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Feds warn South Florida breweries to stop producing marijuana-flavored beer

The newest trend in South Florida’s craft-beer industry is marijuana beer, but local brewers this week face a major buzzkill thanks to a key ingredient in the brew: cannabis terpenes oil.

This week, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau , aka the TTB, mailed cease-and-desist letters to Invasive Species Brewing in Fort Lauderdale and Devour Brewing in Boynton Beach. The letters, which arrived last week and Monday, block sales of any craft beer infused with cannabis terpenes oil that the federal agency hasn’t approved.

In response, the owner of Devour told SouthFlorida.com on Tuesday that they may cancel beer parties planned for Friday, April 20, the unofficial pot holiday. But other breweries, such as Invasive Species, say canceling at the last-minute amounts to a waste of beer.

“[The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] told me not to make any more beer, but they didn’t tell me I had to cancel my event,” says Phil Gillis, Invasive Species’ head brewer, referring to his party Invasive Species Celebrates 420, set to begin at 4:20 p.m. on April 20. “It’s a little bit of a drag, I won’t lie, but frankly, I’ve got two bands booked and the beer’s already made.”

Cannabis terpenes are fragrant oils, extracted from marijuana plants, which give pot its signature stinky flavor. But Gillis claims he wasn’t aware the oil needed federal approval, since it contains no THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive substance in marijuana that produces a euphoric high. It also contains zero CBD (cannabidiol), a nonpsychoactive said to offer relief from pain, anxiety and depression.

After reading the cease-and-desist letter, Gillis called the TTB. An agency representative explained the crackdown on breweries started after recent media coverage alerted the agency to South Florida’s marijuana-beer trend. From there, the agency “went to our Facebook page and found our event, and we were busted,” Gillis says.

Breweries who use cannabis terpenes oil “should stop production of any fermented beverages […] until you have obtained the appropriate formula approval,” a TTB letter mailed to Devour Brewing Company reads.

So long as it tests negative for controlled substances such as THC, cannabis terpenes oil isn’t illegal, says Thomas Hogue, a TTB spokesman and director of the agency’s Office of Congressional and Public Affairs. But it must still be tested and submitted for approval by the agency to ensure brewers aren’t spiking beers with illicit chemicals, he says.

“If you’ve used an ingredient, like [cannabis] terpenes oil, you would need to come to us for formula approval first, since that product isn’t recognized as a traditional beer ingredient,” Hogue says. “We will not approve labels or formulas for products that contain a controlled substance.”

For beer recipes that may contain cannabis terpenes oil, it’s a “case-by-case” basis for approval, Hogue says, and the TTB relies on the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration for those judgment calls.

While he wasn’t aware that his terpenes oil-infused beers needed federal approval, Fran Andrewlevich, co-owner of Twisted Trunk Brewing, says an independent laboratory in Davie tested his oil. It contained “zero-point-zero percent” THC and CBD, he says.

For Andrewlevich, cannabis terpenes oil is the next great frontier in craft-beer experimentation. Oil extracted from different strains of cannabis plants unlocks a bounty of new beer flavors, he says.

“It’s kind of like the fifth Beatle,” Andrewlevich says, referring to beer’s four main ingredients: water, hops, grain and yeast. “I was a naysayer in my mind, thinking it was going to taste too medicinal, or not smell like weed. But it’s potent. It’s aromatic. When we first sipped it, we were like, ‘Holy s---.’ ”

Andrewlevich began serving cannabis terpenes beer in January at the Jupiter Craft Brewers Festival, and has since kegged 15 different beers, including Contact Hive, a New England-style IPA punched with honey and an oil strain sold by the Boynton Beach-based supplier Terpene Station.

The allure of cannabis beers is its marijuanalike flavor, agrees Chip Breighner, owner of Devour Brewing, who scuttled plans for a 420-themed party when his cease-and-desist letter arrived last week. The tap list would have included Munchin’ on Cookies, a coconut-milk stout flavored with Girl Scout Cookie terpenes oil; and TJ Express, a milkshake India Pale Ale with notes of pineapple, vanilla beans, agave and Pineapple Express terpenes.

“People love cannabis — to smoke it, to try the edibles,” says Breighner, who last November became the first South Florida brewer to experiment with marijuana beer. “So if they can have a beer that gives them the sense, the smell, the flavor, people want to try it.”

Kyle Jones, owner of the Fort Lauderdale brewery LauderAle, says he didn’t receive a cease-and-desist letter from the TTB, and on Friday plans to host Project Terpene, a festival featuring four beers with cannabis terpenes oils.

“You can’t deny it’s a trend right now and everyone’s doing it,” Jones says. “For people who’ve never drank it, they can experience flavors they never experienced before. It’s a really great meeting of molecules.”

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pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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