can you ferment weed

A Cannabis High, No Plant Required

Scientists think they can re-create marijuana’s active ingredients with brewer’s yeast.

Amanda Mull February 27, 2019

Fermentation-powered brewing has been getting people drunk for thousands of years. Soon, it could be getting them high, too.

In research announced on Wednesday by the University of California at Berkeley, a team of synthetic biologists modified brewer’s yeast to produce a range of cannabinoids, which are compounds in cannabis that affect the brain and body. The technique opens up the possibility of circumventing the need for large-scale plant cultivation, and the findings could conceivably make high-quality, reasonably priced cannabinoids much more accessible for pharmaceutical development and recreational consumer products.

For longtime cannabis advocates, though, this new technology might bring corporate interests one step closer to controlling a market they’re fighting to keep democratic.

To brew cannabinoids—the most famous of which are tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, or THC and CBD—the operation looks much like a traditional brewery, says Jay Keasling, the Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who led the research. “Essentially what we’ve done is taken yeast, which would normally produce ethanol for beer or wine, and we put in it the gene for producing cannabinoids,” he says. “We have the opportunity to produce very pure molecules.”

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THC and CBD are only two of about 100 documented cannabinoids in existence. THC is the psychoactive element of cannabis that makes users feel high, while CBD is the element that can provide a feeling of calm. Beyond primarily recreational consumer products such as the gummies and oils currently found in legal weed dispensaries, preliminary research is promising on both THC’s and CBD’s potential uses as pharmaceutical therapies for managing conditions such as pain and anxiety.

Obtaining large quantities of reliably high-quality cannabinoids can be a major obstacle for scientific researchers looking for medicinal applications of the compounds, and supplying those efforts might be the most immediate upside of large-scale vat fermentation. As recreational cannabis legalization expands across America, there could be other upsides. “When they’re incorporated into products—whether that be skin creams or edibles or whatever else—you’re going to know exactly how much you’re getting,” Keasling says.

Concerns over variable CBD quality and strength have caused problems for cannabis entrepreneurs recently, especially when the debatably legal extract is incorporated into consumer products such as food.

For the dozens of other cannabinoids, no one really knows what might be possible, or what effect they might have on humans in larger, isolated doses. Because most of them appear in cannabis as trace or rare chemicals—and some of them, known as unnatural cannabinoids, don’t appear in the plant at all—meaningful research on them has so far been impossible. “We haven’t had access to test, and this will give us access to those compounds,” Keasling says. “The yeast would produce the cannabinoids in, say, a day or a couple days.”

Keasling is one of the research pioneers of this yeast-based approach to chemical production, which is a type of synthetic biology. The technique is still in its exploratory stages and has been met with some skepticism, but it is currently being used to manufacture a number of products, including insulin and lab-grown leather.

In 2014, Keasling used yeast to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which occurs naturally only in the sweet wormwood plant. Agricultural supplies of the drug have traditionally been erratic, but as Keasling’s synthetic-biology alternative went to market, the natural supply of the drug stabilized and the price dropped, which neutralized the economic need for alternatives.

The cannabis market provides the opportunity for better timing. Large-scale cultivation of the plant in legalized U.S. states is only just beginning to move forward. With more states likely to soften their position on weed in the near future, demand could skyrocket not just for the plant’s flowers, but especially for the cannabinoid-based extracts that provide an easier point of entry for novice experimentation or health products. Fermentation has the potential to provide a quicker and more sustainable way to meet those needs: Conventional cannabis cultivation is, ironically, not so green.

Fermentation is also less expensive, according to Keasling, because it uses less land, smaller facilities, and more limited manpower. Its waste product is mostly water, which can be safely treated with existing technologies that large-scale fermenters already use. In the case of artemisinin, Keasling says that production cost about $400 a kilogram once everything was up and running at scale. In contrast, a pound of wholesale cannabis in legalized states currently costs anywhere from $595 to nearly $3,000. That raw material would then have to be processed down to much smaller quantities of pure extracts.

Keasling has bought in to the business potential of his research. In 2017, he founded a company called Demetrix that so far has $4 million in venture-capital seed funding, and it licenses the technology he has helped develop in order to explore research and consumer-business models for vat-fermented cannabinoids. Other companies are also keen to use synthetic biology to enter the cannabis market, including the Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks.

