Photo courtesy Robert C. Clarke and Mojave Richmond

What do cannabis and beer have in common? In addition to their social compatibility, both sinsemilla marijuana flowers and the seedless hop flowers used to flavor beer produce a host of aromatic terpene compounds that create the complex flavors and fragrances consumers recognize.

California’s Emerald Triangle is home to numerous breweries both large and small. One of the area’s pioneer brewers is fond of putting little blurbs and quotations on the inside of its bottle caps. One in particular reads, “Honest Officer, that’s hops you smell!”

Cannabis and Humulus, hemp and hops, buds ‘n’ suds. These age-old relatives have been brought together in the Emerald Triangle through the pursuit of top-quality beer, fueled in part by the cash economy of the “Green Rush.”

In the early 1980s, around the same time that San Francisco’s “Bay Area” culture was spreading and replicating itself around the globe, a small brewery on its deathbed received a breath of life. One of the last surviving craft breweries in an industry filled with conglomerates and mega breweries, it became the role model for the craft beer revolution of the future. Anchor Brewing not only introduced one of the first India pale ales, or IPAs, into the American market, but it also restarted the craft beer industry decimated by prohibition and mass beer sales. Once consumers regained a taste for robust, hoppy beer, local microbreweries began to pop up across North America, especially in Northern California.

Around the same time this beer revolution was spreading, sinsemilla marijuana cultivation was making a serious economic impact on the region.

The Scent of Similarity

Cannabis and Humulus plants share a common evolutionary ancestor and likely originated millions of years ago in central Eurasia. Hemp and hop plants are not only closely related botanically, but they also share many other properties, most notably their similar aromatic terpene contents. (Terpenes form a large group of highly volatile and aromatic, unsaturated cyclic hydrocarbon compounds found in many plants.)

A great number of the hops widely used in brewing today come from traditional hop varieties selected and bred from wild North American varieties within the last century. Over the past 50 years or so, there has been a revolution in hop breeding. From new hybrid crosses came the highly fragrant and resinous hop varieties used in today’s increasingly popular microbrewery IPAs.

The most prevalent compound contributing to the aroma of hops varieties is a terpene called myrcene. On average, myrcene is also one of the most common terpenes found in Cannabis, especially in modern drug varieties.

Until the late 1970s, most of the world’s marijuana was of the narrow-leaflet type and contained a wide variety of terpenes in addition to myrcene. By the 1980s, broad-leaflet hashish varieties from Afghanistan were widely grown and became a major contributor to the modern-day sinsemilla marijuana gene pool. Favorable traits such as short stature, early maturation and copious resin production were accompanied by susceptibility to the fungal diseases that plague our industry today, as well as higher myrcene content. Selective forces brought on by cannabis prohibition made the shorter, earlier-flowering and potent “Afghani” varieties more favorable than the original taller and later-flowering plants. Hybrid crosses between the original marijuana and newly introduced Afghani gene pools have become the standards of the industry.

Before the widespread dispersal of Afghani hybrids, myrcene was likely not the lead player in the aromatic terpene ensemble. Myrcene is said to add a sedative or “stoned” effect to cannabis, while other terpenes may induce a more clear “high,” and these were favored and selected for centuries by traditional marijuana farmers. Most of the traditional narrow-leaflet landrace marijuana varieties grown around the world were relatively low in myrcene. Traditional marijuana growers sample their flowers as soon as they are dried, and for generations, they detected the undesirable effects of myrcene and selected against it, while encouraging the increased content of more favorable terpenes. Hashish farmers bulk-sieved their crops, and likely did not select seed from individual plants, so myrcene was more common in hashish varieties.

Caryophyllene (aka beta- caryophyllene) is another major hop terpene also present in many Cannabis varieties. Caryophyllene is also quite prevalent in imported cannabis, and traces of caryophyllene are often among the last terpenes remaining after temperature and time have reduced the levels of more volatile and aromatic terpenes. Closely related humulene (aka alpha-caryophyllene) is another terpene found in Humulus (hence its name) that is also detected in Cannabis. The terpene contents of Cannabis are more diverse than Humulus, and hops contain predominately myrcene and the caryophyllenes in addition to several additional terpenes.

