Why you should care
Cannabis-infused drinks — alcoholic and nonalcoholic — are set to take over the beverage world.
Alcohol sales in the U.S. are in steady decline — they’ve gone down three years in a row. Experts say health and wellness concerns are turning people away. But brewers may finally have found the savior they’ve been desperately seeking.
Recreational cannabis use is legal in 11 U.S. states, Guam and the District of Columbia. Now, a growing number of path-breaking brewers and other entrepreneurs are adding weed to beverages to offer healthier drinks than regular beer or wine — while retaining the high that consumers seek. In the process, they’re giving birth to an entirely new industry and offering major breweries a lifeline just when their business otherwise appears headed for rocky times.
It’s illegal under regulations of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to mix alcohol and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, in a beverage. But an increasing number of cannabis-infused drinks that stick within the law are emerging across the country, promising to reshape how Americans get their kick.
Nevada-based Two Roots Brewing Company, founded in 2016, sells nonalcoholic THC-infused drinks in five flavors. Colorado-based CERIA Brewing sold its first nonalcoholic cannabis beer in December 2018. It’s now available at 132 marijuana dispensaries across the state. These nonalcoholic beers normally contain between 2.5 and 10 milligrams of THC (medicated gummy bears, for example, each contain 10 milligrams), and so give the drinker a high. Yet they’re good for your expanding waistline, whereas a 12-ounce can of Budweiser has 145 calories. These THC-infused nonalcoholic beers carry half those calories. Cannabis-infused nonalcoholic wines —such as those produced by California’s Rebel Coast Winery are even better — they contain about one-third the number of calories of a glass of regular wine.
The most socially acceptable and responsible form of cannabis consumption is through drinkables.
Keith Villa, CERIA Brewing
For those craving healthier alcohol, some breweries are infusing their drinks with cannabidiol or CBD, the other natural compound found in cannabis and hemp plants but which has no psychoactive effect. Oregon-based Coalition Brewing makes a 5-milligram CBD-infused ‘Two Flowers IPA’ pint with 6 percent alcohol content. These won’t help you avoid calories, but initial research suggests CBD helps control epilepsy, depression, PTSD and other ailments. Meanwhile, research published in July in the journal JAMA Pediatrics also suggested that weed smokers are ready to move to other forms of cannabis consumption where it’s legalized — adding yet another potential market for these companies.
“For us, the most socially acceptable and responsible form of cannabis consumption is through drinkables,” says Keith Villa, the founder of CERIA Brewing. “Beer is really the beverage of the everyday person.”
The challenges for the traditional alcohol industry aren’t going anywhere. A 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that alcohol accounts for one-sixth of the daily caloric intake for the average American. If drinkers in the Czech Republic, the world’s top beer-guzzling country at 143 liters per capita, were to switch to cannabis-infused, nonalcoholic beer (cannabis use was decriminalized there in 2014 though is only legal for medicinal use today), an average person would shed more than 31,000 calories off their annual diet — the equivalent of around 55 Big Macs.
Meanwhile, the global cannabis drinks market is forecast to top $5 billion by 2026. According to food and beverages consultancy Zenith Global, the cannabis drinks market in America is set to grow in value from $89 million last year to $1.4 billion over the next five years; this fall Canada is expected to legalize cannabis-infused beverages nationwide.
It’s not just craft breweries looking to get into weed. In 2017, Dutch beer giant Heineken bought full ownership of California-based Lagunitas Brewing Company, which produces the Hi-Fi Hops range of THC-infused, hop-flavored beverages. Last year, Constellation Brands, the makers of Corona beer and other drinks, invested $4 billion for a 38 percent stake in the Canadian marijuana company Canopy Growth. And last September, The Coca-Cola Co. said that while it had no interest in cannabis, it is “closely watching the growth of nonpsychoactive CBD as an ingredient in functional wellness beverages.”
In addition to CBD-infused alcoholic brews and THC-laced nonalcoholic beverages, there are also drinks that contain CBD but no alcohol. These cannabis mocktails, lemonade shots, coffees and carbonated drinks are already on the market in states where recreational cannabis is legal. They won’t get you high but promise the health benefits of CBD.
For sure, this new industry faces bumps on the road. From a medical perspective, many professionals are wary of overblowing the merits of using cannabis beverages to treat patients. “Low doses [of CBD] can produce therapeutic effects, but, in general, no effects can be observed at higher doses,” says Dr. Alline Cristina de Campos of the University of São Paulo’s department of pharmacology.
But despite challenges, companies are growing more confident. When Colorado-based Dads & Dudes Breweria became America’s first company to gain federal approval for their formula of producing CBD-infused beer three years ago, the DEA summoned them to surrender their formula. They refused to do so and temporarily suspended production of the product while it legally challenged the DEA. But in 2018, the farm bill made hemp cultivation legal. Dads & Dudes started producing its CBD-infused beer again last November. Co-founder Mason Hembree says the DEA’s focus on them was because they’re “the pioneers of this product.”
That may be, but Hembree and the many others who are wetting their feet in this nascent industry are all convinced that an unstoppable cannabis beverage tide is coming soon, no matter what the DEA or other agencies say.