Green Gold: Corporate Titans Are Betting Big on Cannabis Beer, Wine, and Cocktails

Chris Shott Green Gold: Corporate Titans Are Betting Big on Cannabis Beer, Wine, and Cocktails

6 minute Read

Colorado brewer Keith Villa is best known as the creator of Blue Moon, the wildly successful, Coors-backed beer with the suggested orange-slice garnish.

His newest craft-style beer will come with a much more potent additive: cannabis.

“What we’re going to offer is going to give a shot in arm to the beer industry,” says Villa, whose new label, Ceria, is expected to launch later this year, offering three different styles of brew: a light American-style lager, a medium-bodied Belgian white, and a heavier India Pale Ale, all infused with various levels of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

While so-called hemp beers have been around for quite a while now, lightly treading on the weed theme without really containing any psychedelic chemicals, Villa’s new startup is one of the first U.S. producers to go all in with a real-deal, hops-and-pot combo that promises to actually get you high.

“I think millennials and pretty much all drinkers are going to be excited to try beer with cannabis,” the former Molson-Coors executive says.

Villa isn’t the only alcohol industry vet to bet big on cannabis. Constellation Brands, the corporate giant behind over 100 alcohol brands, including Corona, High West, and The Prisoner, invested nearly $200 million last year in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. Part of the deal involves the research and development of its own line of cannabis-infused beverages.

These industry heavyweights have joined a small but fast-growing group of entrepreneurs who believe that the future of legal weed is non-smoking. “Pot-ables,” for lack of a better term, offer a healthier, less odorous, and more socially acceptable way to consume the cannabis plant — not to mention an attractive alternative to traditional booze. Though currently just a small subset of America’s blooming, $10 billion legal weed industry, the beverage category is expanding fast. In the coming months, consumers in legal states will be able to try a range of new THC-spiked beers, wines, and even bottled craft-style cocktails.

“You can serve it around the dinner table, or at a party where people are drinking already — no one needs to go outside, roll a joint, and smell up the place,” Alex Howe, co-founder of California’s Rebel Coast winery, says. This summer, Rebel Coast plans to release the world’s first commercially produced “weed wine,” a Sauvignon Blanc that brings new meaning to the term “grassy.”

As legalization continues to gain more ground across North America, producers of more traditional adult beverages are scrambling to get in on the action. “Cannabis is coming at us like a tidal wave,” says Villa. “You have to prepare for it, or ignore it at your own peril.”

Makers of pot-laced drinks say they are increasingly fielding calls from their contemporaries in the liquor business about potential partnerships. “Cannabis beverages will become one of the leading ways that people consume cannabis in the years to come, and they are sure to represent a significant percentage of the total adult beverage market,” Aaron Burke, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Monk Provisions, says. Monk Provisions is launching a new line of craft cocktail-inspired, cannabis-infused “drinking botanicals,” made with fresh fruit juices and organic herbs (you know, besides the obvious one).

“Alcohol companies intuitively understand this, have great insight into how to scale a business in the adult beverage space,” Burke says, “They seem to be thinking about how to best position themselves to take advantage of that growth.”

Buds of a Feather

The confluence of these two industries seems like a natural pairing. After all, pot is genetically similar to hops, the bitter-flavored flowering plant used in beer-making. And both industries know a thing or two about prohibition.

The two intoxicants also have some shared history. “The combination of alcohol and cannabis is not a new thing — it was a method that was used in the early apothecary back in the 1800s,” says Warren Bobrow, author of 2015’s “Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics.” Ironically, cannabis “might have been the only ingredient in the early apothecary that actually did anything,” Bobrow says.

But in 2018, this is tricky business. Even in U.S. states where cannabis is legal, mixing alcohol and THC in the same product is still strictly prohibited. (That’s why Bobrow advises all aspiring alcohol-marijuana mixers to try this only at home.)

For traditional brewers, distillers, and vintners who want to add THC to their product lines, this means doing the unthinkable — removing the alcohol altogether.

All of Blue Moon creator Villa’s new THC-spiked beers, for instance, will be non-alcoholic. (Same goes for Monk’s botanicals and Rebel Coast’s wine.) It’s a complication that’s certain to alter the beer’s character beyond just the buzz. “When you remove the alcohol, it definitely changes the mouthfeel, the body,” Villa admits. “So it’s slightly different than regular alcoholic craft beer.”

Despite this, Villa is confident that drinkers will dig his brews anyway. In many ways, he says, the THC is an upgrade on the traditional hooch. “The THC obviously will not make people tired the way that alcohol does,” he says.

