Frequent visitors to Rodrick Markus's lair expect to encounter powerful aromas such as truffle, strawberry, or barrel-aged tea. No one expects it to smell like weed. But that was the unmistakable perfume I inhaled one recent afternoon as we sat at the table in his twilit warehouse-tasting-room/laboratory at Rare Tea Cellar in Ravenswood. Between us he'd lined up a half dozen glass bowls, each filled with a different premium tea blend—except for the one containing a pile of fat, green Oregon- and Vegas-grown Honolulu Haze nugs.
Those aren't to be confused with Hawaiian Haze, a cannabis strain with markedly high levels of THC that elicits a euphoric, energetic high. Honolulu Haze won't do that for you. It's a hemp strain (and nail polish color, coincidentally) that contains virtually no THC, but does produce noticeable effects, thanks to high levels of cannabidiol, which by now you should know as CBD, the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid marketed in everything from gummies to dog treats to sex lube.
"There's so much garbage on the market," says Markus, who's been supplying chefs with rare and weird ingredients from his steadily expanding apothecary for 22 years. Hundreds of these ingredients line the shelves in labeled glass jars—dried black limes, Okinawa sugar, 30-year-old balsamic vinegar crystals—a sensory overload that threatens to short-circuit the ability to focus on anything.
Luckily Markus was making tea, an ordinarily calming beverage, which in this case had the extra benefit of the antianxiety properties (among others) for which CBD has been embraced. First there was a black blend scented with rose and lychee fruit, and infused with 10 milligrams of CBD extract. Then came a five-year-old oak-aged pu-erh with cacao nibs and vanilla that Markus normally sells for $200 a pound (but with 20 milligrams of CBD will likely command $500, or $6 a serving, once he starts selling it). And then there was the moonlight jasmine blossom, a performance tea, a tight ball of neatly tied leaves that dramatically blooms in the glass as it steeps and releases 10 milligrams of CBD.
Over the last four years or so Markus has developed about 17 different CBD and hemp-infused products—not just teas, but syrups and shrubs—that he'd like to unleash his demanding customers on. "I've never had more people reach out in my life," he says. And yet, though chefs and bartenders all over the country are increasingly experimenting with CBD (and cannabis in general), he's holding back. He's avoiding a perceived legal gray area that persists even after the 2018 farm bill essentially legalized CBD products as long as they are derived from hemp (which contains less than 0.3 percent THC), and not marijuana (what all your friends in California, Colorado, and eight other states are enjoying without holding a medical license or breaking the law).
Even as local restaurants such as Young American and the Swill Inn are spiking dishes and drinks with CBD, the FDA still isn't on board with its use as a dietary or health supplement. Markus thinks this puts restaurants and bars at risk, particularly in Illinois, where it's still a novelty relative to states where cannabis is legal.
But what could go wrong? After all, "people don't turn to jerks with it," he says. "As opposed to booze."
Markus has teas that have been misted with water-soluble CBD extract, which absorbs the cannabinoid as the liquid evaporates. He's also been blending premium teas with hemp flower, like the vegetal Kyoto kukicha green tea, which doesn't contribute much medicinal effect but tastes interesting enough in combination with the hemp's natural terpenes, the essential oils responsible for the distinctive flavors and aromas that differentiate strains of cannabis.
He's added CBD to some of his greatest hits such as a thick, molasses-like cold-pressed infused agave syrup, strong enough to stand up to coffee, tea, or on pancakes or ice cream, and the Cosa Nostra shrub that brings together a green tea blend with 20-year-old white vinegar and almond oil. A shrub made from oolong tea, magnolia blossoms, cane sugar, and vinegar somehow tastes like the pot likker from a batch of braised collard greens.
Chefs are often the first to introduce ingredients to the general culinary lexicon. That doesn't seem to be true when it comes to CBD. "Everyone's taking really pedestrian ingredients right now and trying to make something inexpensive and make a lot of money on it," says Markus. "I think if you put the really good stuff behind it people are gonna be really into it. If you start with something great it's gonna taste great." He's particularly excited to infuse some imported French cultured butter he has coming in.
In lieu of putting his supply on the market now, Markus has been doling out samples to chefs here and there. At Finom Coffee Rafael Esparza made a CBD sugar infusion from hemp flower Markus gave him, then added it to glucose syrup to form a glassy topper to a crème brulee latte. "It was killer," he told me in a text. "Nice body feel. Not high or anything."
On the other hand, chefs are on the leading edge when it comes to cooking with marijuana, not just trying to get people high, but playing with different extracts, isolates, terpenes, and concentrates derived from the plant. Markus, who stands at the ready for when recreational marijuana is legalized, compares the current culinary cannabis environment to the turn of the century's prevailing culinary trend.
"Molecular gastronomy needed certain chemicals to perform the magic," he says. "It's gonna be the same with this. It's a wild world right now, but it's gonna be super interesting as its unfolds. We're ready on every front to touch every aspect of it. The applications are just endless. It's gonna create some crazy derivatives that I can't wait to be a part of." v