Cannabis Beer: The Latest Variation of a 10,000-year-old Tradition

By: Ruth Schuster

Over 10,000 years after beer was first invented, it’s hard to innovate. Apparently, though, it is possible.

Among the latest wrinkles in designer quaffs are cannabis beer, and beer made using secretions harvested from models’ vaginas. Thank God the scratch ’n’ sniff era is pretty much over.

Creating cannabis beer involves more than merely ashing a joint in your stein. It involves dripping marijuana oil in your stein. Or you can have a manufacturer do that for you, and save yourself the trouble of finding a head shop that legally sells marijuana oil.

Various companies around the world in places where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use are working on versions of cannabis beer, including brewing giant Molson Coors.

Yet for all its reputation as Startup Nation, Israel isn’t one of them – at least not yet, confirm various liquor-related retailers, including the Wine & More chain. There are probably millennials and their parents working on canna-brews, but they keep forgetting the recipe.

Canada’s Province Brands may be, as it says, unique in making beer from cannabis-industry waste: the stalks, stem and roots of the plant. Its product is nonalcoholic, according to British daily The Guardian.

Nonalcoholic brew of hemp stems? That begs the question of what beer is exactly.

“Beer is a fermented beverage made from a carbohydrate natural product, such as cereals, tubers, stalks, etc.,” Prof. Patrick McGovern of Pennsylvania University, a world expert on biomolecular archaeology and the history of alcohol, tells Haaretz.

Why go there?

Alcohol and cannabis do not have the same effect. In fact, cannabis does not even have the same effect as itself – one crop of weed may have a very different effect than another crop, and each may have different effects on different people.

But getting back to the combo of cannabis and alcohol, at one level it’s like mixing chocolate and champagne: Two wonderful flavors on their own that do each other no favors. Why go there? Probably the same reason why somebody in Poland invented vagina beer, and others created – we swear – “chocolate stout” and Hello Kitty beer: Because its advertising writes itself, and it stands out from the six-pack.

At another level, spiking with cannabinoids is merely the latest chapter in the great history of experimenting with beer, which goes back to the dawn of civilization.

We cannot know when beer was first invented. Troughs that archaeologists suspect were used to make beer were found at none other than Göbekli Tepe, the prehistoric site in eastern Turkey dating to around 11,000 years ago. Many archaeologists believe Göbekli Tepe is the first temple ever to be built. (Others disagree and argue that the massive stone sculptures adorned houses.)

Either way – shrine or abode – if the troughs at Göbekli Tepe were used to make beer, it would indicate that the earliest brewers were hunter-gatherers, as opposed to settled farming folk. Cultivation had long been known; actual agriculture is another matter.

McGovern is presently researching the vats with Prof. Martin Zarnkow and other Göbekli archaeologists. “It may turn out that the vats were used to process other kinds of fermented beverages, such as grape wine,” McGovern qualifies.

With the Göbekli chemical study pending, the oldest-known true beer (based on the definition of a fermented beverage made from a natural carb) is still an astonishing 9,000 to 8,000 years old, It was made in Jiahu, central China, using rice plus other ingredients such as grape and/or hawthorn tree fruit, and honey, McGovern says. Rice cultivation is believed to have begun in the middle Yangtze region of China around 11,500 years ago.

The Zagros mountains in Iran bring us the oldest chemically attested beer based on barley. The remains found at the ancient trading hub of Godin Tepe date to around 3,400 to 3,000 B.C.E. – which means it’s about 5,400 years old, says McGovern.

How would they identify beer residue predating Dionysus by thousands of years? “This is still a work in progress,” explains McGovern. “The compound that we used to argue for a barley beer at Godin Tepe is calcium oxalate, a bitter and even poisonous compound that accumulates during barley beer fermentation as a yellowish residue inside brewing vats.” Calcium oxalate also exists naturally though, so biomolecularists are working on other “tells.”

In any case, it seems beer and agriculture developed in tandem. Some archaeologists even suspect that agriculture developed because of beer, based partly on what we can glean on Natufian culture in the Levant, which began around 14,500 years ago and existed until about 11,500 years ago.

Not by bread alone

Evidence found in Israel indicates that rudimentary cultivation may have begun as much as 23,000 years ago, predating the Natufians. By the time of Göbekli Tepe over in Turkey, around 11,000 years ago, here in Israel the Natufians in the region (including in Lebanon and Syria) were grinding grain in gigantic stone mortars.

Grain is a massive pain to process. Why would the Natufians bother? Maybe just to make proto-bread: archaeologists reported just this year on finding the oldest-known unleavened flatbread in Jordan, dating to 14,400 years ago.

But some, such as Dr. Brian Hayden of the University of Colorado, surmise that Natufians accidentally left grain to ferment, ate it anyway, became inebriated and the rest is – hic – history.

“My view is that beer and other fermented beverages, wines and meads spurred on the ‘Neolithic revolution’ in which humans began building year-round settlements and domesticating plants, because they were mind-altering drinks that greatly contributed to their social, religious, artistic and medicinal significance,” McGovern suggests. Unleavened bread, on the other hand, does not have mind-altering qualities.

Makes sense: 11,000 years later or whatever, humankind still goes out of its way to get smashed. As for the invention of canna-beer, given the near-miraculous or at least palliative properties ascribed to weed, maybe the drink’s inventors are following a custom that predates civilization itself. Healing.

“I contend that fermented beverages were the universal medicine of humankind before synthetics,” McGovern says.

This isn’t the place to dwell on the medical merits of marijuana, or what it does to teenage brains. Or yours. But before the era of antibiotics and Advil, beer may have been just the ticket when one was feeling sick: It might not have cured much, but drink enough and one wouldn’t care.

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