Other terpenes commonly found in both marijuana and hops are limonene and the pinenes (both alpha- and beta- forms), which are constituents in certain hop cultivars such as Citra and Centennial, as well as many sinsemilla varieties. Limonene presents a lemon-lime citrus aroma, while pinenes impart their characteristic pine tree fragrance. Both limonene and the pinenes are considered among the more mentally stimulating terpenes in marijuana.

Caryophyllene interacts with our endocannabinoid receptors, and many more terpenes may also have similar abilities. Terpenes may also increase the bioavailability of other compounds such as THC. There are a host of terpenes found in both marijuana and beer, and we have much to learn about their differing qualities and effects.

The Escape of the Terpenes

As marijuana flowers dry and age, they lose their most volatile and aromatic terpenes, and imported marijuana tends to contain a higher proportion of the less volatile terpenes. Sinsemilla growers intentionally age and cure their dried flowers, while simultaneously reducing the levels of the most volatile terpenes.

Hops are often kiln-dried at warm temperatures, and the more volatile and aromatic terpenes can also disappear during extended storage. During brewing, the high terpene content in hops is mellowed by letting the hops sit in the warm brew for a day, so much of the myrcene and other volatile terpenes vaporize and escape.

The heady aroma of many of today’s craft beers results from adding hops late in the brewing, as well as additional hops to the cooled beer post-fermentation. This process is called “dry hopping.” With dry hopping the brewer can sculpt the flavor profile because a greater number of aromatic compounds remain in the beer at lower temperatures. Has anyone tried a similar process with hemp yet?

The ‘Loud’ Scent and Its Effect

Both marijuana flower growers and craft beer brewers are pushing the envelope as to how “loud” their products can be, by choosing signature aromas that are extremely strong.

Sinsemilla consumers expect and even demand their flowers to have complex, fruity and flowery flavors and aromas. Growers must pay careful attention to terpene loss, and they go to great lengths to preserve the plant’s fresh terpene profile all along the way from the farm to the consumer. Aromatic compounds play a role in both the marketability of a cannabis product as well as its overall efficacy. When it comes to cannabis, terpenes are clearly what micro-manage the effects, and provide each variety with its individual character.

With hops, the situation is not yet so clear. There are obvious effects in terms of flavor, aroma, and other qualities; but are the aromatic, terpene-rich hops influencing how drinking a beer makes one feel?

Our sense of smell is extremely complex, and when it comes to aromatic compounds that may be psychoactive, or at the very least may potentiate other compounds to create synergistic effects, it is extremely difficult to quantify the effects they may have on the user. How these aromas stimulate and influence a marijuana smoker or beer drinker is subject to the individual’s body chemistry, as well as his or her mental associations with the aromas. Certainly, at the very least, we all like things that smell nice.

Decades ago, sinsemilla smokers enjoyed a modicum of pleasure from the dank and skunky smell of certain green-bottle imported beers. Upon opening a bottle of a famous Dutch beer for instance, the first waft of vapor had a distinct aroma. Photodecomposition created the organic compound 3-methyl-2 butene-1-thiol, which resembles the odor of skunk spray, an odor often associated with early introductions of Afghan hashish plants.

Beers are usually bottled in brown glass or aluminum cans, and they should be consumed quickly so no “skunky” aroma will develop. American beer drinkers accustomed to the imported version often comment on the surprising difference when they first drink a fresh beer.

Our preference for certain aromas and how they potentiate and modify other compounds in our bodies is a tale of how plants and animals have coevolved, and how we continue to influence each other through complex chemical relationships. Food and beverage aficionados who pair different beers and foods with selected sinsemilla varieties create synergistic effects. Brewers are experimenting with flavoring beers by adding essential oils extracted from select sinsemilla varieties. The future is limitless. Fortunately for consumers, Cannabis and Humulus continue to coexist and have intertwined themselves into our evolving human experience.

Mojave Richmond is the developer of many award-winning varieties such as S.A.G.E., which served as a springboard for creating many notable cultivars. Richmond is a founding member of the international consulting company BioAgronomics Group.

Robert C. Clarke is a freelance writer, photographer, ethnobotanist, plant breeder, textile collector and co-founder of BioAgronmics Group Consultants, specializing in smoothing the transition to a wholly legal and normalized cannabis market.