Another big perk: no hangover. The happier morning-after is sure to be a major selling point for many cannabis drink makers moving forward.

Villa also plans to take advantage of other specific chemicals in cannabis, known as cannabinoids, beyond just the high-inducing THC. “Since a lot of consumers don’t really know what is in cannabis and what it has to offer, we’ll make it very simple,” he says. For example, the lager will also include an extra cannabinoid that produces an “energetic feeling,” he says. The Belgian white, meanwhile, will include a shot of “blissful happiness,” and the IPA will get a dose of “relaxed sensations.”

Otherwise, Villa says his cannabis beers are designed to closely mimic the normal beer-drinking experience. Unlike the common marijuana edible, which can take an hour or more to fully kick in, sometimes leading the eater to over-consume during the delay, the liquid THC will begin to take effect within minutes, just like drinking a real beer.

Additionally, Villa has selected different levels of THC to match the typical alcohol levels in traditional beer styles. His lager, for instance, will contain a modest amount of THC, on par with the low ABV of a standard light beer. Conversely, his IPA will contain a much higher dose, much like the high-alcohol hop bombs that regular craft beer fans know and love.

“We want it to be really easy for today’s beer drinkers to transition to cannabis,” Villa says.

Pot of Liquid Gold

Turning regular drinkers into cannabis users is a potential goldmine, according to beverage makers.

For a company like Canopy Growth, a major player in Canada’s medical marijuana industry for years, the beverage category offers perhaps even greater promise as a recreational product than the regular smokable dried cannabis flower. “From our business perspective, the flower category is an exercise is conversion,” Canopy Growth spokesperson Jordan Sinclair says. “We have to convert people who are smoking black-market cannabis over to legal cannabis. Illegal cannabis has been around for a long time. We have a pretty good idea of what the market size is. We don’t think that it’ll necessarily grow by leaps and bounds.”

Drinks, on the other hand, offer a “more open-ended” opportunity, Sinclair says. The companies are hoping the drinkable format will “act as a leading edge to convert people to cannabis usage,” he explains. “If you bring something that looks like a bottle of beer to a picnic, and there’s a fizzy sound when you pop the bottle, those sorts of formatting signals can go a long way to having someone try something that maybe they normally wouldn’t.”

Without the usual hazards associated with drinking and smoking, manufacturers can also position their non-alcoholic cannabis drinks as something of a health product, especially if the other ingredients are relatively wholesome and low in sugar. “You can start to see our de facto tagline for this,” says Sinclair. “‘Happy waistline. Happy liver. No hangover.’”

Through its partnership with Constellation Brands, Canopy Growth is taking a different approach to making its cannabis beverages from that of Blue Moon creator Villa and others. The company’s researchers aren’t merely injecting an existing style of adult beverage with liquid Mary Jane. They’re trying to make something new.

“We’re not talking about adding THC to vodka or gin,” Sinclair says. “We’re talking about creating a new category of product where the primary ingredient is cannabinoids rather than alcohol.”

Canada is shaping up to be a major proving ground for legal cannabis in general and cannabis beverages in particular. The Canadian parliament recently voted to fully legalize adult marijuana use nationwide. Recreational sales could begin as soon as September. The Canadian government even provided one company with a $100,000 grant to help make an entirely new style of beer brewed with cannabis instead of traditional barley and grain.

With everything happening up north, American producers are anticipating a ripple effect on the U.S. with more legal reforms and therefore an even bigger market for cannabis beverages down the road.

“So many consumers of legal age in the U.S. are supporting the legalization of recreational cannabis,” says Villa. “And with our neighbors to the north in Canada, it’s going to be federally legal really soon. I just don’t see the United States letting a lot of that tax money not be collected. Who knows? People might soon start vacationing in Canada just for the cannabis aspect, really taking a lot of hard-earned American dollars up north. There are a lot of different pressures on the U.S. government to finally legalize recreational cannabis.”

That’s why Villa and others are hustling to get their cannabis beverages on dispensary shelves now, before the inevitable flood of competitors. “Eventually, the cannabis world will look like the alcohol world, in regards to the legal aspects and the distribution aspects,” he predicts.

Villa is aiming to start selling his cannabis beers in Colorado dispensaries by the end of this year, with California and Nevada to follow in 2019. “And after that, every state where it is legal,” he says.

One thing left for the Blue Moon creator to figure out: what sort of sliced citrus to pair with his new cannabis brews. “We’ll be looking for a really nice way to garnish our beers,” Villa says.

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