.2 million of the commission’s $160.9 million in total beer sales.
Despite the hurdles, Wendschuh is betting that a few Nova Scotian craft brewers will jump on the cannabis bandwagon. He’s so sure that when he was in the city for the Canadian Brewing Awards he took a day trip to the South Shore to look at land in Brooklyn, N.S. and investigate opening a facility there to process or brew cannabis beer.
“It’s such a beautiful area and Nova Scotia has such a great reputation and tradition for brewing,” Wendschuh says.
Must-try beers: Summer sours
(strong Berliner Weisse)
Big Spruce Brewing | Nyanza, N.S. | 6.3%
Prep your taste buds for an adventure because this Berliner Weisse is big on flavour. Fermented with Old World saison yeast and Brettanomyces bruxellensis (AKA Brett: that funky yeast with the barnyard-meets-basement scent). Then it was conditioned in Francis Ford Coppola Chardonnay barrels for six months before spending four months in the bottle before going on sale. You’ll taste the oak and the wine, but the top flavours are Brett and tart fruit.
Black Currant Gose
Bad Apple Brewhouse | Somerset, N.S. | 4%
Bright and refreshing, this low-alcohol beer is sure to be a hit at your next barbecue. It’s well carbed with that telltale wheat beer tartness, but not puckeringly sour. There are hints of coriander and salt along side a dose of black currants that lend a light fruit flavour and dazzling purple colour. It’s not as dry or as tart as other local goses, but I think that works in its favour for those who like tart without squinting after each sip.