Brewers could be looking to experient with marijuana as an ingredient as it becomes further decriminalised in the US

Brewers could be looking to experient with marijuana as an ingredient as it becomes further decriminalised in the US

Keith Villa, the founder of MillerCoors's Blue Moon beer and a real-life doctor of brewing, is as close as the beer industry gets to a Michelin-starred chef.

In fact, Villa, who got his Ph.D. from the University of Brussels, credits the gourmet restaurant trade as the inspiration behind Blue Moon's more off-the-wall labels such as Lemon Grass & Basil and Blackberry Tart.

He also operates out of Colorado, which last year became the first US state to legalise the use of marijuana for recreational purposes for over 21 year-olds. It should come as no surprise, then, that this brewhouse gourmand has been looking at ways to combine beer and cannabis.

“I'm actually doing a few little experiments with it, back in Colorado only,” Villa told me when we met up last week in a London pub. “On a federal level, it's still illegal, so we can't do it on a federal level. But, in Colorado I can do small experiments.”

I should make clear that this is a pet project of Villa's, and not something he's doing in partnership with MillerCoors. In a statement, MillerCoors told just-drinks: “Blue Moon Brewing Co, along with all other MillerCoors brewing companies, has absolutely no intention of brewing or selling a marijuana beer.”

That Villa is tinkering with cannabis as a hobby should be reason enough for the industry to take note. After all, this is a man, whose previous tinkerings turned the US on to unfiltered Belgian-style wheat beer.

Villa prides himself on being ahead of the curve. And, while marijuana is to him just one more ingredient to experiment with - no different to the bacon, chocolate, chicken or peanut butter he's brewed with in the past - there's evidence that the herb could play a role in alcohol's future trajectory.

Home brew enthusiasts have been playing around with combinations for some time. Last year, Craft Brew Alliance launched Red Hook Joint Effort, a session ale brewed with hemp seeds. Red Hook is based in Washington state, which is also in the process of legalising recreational marijuana use. 

Last month, California-based Montalvo Spirits set-up the Cannabis Beverage Group in Colorado to develop and acquire cannabis-based beverages. Marijuana's legalisation has also given rise to packaging innovations, with a number of Colorado craft brewers launching cannabis-themed branding, and Oskar Blues Brewery even reportedly adding a small circle to its cans so consumers can use them as pipes.

What is stopping the big brewers getting involved, however, is that selling any cannabis-based beers anywhere other than Colorado and Washington would be a federal offence, which naturally cuts into your economies of scale. (There's also the question of whether marijuana beer would have psychoactive effects, for a fuller account of which, and of the brewing process, click here.)

But, with a Pew survey released last month showing that 54% of Americans now favour legalisation, cross-border laws could quickly change. A number of US states are considering legalisation, with even the Republican Texan governor Rick Perry backing decriminalisation.

Support for the herb goes even higher than that - earlier this year, The New Yorker magazine quoted US President Barack Obama as saying marijuana is no worse than cigarettes or alcohol.

It's a groundswell that should give brewers plenty to consider, and the motivation to prepare for consumers that want a cannabis beer, just as they would with other trends.

What's more, it should be a fun challenge for an industry that prides itself on innovation and creativity. As the devoutly artisanal Villa puts it: “There's nothing about brewing with peanut butter or bacon in the books, so that’s where you have to let the artist out and play around.”