SweetWater Founder Freddy Bensch // Photo: courtesy of SweetWater

Cannabis Culture: SweetWater’s 420 Strain Brews

The stigma surrounding marijuana consumption is settling down in North America, albeit at a glacial pace. As of this July, 33 states in the U.S. have broadly legalized or decriminalized cannabis in some form while its northern neighbors in Canada fully legalized its recreational use last fall. A competing trade embracing this change is the beer industry. As regulations on marijuana relax, breweries are looking for ways to fuse its properties with their products.

One of the craft breweries leading the way is based in a state rather resistant to cannabis legalization: Georgia. Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewing Company has been a longtime proponent of the 420 lifestyle. Their flagship beer 420 Extra Pale Ale was first brewed 22 years ago on April 20, naturally. Last fall, they took things a step further by creating G13 IPA, the first of their marijuana strain-specific line of beers.

The brewers at SweetWater managed to accomplish a bit of a scientific feat. After several months of testing, they found a way to mimic the scent of the strain without compromising the taste of the beer. The beer itself wallops the nostrils with the dank scent of Willie Nelson’s tour bus yet tastes like a solid, quality IPA.

“[The brewers] didn’t want it to be a gimmick,” says Tucker Berta Sarkisian, SweetWater’s director of communications, of the 420 Strain concept. “It was a huge goal for the aroma to be there but for the beer to be phenomenal-tasting.”

The kicker? There isn’t a single trace of marijuana in this strain-specific line of beers that along with the G13 IPA includes Mango Kush Wheat Ale and come this fall, Chocolope Stout. No cannabidiol (CBD), no tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), not even hemp. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The secret to creating the precisely scented, strain-inspired beer is in the terpenes – unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants. Terpenes are in several plant organisms from lemongrass to pine needles, and of course, cannabis. Since terpenes lack psychoactive cannabinoids THC and CBD, they are U.S. government-approved and have the green light to be used in SweetWater’s 420 Strain series. Another key component in getting the strain-specific aroma in each beer was curating the right hops.

“The hop varieties chosen are of particular importance because they contain similar terpene profiles to those found in the strain-specific cannabis,” SweetWater Brewmaster Mark Medlin explains.

The marriage of the hops and strain-specific terpenes complement the resulting brew in more ways than one, thanks to genetics. The seemingly unlikely pairing of hops and cannabis is a natural combination when it comes to flavor because they are related. They have biological similarities derived from shared ancestry in the Cannabinaceae family. As a result, what the terpenes hops and cannabis have in common is what make the 420 Strain beers possible.

The second edition in SweetWater’s 420 Strain series is the surprisingly juicy Mango Kush, released this spring. Like the G13 IPA, the Mango Kush’s weed aroma hits you in the face upon popping the bottle cap as if you just entered a party at Snoop Dogg’s house. Once again, the brewers added the potent scent of the strain while maintaining the flavor of the ale. Neither the G13 IPA nor the Mango Kush taste like weed, and it’s likely the forthcoming Chocolope Stout will present a similar sensory experience.

But how did the brewmasters know what marijuana strain would pair well with each beer style? For example, why does G13 work with an IPA and not a pilsner or saison? Initially, they didn’t know.

“It was like playing a mad scientist in a lab experimenting and testing with recipes,” Sarkisian says. “They wanted the perfect aroma to complement the perfect flavor.”

In other words, a fair amount of trial-and-error went into the brewing process in order to find the right balance in each 420 Strain beer.

SweetWater’s 420 Strain G13 IPA and Mango Kush can be found at various liquor stores and tap houses throughout the DMV. Chocolope Stout debuts in mid-September as a limited release, and once their “mad scientists” get back to mixing terpenes, more strains will be on the way.

Learn more about the 420 Strain series and where to get the three brews locally at www.sweetwaterbrew.com.