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ATF: That's bad brew
Despite the seeds being sterilized, Missoula brewer Tim O'Leary has been told by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms not to use hemp in any of his beer. Photo by KURT WILSON of the Missoulian

Feds close the tap on new hemp beer

Hemp is hip, so Tim O'Leary thought he'd take advantage. O'Leary runs the Kettlehouse, a microbrewery that also offers people a chance to create their own beers.

With customers suggesting he make a hemp beer, O'Leary and crew recently whipped up a test batch of dark, creamy brew dubbed Olde Bongwater Hemp Porter.

Kettlehouse offered the beer at this summer's Hemp Fest, where both the beer and the tie-dyed T-shirts promoting it were well received. O'Leary was ready to push ahead with Olde Bongwater, but still had to clear one hurdle - approval from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Say what? Well, the making of beer falls in the province of ATF. And the deal is, if you're going to make beer out of anything other than barley, malt hops, yeast and water, you've got to get the ATF's stamp of approval.

O'Leary wasn't overly concerned, because other breweries around the country already were turning out hemp beer. Plus, hemp is everywhere. You can buy chocolate chip cookies baked with hemp flour, and O'Leary even sucked on a hemp-based lollipop at the Hemp Fest.

So he sent his recipe - some hemp seed is substituted for barley and hops at parts of the brewing process - to the ATF and waited for the expected approval. He didn't get it. ATF called to tell him he couldn't brew the beer because the agency was "concerned about the image it presents to young people," O'Leary said. The problem, as the ATF sees it, is that hemp makes young people think about marijuana.

That explanation, absent any other reason, has O'Leary shaking his head.

"Well, first off, we're not selling beer to young people," he said. "I mean, a hemp lollipop. If that's not targeted toward young people, what is?"

The Missoulian couldn't reach the ATF agent responsible for the decision, and the agency hasn't provided O'Leary with a written explanation.

O'Leary is bothered by several aspects of the ATF decision. At least a half-dozen breweries are making beer with hemp seed, and most went into production in the past two years. But the ATF told O'Leary that new breweries are not being allowed to make hemp beer.

"To me, that's protecting the breweries that already make the beer," he said. "The ATF shouldn't be in the business of protecting one business over another."

O'Leary said the ATF did say that it was considering banning all hemp beer production, but that hasn't happened yet.

What most gravels O'Leary about the ATF decision is its inherent hypocrisy. The seeds used in hemp-related products are already required by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be sterilized, making inactive any THC they might contain. Beyond that, the seed O'Leary buys isn't supposed to have THC - the active ingredient in marijuana - in it anyway.

"So they're trying to keep something that has no effect on people out of a product that can really have an effect on people if they use it unwisely," O'Leary said. "That seems just a little bit absurd."

O'Leary is more amused than irritated by the fact that ATF is putting the kibosh on a product made in a brewery that produces 600 barrels of beer a year.

"A big brewery probably spills that much," O'Leary said. "It's just a case of them picking on the littlest guy imaginable. It's ridiculous."

Let's be clear about one thing - O'Leary isn't waving the flag to legalize hemp.

"I'm not on a crusade to legalize hemp here," he said. "I just want to make great beer. And this is a good beer."

So, although you can't get the beer, you can still buy the T-shirt.

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