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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Lupulin-Cannabis Connection

British blogger Pete Brown wanders into the thicket of foreign slang when he ponders the word "dank":
Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as 'dank' - this was a new one on me. I wasn't even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn't heard of. According to my OED, dank means 'unpleasantly damp and cold', and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for 'marshy spot'. And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymus explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus - big on everything - and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.
In this context, dank is only very tenuously connected to its actual, OED meaning. It refers, of course, to ganja. I spent a few minutes scanning the intertubes for an explanation of how a word meaning "damp and cold" became associated with weed, but linguists have been slow to delve into this important matter. My theory: especially strong, rich ganja is heavy and sticky, or "wet."

More importantly, as a spoken word, "dank" has much to recommend it: the "day" that starts the word drops the voice into a low register and it continues on to an "ain" vowel that can be strummed to indicate something dangerous and alluring, and finally the terminal "k," which slams the word down on the table like a provocation. I suspect onomatopoeia has more to do with its adoption than the actual vaguely-evocative definition.

Enter hops, humulus lupulus, related botanically to their dank cousin, cannabis. For the most part, the flowers of the hop vine contribute brighter, more floral aromas and flavors. A few, though, particularly in combination (to Simcoe I'd add Columbus/Zeus/Tomahawk), do offer a distinct ganja quality. It's not citrusy; it's deep, heavy ... dank. (Though personally, I hate the repurposing of a word to describe something for which we already have words.)

Pete's post got me thinking about the connection between marijuana, hops, and the West Coast, all of which have direct ties. The Cascadian corridor, from Northern California up to British Columbia, is famous pot country. I have friends from rural Southern Oregon who remember helicopters flying over forest land to find rogue pot gardens secreted deep among the Douglas fir. The pot that grows here has long enjoyed a reputation of quality and strength (I, of course, know it purely by reputation). When you think of famous pothead culture, you think of the West Coast--a phenomenon dating back to the 1960s.

Enter craft-brewed ales, circa 1980. By chance, the hops that grow in this same corridor are also famous for their strength and quality. (Or maybe not by chance. Although some hate the invocation of terroir, we can't help but note that the region is famous for producing two closely related plants--maybe there is something to this after all.) On some kind of unconscious level, perhaps, the region quickly started to embrace intensely-hopped beers. We were already predisposed to this quality. "West Coast" became an adjective to describe it.

I think culture is wrapped up in this, too. On the West Coast, there's something more to smoking pot than getting baked. The old hippie values still persist; mellowness, community, nature. Craft brewing also champions these values. The bridge between the two drugs is a short one, and it's not surprising that we see all kinds of marijuana references in craft brewing. That a word like "dank" would migrate so naturally from one to the other is perfectly understandable.

I have a character flaw that makes me want to draw overly sweeping conclusions from single data points, but I can't help myself: what percent of the rise of good beer--and particularly that element associated with extreme hopping--goes back to the pot culture of the West Coast? I suspect the number is not identical to zero.


  1. Not the first to bring this up, but I appreciate that you're not shy about it. My take on it is that both craft beer and cannabis appeal to those who appreciate altered states, and there is no coincidence that some of these enthusiasts are creative types. Some of those creative types channel that energy back into creating better beer and herb; a virtuous cycle if there ever was one. of course, appreciation of the finer things is a driver only of that small subset of the total of consumers of beer or herb. it seems to me that the rise in craft beer and craft herb have happened at the same time, not necessarily one before the other. I like toasted hemp seed in brew, but my experience with dry-hemped beer are not favorable - it seems that changing the route of administration from smoking to drinking changes the effect of cannabis in suboptimal ways. I'm sure some would enjoy it.

  2. Get post. From linguistics to sociology, it has everything.

  3. Michael Pollan writes eloquently on Cannabis Sativa x Indica in his 2002' The Botany Of Desire'. Both marijuana and ethanol alter human consciousness; but, in different ways. Marijuana connects most people to a sense of the Cosmo; alcohol disconnects most people. Pete Brown opines, in his first book, this disconnection is why the Medieval church did not suppress alcohol use. Alcohol was not doing the priests' work.

    [Of course, additionally, beer was also a source of abbey income.]

  4. Nice post. I've never really thought about the weed/hops connection before, but I think it's a good point. There probably is a connection between both the two products being of such high quality and intensity, and the people desiring these products. Thanks for the food for thought.

  5. Thanks for the rumination, Jeff. I appreciate your sensibility to the relationship between these two economically and culturally important plants.

    I find the word "funk" used similarly and interchangeably with "dank", to describe a deep, musty, and intoxicating aroma and flavour (not taste). I've found this quality to be present with certain strains of Cannabis and Humulus.

    In the Eagles song, Hotel California, the line "warm smell of colitas, rising up thru the air" refers to the Spanish word for "little tails", colitas, which is a slang reference to aromatic Cannabis colas. Not surprising perhaps, the term colitas is also used as a slang reference for the female sexual anatomy, which can also possess a deep, musty aroma. Such aromas (dank/funk) are not pleasant, per se. But, they're not unpleasant by any measure and their shear depth and mustiness can indeed be completely intoxicating. Dank and funk are indeed good things.

    Jeff, if I could make one minor correction. The genus of a plant is always capitalised and the species is always lower-case. "Humulus lupulus" is the correct way to write the latin binomial for Hops, even if it falls mid-sentence.

    BTW, I love the line "On the West Coast, there's something more to smoking pot than getting baked." Nicely said. Cheers.

  6. One additional thought. I would expect many Europeans to miss the connection between "dank" and quality Cannabis. For the most part, quality herb is difficult to find in many parts of Europe. In contrast, hash is readily available and doesn't possess the same aromatic qualities (a transport and concealment benefit). I've had several friends visit from England, Scotland, Ireland, and France who have never smoked Cannabis bud, despite being longterm hash smokers. Quality herb is always a treat for these folks (they will shun hash for herb, which is generally the opposite of what you'll find here in the US).

  7. I know that this post is over a year old but I just had to comment on this.

    I'm a swedish citizen and I have never heard of anyone saying "oh this smells like some high-grade chronic!" because as some may know, 'we' see canabis as a hard drug that may kill you if you smoke it.

    The cannabis connection is actually why I started to drink craft beers. My friend gave me some random hoppy beer and I was blown away by the aroma because it smelled just like a bag of weed! Later on I bought myself more of that beer because I just loved it.

    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your blog

  8. I recently received this blog post was recently attached as part of a local craft beer stores newsletter
    Warning: Nerd Alert!
    Cannabis and hops are actually related. They both come from the Cannabinaceae family. They do share some physical traits, such as appearance and similar aromas. However they differ on the chemical level. Both produce terpenes, cannabis terpenes are psychoactive where hops terpenes are purely for flavor/aroma/bitterness. Hops have been shown to help in relaxation (to a certain level) when consumed in moderate levels. So the term "dank" being thrown around for beer aromas isn't surprising given the relationship to cannabis. If you've managed to read my entire rant, you have earned a beer...or joint. Your preference.