Melbourne’s Public Brewery has a fresh look at hemp beer.

If 2021 felt like the year where you had truly seen it all then welcome to 2022, where things just got a little weirder. Just when craft brewing seemingly arrived at peak eccentricity, along comes a range of beers that turns everything on its head (no pun intended).

We are talking hemp beer. Yes, beer brewed from toasted hemp seed in lieu of barley or wheat malt and flavoured with hemp buds and foliage in lieu of (or in concert with) hops. But please check your pithy can-bong, hazy ale and dank bud puns at the door: this may just prove to be the beer you never knew you needed.

Brewing with cannabis, however, is nothing novel. Atop of a wave of decriminalisation across Europe and North America in recent years, brewers began experimenting with this not-too-distant cousin of the humble hop. But in its earliest evolution as a brewing ingredient, hemp extract or oil was added late in the process exclusively as a flavourant, part of the ‘dry hopping’ aromatic profile of the beer.

Now with cannabis-based products reaching into all of our lives, it was only a matter of time before the brewing industry seriously considered the plant to brew a beer-like beverage. Brewing with alternative malted grains and seeds is not uncommon, and today bar shelves are laden with beers brewed from a base of oats, spelt, sorghum, millet, corn, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, maguey and others.

Phil Sexton.

Now, thanks to Melbourne’s Public Brewery, hemp has entered the local brewing lexicon. With its hemp-based Maku range (maku.com.au) brewed from the Yarra Valley, Public Brewery has fashioned an approachable face to this bold new genre with three remarkably easy-drinking beers: the Hemp IPA, Hemp Session Ale and Hemp Cherry Sour.

Hemp-based beers are notoriously volatile and many early international examples had more in common with rotting broccoli than beer. 

Public Brewery has reportedly put two years of development into these products – and it shows. The IPA drinks clean and sharp, with attractive cumquat notes and a faint malt-like spine that gives the illusion of the presence of barley malt. The faintly resinous and herbaceous hemp is supported by the addition of Amarillo and Columbus hops, which give it a classic IPA aromatic burst up-front, before finishing with a mild sweetness.

The Session Ale is, as expected, more restrained and is brewed entirely without hops: offering a dry and faintly earthy finish that is not unpleasant, but lacks a discernible mid-palate – it perhaps has more in common with a draught lager than a packaged ale. But as sessionable summer beverages go, it will no doubt prove a welcome conversation-starter.

The Hemp Cherry Sour rounds off the three in a vibrant pomegranate pink hue, with waves of raspberry astringency and sour cherry candy, the nuttiness of the toasted hemp seeds adding welcome structure. While not as complex as the most accomplished kettle sours, it nonetheless delivers a toothsome punch, adding an intriguing new dimension to this ever-growing field of fruit-soured craft beer.

While there is no guarantee you won’t get the midnight munchies or have an epiphany, hemp contains only extremely faint traces of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol. 

Hops and cannabis evolved from the same plant and are members of the Cannabaceae species. Each metamorphosed in different directions, but they have been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. Both plants also contain terpene compounds, which give them their discernible aromatic characteristics that can oscillate from the herbaceous to citrus and pine. 

And it is here where the two weave so interestingly together: most notably in the Maku Hemp IPA.

While barley and wheat malt remain the backbone of most hemp-based beers – Maku included – there is a concerted global effort to brew palatable ‘beers’ and other beverages crafted exclusively from hemp. For that we will need to wait. Until then, raise a glass to the green revolution.