When it comes to research opportunities, the predictable, cost-effective production of cannabinoids is likely good news, but it could be a problem for people who want legalization to preserve individual citizens’ right to grow their own weed and to sidestep the drug’s looming corporatization. A bill introduced to legalize cannabis in New York has been criticized by cannabis advocates for excluding home growers at what they say is the behest of corporate interests, and the potential to circumvent the plant entirely could give Big Pharma easier control over who can or cannot access cannabis’s potential, and how much they have to pay to do so.

Still, synthetic biology’s potential to give scientists a deeper and more complete understanding of cannabinoids’ possible benefits could help people with any number of ailments. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a blockbuster drug in there,” Keasling says. “We just don’t know.”

Scientists think they can re-create marijuana’s active ingredients with brewer’s yeast.

I Drank Weed Wine — Here’s What Happened

The presidential election aside, a resounding “WOOHOO” could be heard coast to coast last week as marijuana became legal for recreational use in four new states. This means that now over half the states in this great nation are green-friendly!

It’s no surprise then that weed and wine can be consumed in the same package, and (being a devoted wine scientist and consumer advocate) I couldn’t resist coordinating a taste test.

For the sake of science, we tried a weed-infused wine made in the traditional, homestyle fashion. Unlike complex, commercially produced cannabis wines like Melissa Ethridge’s “No Label,” which use a marijuana tincture to infuse a wine, the traditional method simply dumps a pile of marijuana into fermenting wine. Over the course of fermentation, alcohol pulls THC into the wine, similar to how THC is extracted into butter or oil.

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The “Cannabis Cooler,” as we affectionately came to name it, was tasted by a panel of sommeliers, winemakers, wine buyers and a lone non-industry civilian, in a lineup against traditional wines. Our goal was threefold: (1) to find out if we liked the Cannabis Cooler; (2) to determine how its taste compared to conventional wines; and (3) to decide if we would buy this wine again.

We broke the wine down Court of Master Sommeliers-style. Without knowing what it was, our panel analyzed the appearance, nose and flavors of the wine, and then guessed its origin.

But as soon as the weed wine was poured, these wine-lovers spotted it. Though bright crimson, the wine was cloudy and had some sediment.

Overheard: “Laura, this is pretty obvious.”

Despite being paired alongside distinctive, herbaceous red wines, the nose gave away the additive in the Cannabis Cooler. It was skunky and ashy — reminiscent of a car ashtray. We were not exactly eager to drink it. But over the course of our tasting, the off-aromas of ash and chemicals dissipated, revealing aromas of tropical flowers and ripe, jammy fruit like cherry and raspberry.

Overheard: “This is like freshly cut hay, topped with green mold.”

Quite fortunately, the taste of this wine was completely different from its nose. The Cannabis Cooler was still funky, but with a great, high-acid backbone and mild tannins. In a lot of ways, it was like Beaujolais — funky, earthy and fruity. Herbal notes like thyme stood out, and we all went back for second and third sips. Surprisingly, this wine didn’t taste much like marijuana or the ashtray sensation of the nose, which was surely another cause for celebration.

Overheard: “I thought this would taste like bong water, but it’s so much better!” “I’m really enamored of this — really I am!” “This is like the Starbucks Hibiscus Berry Cooler.”

Thanks to confusing aromas and flavors, we weren’t able to guess this wine, which turned out to be a California Pinot Noir. The bottle would likely have retailed around $30, a price the panel agreed was fair, cannabis-infused or otherwise. Compared to commercial cannabis wines, that’s cheap; Know Label and Green Wine retail for around $20 per ounce. At that rate (roughly $120 per glass) none of us would drop the cash, though we would give our palates over to science if the occasion arose.

Of course, the real question is, did we feel it? A resounding YES. Drinking half a glass of this wine was like pounding three glasses of Champagne on an empty stomach. We certainly wouldn’t recommend driving, but the sensation was pleasant and silly — like bubbles, it went straight to our heads.

Overall, we did like the Cannabis Cooler, and if it were offered to us again, we’d certainly drink it. Compared with traditional wines, this was completely different — more full-bodied than most Pinot Noirs and certainly more potent. Mostly, we were left wondering exactly how THC interacts with alcohol, and guessing the unknowns of this wine — the alcohol percentage, the cannabis strain and potency, oak treatment and other winemaking minutia. Like winemaking, marijuana cultivation and processing dramatically affect the end product, meaning there could be as much variation in Cannabis Coolers as in traditional wines.

Clearly, more experimentation is necessary. Until then, drink with caution!

Weed and wine go together like, well, weed and wine. We tried out what we're calling a Cannabis Cooler and we liked it! Learn more