Engineering for the Exotic: Considerations for Cannabis Brews

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Brewers are always looking for new ways to create better brews. So, when individual states began legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana, it was only a matter of time before a “budding” new industry would take root.
Still at the germination stage, however, the growth of the “bud brew” industry is hindered by state regulations and the fact that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level. Nonetheless, having a trusted engineering partner to help navigate the complexities of regulatory challenges can be a great asset for exotic brewers.

“There’s a lot of hesitation among brewers right now because of the differences in state and federal regulations,” says Alex Alexandrov, vice president of ICC, Inc., a trusted provider of comprehensive expert engineering, production, and management consulting services to a range of industrial clients in the brewery, distillery, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and other industries. “Brewers are already accustomed to the fact that you have to get approval from local and state regulators for any ingredient you add to alcoholic beverages, so, from that standpoint, that’s just standard business practice. But it gets a lot more complicated when the new ingredient is a marijuana or hemp derivative.”

States don’t have FDA (Food and Drug Administration) guidelines, which is how opiates are regulated, and they don’t have TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) or ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) guidelines, which is how alcohol is regulated. So, every state where cannabis has been legalized is now trying to feel its way through how to regulate and tax it.
Breweries interested in using marijuana or hemp ingredients also must be prepared to contend with regulations from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).

Growing Like a Weed: How to Prep

Regulatory uncertainty notwithstanding, expect the cannabis-infused beverage industry to grow like a weed. Craft brewers and even major breweries have been exploring the possibilities, an undertaking that requires an engineering partner who’s up on all the regulatory peculiarities of working with cannabis derivatives.
“Our mission right now is to make sure all our installs have a common bone marrow to them-- they’re customized for state and local regulations but they’re scalable to go into other states and to comply with federal regulations so they’re ready for the day that cannabis can cross state lines,” says Kyle Sawyer, President of ICC Northwest, an Oregon equipment engineering and fabrication company that specializes in stainless steel tanks and other brewery equipment. “Everybody is kind of prepping for day that this goes federal.”

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That preparation includes things like:

  • Engineering beverage industry bulk production methodologies so they’ll be FDA compliant, even though there’s not a direct FDA correlation at the state level.
  • Software integrated into brewery systems to accommodate local and state requirements for traceability of purchased lots of cannabis from the planting and harvesting through to the point of sale.
  • Appropriately sizing and designing facilities to include rigorous validation procedures to show that THC or CBD levels are consistent and repeatable for proper consumer warnings and for accurate taxation.
  • Including child proof lids when designing the product packaging, which is very atypical of anything in the beverage industry.
  • Engineering for cleaning and sanitation systems that differ from traditional alcoholic beverage production processes.

“With alcohol, you can test the density of the liquid for a very close gauge of the amount of alcohol it contains, so you can pay the right taxes and print the right consumer protections on the label,” says Sawyer. “With cannabis, there is no quick test strip. If you have an issue and your processes aren’t properly validated, you might not know for days. Your product shipment will be delayed while you have to quarantine the product and reprocess every bit of it, which is expensive and time-consuming.”

A New Industry is Blooming—Are You Ready?

Because of the different design considerations for breweries and distilleries looking to use cannabis derivatives in their products, ICC puts together pilot systems that allow companies to produce a test run before they decide if they want to commit to a full scale-up of their operations.
“We have a lot of experience adapting systems to evolving industry standards,” says ICC President and CEO Anders Hummer. “We have intense experience in the beverage and distilling as well as pharmaceutical industries; we also make equipment for cannabis oil extractions – so these regulations are kind of second nature to us as a company. Whichever way the industry goes, we’re ready to move with it.”

Clearing the Cannabis Confusion

There’s a lot of confusion when you start talking about marijuana, hemp, cannabis, cannabidiols, CBD and THC. So, let’s talk weed:

  • First, marijuana is cannabis. Cannabis is marijuana. More precisely, marijuana is the dried flowers, leaves, and stems of the cannabis plant.
  • Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant. It has lower concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which decreases or eliminates its psychoactive effects.
  • THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis. It’s the part that gets you high and gives you “the munchies.”
  • CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a naturally occurring cannabinoid (a chemical compound that acts on the cannabinoid receptors in brain cells) constituent of cannabis.
  • CBD is the component that people use for pain relief and other conditions such as inflammation, anxiety, and spasms. It is non-psychoactive or less psychoactive than THC.

What does this all mean when you’re talking about beer and other consumer products that include cannabis or a component of cannabis?

It’s common these days to see CBD lotion on the shelf of your local grocery store or pharmacy.

  • However, beer with CBD has faced more regulatory uncertainty than expected, since CBD is not a hallucinogen. Until the various state agencies issue a clear ruling, you’re unlikely to see beer infused with CBD, unless it’s a sparkling water with beer flavor but no alcohol.
  • THC does have psychoactive properties, so it is tracked “seed to sale,” which means you can only buy it at a regulated outlet, such as a marijuana store.
  • But even at a regulated outlet, “beer” advertised as containing cannabis or THC isn’t actually beer in the traditional sense. It’s a sparkling beer-flavored water infused with THC.
  • Cannabis, hemp, and hops are all in the same plant family, but using cannabis or hemp in place of hops wouldn’t produce the desired effect. “You could take hemp leaves and throw them into your hop back, but that’s not going to get you the extract that you want,” notes Sawyer. “It’s more of a gimmick.”

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