Bakeries, cafes rejoice after two-decade-long battle to legalise consumption of hemp in Australia

FOR those who find themselves in Nimbin for the first time, it can be something of a revelation.

Likened to mini Amsterdam in the middle of the mountains of northern NSW, the village plays to its own beat of sustainability and self-sufficiency with a side of cannabis counterculture.

But on a day trip there while holidaying at Byron Bay 18 years ago, Andrew Bertalli only had eyes for hemp food.

“I wandered into a hemp shop at Nimbin and I was blown away by what was on offer,” he says.

“It wasn’t legal to sell hemp in food in Australia back then but I spoke to the shop owners and when I got back home I read everything I could about it.”

Although cannabis as a drug and industrial hemp both come from Cannabis sativa and contain the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), hemp has negligible concentrations of THC.

Andrew Bertalli on hemp bread

The third-generation operator of Benalla bakery Alpine Breads, Mr Bertalli joined the push to legalise industrial hemp in food products in Australia.

After two decades of lobbying politicians, the Council of Australian Governments will officially pass the legislation on Sunday for hemp to be consumed as food. 

Until now, hemp products have been limited to the textiles, building and cosmetics industries. 

“It’s huge; it’s a bit surreal – I can’t believe how long it has taken,” Mr Bertalli says. 

“We’re talking about a super food and super grains; they’ve been there for hundreds of years and we haven’t used them.”

Australian Primary Hemp director James Hood says Australia is finally catching up to the rest of the world with Japan, Germany and Canada leading the way.

He says the legalisation ends the decades-long prohibition, which opens the door for Australians to reap the multitude of benefits of the renowned super food. 

“Hemp has long been globally recognised for its hugely beneficial nutritional merits as one of only five key acknowledged natural super foods,” he says.

“Hemp has a five-star health rating and provides a perfect 1:3 balance of Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, a complete amino acid profile including all eight essential amino acids, excellent dietary fibre and bioavailable protein.”  

Mr Bertalli says hemp’s ratio of Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids trumps even fish oil.

“It’s a sustainable source of Omegas compared to fish too, which they talk about as being a depleted resource,” he says.

“We’re pouring money into fish aquaculture when they had a super food all along, which all they had to do was legalise.” 

Having introduced the world’s first certified FODMAP-friendly breads and Heart Fibre loaves to lower cholesterol in Australia, Mr Bertalli is no stranger to product innovation.

Alpine Breads will stock hemp bread – artisan loaves and packaged – and muffins at its Bridge Street bakery shopfront from Sunday.

Mr Bertalli expects a mixed response from customers in the early days.

“You’ll get people who have an image of hemp with a stigma behind it, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they actually taste it,” he says.

“It’s different to anything on the market; the texture, the smell and the taste.

“We want to be known as the healthy bread company.”

Having taken the reins from his father Ken about 11 years ago of the bakery that was started by his grandfather Dick during the early 1930s, Mr Bertalli continues to evolve the business.

Following deregulation of the bread industry and rising competition, Mr Bertalli went back to scratch with a new sourdough starter – named Dick in honour of his grandfather.

“We’re always thinking outside the square,” he says.

“We got a state-of-the-art bread packaging machine three years ago, which keeps our products fresher for longer.

“We were first to develop a FODMAP-friendly bread with dietitian Dr Sue Shepherd.

“All of our bread is vegan-friendly and complies with regulations for kosher foods.

“We like to be first, original and different; it sets us up for the future and makes us more sustainable.”

Of Mr Bertalli’s children with his wife Lisa, Thomas and Sam work in the family bakehouse while Isabella, 16, and Sara, 12, are still at school.

FAMILY TIES: Andrew, Sam and Thomas Bertalli. Picture: MARK JESSER

FAMILY TIES: Andrew, Sam and Thomas Bertalli. Picture: MARK JESSER

With 25 staff, Alpine Breads supplies all Safeway and Coles supermarkets in Victoria and 50 Coles stores in NSW as well as independent supermarkets.

“Hemp bread will be available at independent supermarkets that stock our range and I’d expect Coles and Safeway to come on board next year,” Mr Bertalli says.

“Cafes in Benalla and around the region are very interested in it.

“I think we’ll see a lot more hemp products come on the market in future like breakfast cereals and muesli bars.”

Australian Primary Hemp’s James Hood says the pass of this legislation on Sunday marks a massive achievement for the hemp community. 

“It’ll open a whole new door for hemp to enter the Australian super food market and hopefully spark more conversation around the environmental benefits of the plant,” he says. 

Mr Bertalli, who began tweaking his hemp bread recipe in April, says customers shouldn’t expect to get a buzz out of their daily bread.

“Hemp is different to marijuana because it has negligible THCs,” he says.

“But it’s a green taste, it’s a healthy taste.”