A friend once asked, on a brewery tour, “do these hops smell kind of dank to you?” He wasn’t that far off base. As Popular Science explains, hops and marijuana are related, both members of the Cannabinaceae family. So although it was not entirely surprising to see a hemp ale on store shelves, it was still intriguing. The beer, Humboldt Brown Ale, was brewed by California’s Humboldt Brewing Company. The brewery was bought by former Oakland Raiders linebacker Mario Celotto in 1987. Humboldt Brewing’s Social Media Coordinator Jessie Haggerty explained, in a Facebook message that, to a “lover of all things Humboldt County,” like Celotto, “using hemp in a beer seemed to be a natural fit.” Humboldt does have a strong association with the plant, with the New Yorker calling it “the heartland of high-grade marijuana farming in California.” It should be emphasized that the hemp used in the beer is non-psychoactive, grown in Canada, and sterilized before it can enter the United States. Although it has recently become legal to grow industrial hemp in California, it is not currently being grown in the quantities needed for the beer.
Specifically, it’s hemp seeds that get used in the Humboldt Brown. The hemp seeds are toasted and “added prior to the fermentation process while heating in the kettle” because “This is when the flavors really come out (due to the heating),” said Haggerty. What flavors do the seeds add? Haggerty said the brewers were “going for ‘hemp’ flavor,” but added that the toasted seeds give the beer some of its “distinctive roasted and toasted taste.”
One may want the hemp to provide some sort of unusual stand-out flavor, but instead, Humboldt Brown is a great example of a classic brown ale. It pours chocolate brown with a smooth khaki head which lingers for the life of the beer. The malt is mostly sweet, providing some chocolate flavors with some roasted coffee flavors in the finish. The sweetness tends toward caramel. There is also a mild grassy taste which is presumably the hops, but may be partially from the hemp. There’s very little bitterness here and the beer is fairly mild. Whatever flavors the hemp provides mesh very well with the other flavors in the beer. Perhaps one could be forgiven for expecting a hemp ale to be some kind of offbeat, Dogfish Head-esque experimental beer, but instead you may be surprised to find a very well-crafted, balanced brown ale.