The crowd is young, hip and thirsty. But there is plenty of cold beer around and the spirits are, um, high, especially when the word gets out that the brew is made with hemp marijuana's non- psychoactive cousin. Despite the rowdy comments about getting stoned, this is not a seedy bar in a back alley, but the respected Salon of Taste in Turin, a gourmet fest organized last October by Slow Food, a worldwide organization promoting healthy eating. Here the message in the bottle is that since hemp is rich in nutrients and essential fatty acids, beer containing this fibrous plant is good for what ales you.
It is also controversial. The hemp used in the beer has a very low narcotic content, but because the plant is of the same species as marijuana some governments prohibit its cultivation. In other countries laws are slowly changing, allowing the import of the beer and other drinks and foods containing hemp extracts, provided that the percentage of thc the ingredient responsible for the "high" remains within the 0.2% limit imposed by the European Union in 2002.
Now several small European breweries are capitalizing on the more liberal attitudes. One, the Genuine Beer Company in Mendrisio, Switzerland, which distributes the slightly sweet tasting Hanf-blüte Beer, is conquering new markets, including traditionally wine-producing ones like Italy. "It is a very good beer and there is a big demand for it," explains Paolo Codoni, the company's ceo. "In countries where hemp is forbidden, the beer is a novelty." Although hemp beer remains a niche product, it's popularity is growing throughout Europe. But does drinking hemp beer make you high? "No," says Buddy Piper, whose Amsterdam shop, Nirvana, sells its own hemp brew. "But it definitely can make you drunk.