The global hop shortage has grabbed a lot of attention in the past few months, with no likelihood of the situation getting better anytime soon. At least one craft brewer with enough stock has offered to share his stash. Others are suggesting alternative beers made with spices, peppers or thistles. But the most natural solution might just be hemp beer, known as Hanfbier in German.
While hemp blossoms are unlikely to replace legendary hops like Hallertau, Spalt and Goldings in desirability, there are several similarities between the plants. Both are members of the cannabaceae family, as is marijuana. Many times I’ve noted grassy, pot-like scents while tasting beers with great aroma hops, and once in a hop yard in Žatec, aka Saaz, I was almost overcome by what I thought was the smell of hydroponic sativa. A couple of years ago I caught the same skunky scent while driving past a hemp farm in Southern Moravia. If hemp smells like marijuana and marijuana smells like hops, as long as there are no hops to be had, why not make hemp beer?
Several brewers in Europe — including at least two in the Czech Republic — already do.
The first Czech hemp beer with wide distribution was Hemp Valley Beer, which first appeared from the Nová Paka brewery about six years ago. When I tried it for Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic, I thought it was much like a good Pilsner-style lager, though rather short on the skunkiness.
Trying it again today, it seems even less punchy in the nose. The ingredients list hemp blossom extract after everything else, including refined hops and hop extract, so at best, the hemp is just a mild flavor booster. It’s pleasant but no big deal, and certainly not terribly pot-like, as Max Bahnson writes over at Pivní filosof.
The new Mary-Jo beer from the Bohemia Regent brewery is much more grassy. By the aroma, you might guess that after the first sip you’ll fire all of your guns at once and explode into space — it smells just like high-grade weed. In the mouth, it has gingery notes and is slightly prickly and funky, reminiscent of Chinese five-spice powder; I imagine it would go perfectly with a bowl of pad thai. It also includes hops and is dosed with hemp-flower extract before lagering.
Sadly, both of these come off less like craft brews than gimmick beverages for the legalize-it crowd, pushing the hemp over the beer through the choice of names and the numerous pot leaves on the labels. Bohemia Regent’s Mary-Jo goes so far as to include a pencil drawing of an comely elven lass bearing a bouquet of the demon weed, a truly remarkable combination of amateur draftsmanship, lecherous imagery and hackneyed fantasy motifs.
But don’t let that turn you off hemp beers: despite the dumb label and the even dumber name, Mary-Jo has a good flavor that many hop-heads will appreciate; it is certainly worth trying. With no quick end to the hop shortage in sight, hemp beers — whether produced with hemp blossoms completely replacing the hops, merely as an adjunct or through the addition of hemp extract in the tank — might be something more of us will be trying soon.