This month, Justin Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer of Hempleton Investment Group – one of the largest hemp conglomerates in the Carolinas, announced the company’s partnership with New River Distilling for hemp beer products and more.

It’s the “more” part that could revolutionize North Carolina’s hemp industry.

“We waited for almost three years to invest in an extraction group. We wanted to be sure we were choosing the right extraction methods,” says Hamilton. “And we wanted to partner with a company that’s capable of growing and expanding with the industry.”

The deal, he says, will allow “research on a large scale for Hempleton’s CBD supplement brands.” The deal includes a cash investment and an ownership stake in the distillery.

But Daniel Meehan, founder and operator of New River Distilling, doesn’t want you to think that means he went out and bought any ‘ol equipment. Meehan makes his own equipment.

And, until a few months ago, he worked for Tesla as a software engineer while running his distilling company out of his garage.

This deal, he says, not only gave him the confidence to leave his corporate gig but it’s enabling him to extract cannabidiol (CBD) from North Carolina’s industrial hemp in addition to terpenes from a long list of flora.

And his expanded services are available to anyone wanting to extract from botanicals, not only Hempleton.

“This is tremendous news for North Carolina hemp farmers,” says Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Hemp Industry Association.

“We started in the craft beverage industry where we developed a machine to isolate the essential oils from hops. We built our own processors and our own cooling units,” says Meehan who describes himself as a “toll processor.”

“Someone has the plant material on hand, they send it to us, we process it and send back a finished oil product or a concentrate,” he expains.

“The hop is very similar to cannabis sativa,” says Meehan.

“When we found these guys, we knew we found what we were looking for,” says Hamilton of the investment opportunity.

This image is from New River Distilling Company’s Facebook page and dated Aug. 22, 2018. Here’s the decription that accompanies the photo: “… received some new toys today! This short-path distillation kit will allows us to selectively isolate specific oil compounds from our full spectrum #distilledhopoil . We will also be producing CBD via NC hemp with this glassware. We’re stoked to get this running and producing the highest quality ingredients. #keepmovingforward”

Why hemp-flavored beer?

This isn’t Hempleton’s first hemp-beer deal – Hamilton says the company has been working with a couple other beer breweries, too.

“There’s a large interest in the craft brewing industry in using hemp to flavor beer,” says Hamilton. But, he says, there are concerns about CBD being in beer due to interstate commerce restrictions and a prohibition on adding the cannabinoids to alcoholic beverages (i.e. another layer of federal regulation from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – better known as the TTB, a branch of the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury).

The cannabis beer industry is also predicted to exceed $20 billion in annual revenue within a few years.

We were trying to find a way around those regulations and still use the hemp flavoring,” says Hamilton, who says the process is similar to the way New River Distillery extracts terpenes from dry hops for beer.

Like the CBD branch of the hemp industry, the cannabis beer industry is also predicted to exceed $20 billion in annual revenue within a few years.

Via Brewbound.org’s article “Beer Institute Examines Marijuana Industry at Annual Meeting,” June 2018:

North American sales of cannabis are expected to grow to $24 billion by 2021, Jessica Lukas, vice president of consumer insights at BDS Analytics, shared during the final day of the Beer Institute’s annual meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That figure, she added, doesn’t account for a potential end to the federal ban on marijuana in the United States.

“The beer opportunity is large, if not larger, than the supplement market,” says Hamilton, “So, we knew that was going to be an area that we needed to focus on for our farmers. Now we can offer farmers contracts to grow hemp for terpenes as well as CBD content, which allows us flexibility in our genetics.”

In Sept. 2018, Rolling Stone magazine published an exclusive article citing a report that predicts the CBD market alone will hit $22 billion by 2022.

It’s about the flavor

If you would, envision an orange. Imagine the sweet, bright aroma and the sweet-tart juice. What you’re enjoying in that sensory moment are terpenes. Think of them as flavor and scent profiles.

Meehan can extract them from oranges and hemp alike, along with a long list of other plants, and add those scents and flavors to other recipes, if you will, to make a variety of beverages, food and any number of other infused hemp and CBD self-care products.

“That was an important part of why we invested in New River Distilling,” says Hamilton. 

Sliced oranges, by Liz West via Flickr

But back to the beer. For now, three strain infusions are being created.

Since most farmers participating in the N.C. Industrial Hemp Pilot Program are growing the Cherry Wine strain, it’s no surprise that Cherry Wine is one of the three hemp strains Meehan is extracting terpenes from for Hempleton products.

The other two are Oregon strains from Appalachian Growers in Franklin, N.C., Sour Space Candy and Special Sauce.

“Those strains are from Oregon CBD, one of the leaders on the West Coast for genetics,” says Hamilton. “We hope to expand over time as this becomes more popular in mainstream brewing.”

“The number of products we’ll be able to produce depends on the types of strains the farmers grow,” says Meehan. 

Power in craft brewing

“As you dig under the surface,” says Hamilton, “a lot of these craft brewing companies are owned by bigger brewing companies.”

When talking to people in the hemp industry it’s common to hear tale of the giant Canadian and West Coast companies that are coming to gobble up the mom and pop operations that have sprouted throughout the Carolinas since the dawn of the industrial hemp pilot programs.

Butler remembers when similar tales were being told about craft brewing companies in Asheville.

“If you look at what craft beer has done in Ashville, North Carolina,” says Butler, “after we self-anointed ourselves Beer City USA, that’s when Sierra Nevada came to Asheville; that’s when New Belgium came to Asheville; that’s when Oscar Blues came to Brevard. They were gravitating toward something that was organic in the way it was created.” 

Hemp beer by Alex LMX

Hemp beer can example by Alex LMX via iStock

“We have an amazing opportunity in North Carolina to be true leaders in industrial hemp,” Butler says, indicating that the Hempleton-New River Distilling deal is an apt example.

Meehan’s unique process – a genuine infusion of craft into the craft brewing and hemp industry alike – is part of what makes North Carolina’s craft brewers among the best in the nation. The businessmen hope that same type of ingenuity and craftsmanship will also elevate the state’s fledgling hemp industry on the national scene.

And that’s good, because giant companies, like Coca Cola, are already sniffing around the marketplace.

BY Rhiannon Fionn

BY Rhiannon Fionn

Editor & Publisher

Rhiannon Fionn is an award-winning journalist based in Charlotte, N.C.