The cannabis beverage industry is poised to gain incremental market share over the coming years. According BDSA, Boulder, CO, cannabis beverage sales in the regulated dispensary channel will reach $1 billion by 2022, seeing over 15 percent year-over-year growth.
The current alcohol-alternative cannabis beverage market holds particularly great potential for two distinct demographic markets: those seeking an alcohol-free alternative infused with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and sometimes accompanying cannabidiol (CBD), and people seeking an intoxicant-free health-forward CBD-infused beverage.
In a mirror of the alcohol industry, social consumption of such beverages is a key occasion. Cannabis consumption establishments like lounges and cafés continue to establish locations in key markets like California, Colorado, Nevada, and Illinois.
The current pandemic will end, and the cannabis market continues to thrive. And the eventual full reopening of society will catalyze growth in this fast-maturing industry.
courtesy of Pabst Labs
The larger teetotaler movement is bigger than cannabis, and it is fueling growth of alcohol-free adult beverages. “There is definitely a move away from alcohol toward other plant-based ingredients that provide pleasurable sensations,” Keith Villa, Ph.D., brewmaster and co-founder, CERIA Brewing Co., Arvada, CO. “We saw at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis a trend toward stronger infusions, and now that seems to have moderated toward lower-dosed, even microdosed, cannabis beverages.”
CERIA Brewing offers non-alcoholic Grainwave Belgian-style white and Indiewave IPA-style beers, including dealcoholized products infused with THC. Grainwave has 5 mg THC, and Indiewave has 10 mg THC. The beverages are available in the Colorado market.
“As far as beer is concerned, our consumers seek a quick onset time for the cannabis to take effect, consistency in doses from can to can, great taste (which never goes out of style), and a low- or microdosed beverage they can enjoy without overindulging,” says Villa.
courtesy of Hemp You Can Feel
Top beer companies, including Constellation Brands, Molson Coors, and Anheuser-Busch InBev, have entered into cannabis beverage R&D in the Canadian market. Heineken International and its Lagunitas brand have made a mark in the U.S. industry, with its Hi-Fi Hops brand—Unplugged, with 2 mg THC and 18 mg CBD, and Tuner, with 5 mg THC and 5 mg CBD—in the Colorado and California markets. In October, Pabst Labs released an independently licensed Pabst Blue Ribbon Cannabis Seltzer, infused with 5 mg THC, for the California market.
“In 2020, people are looking for non-alcoholic alternatives to their beverage repertoire,” says Stacy Primack, culinary director, SōRSE Technology, Seattle. “With COVID coming into play this year, we are experiencing higher levels of anxiety. There has been an increase in CBD for its anecdotal therapeutic benefits and relief.”
With CBD beverages, major driving factors for products include a focus on holistic health and wellness, natural/clean labels, energy, and sugar-free or low-calorie, says Primack. “Sparkling waters are all the rage, some with flavoring, some with hydrating properties like added electrolytes. Energy drinks are still also top-of-mind—just as much as something to unwind and relax.” She points to flavor trends like citrus, citrus-cucumber, berry, hibiscus, jasmine, and coconut.
Tinley’s Beverage Co. has taken a flavor-forward approach with its cannabis-infused beverages. Its High Horse features spicy ginger and lime, while Stone Daisy combines blue agave and lime. Both products tout use of the Pineapple Jack cannabis strain in the formulation, with 5 mg THC per bottle. Tinley’s also offers cannabis-infused elixirs in Coconut Cask (Caribbean-style tropical coconut), Almond Cask (Italian-style almond and apricot), and Cinnamon Cask (spicy cinnamon).
CBD cocktails continue to attract attention. In August, Cannabis Global Inc. launched the Hemp You Can Feel brand, CBD-infused cocktail and soda syrup products in Margarita Jalapeño, Skinny Classic Cosmopolitan, and Hibiscus Mint Lemon, with each offering 1 mg hemp extract per serving.
Product segmentation often centers on consumer need states and use occasions. “When you are searching out a CBD beverage specifically, most likely you are looking for something relaxing, therapeutic, and possibly to sleep,” says Primack. “Consumers want something that is easy enough to add to their daily routine.”
For THC-infused options, beverages offer a way to consume cannabis easily—and with a potentially faster lift-off time than some other edibles.
Sometimes, the right fit involves the best of both worlds. “For some consumers, a variation of CBD with THC is a great choice, as it offers the ‘high,’ as well as a counterbalance, providing a more even-keeled effect,” says Primack.
courtesy of Ceria
Villa opts for cans vs. bottles to package his CERIA Brewing products. “Cans are lighter weight, and are permitted where is glass is not allowed, such as at a beach or poolside.” Cans are also cost-effective.
However, cannabinoids like THC and CBD can stick to can liners and unintentionally lead to lower doses in the product, notes Villa, potentially causing a labeling violation—unless properly controlled.
This is an issue known as “scalping,” where the hydrophobic liner inside the cans can attract the cannabinoids, potentially absorbing up to 97 percent of them very quickly, says Primack. “Liners have been in place in these cans to protect from rust, remove an otherwise metallic taste, and to ensure the gas that comes out of the can is low for a carbonated beverage.”
Opting for cannabinoid infusion via a stable, water-soluble solution mitigates the issue, says Villa. “With a high-quality emulsion, the cannabis remains in suspension rather than adhering to can liners.”
Distribution and environmental concerns likewise favor cans. “Bottles are heavier and not as easily recyclable,” says Villa. “CRE (child-resistant ends) are required on every can we produce. It consists of a plastic cap that has to be cracked open with a degree of force children are unable to achieve.”
It is imperative that product developers use child-resistant measures, notes Primack. “With SōRSE’s licensed THC partner, Green Med Labs, our glass bottles have a non-twist-off crown cap. The PET bottles for our 100 mg THC beverage, MAJOR, have the ‘pressure, push, and turn’ child-safe cap plus heat-shrink labels.”
courtesy of Tinley Beverage
Villa illustrates some key quality-control factors for CERIA products: “The process starts with a well-respected infusion and canning facility that has met all state guidelines. Every can is pasteurized to ensure product stability and safety. The amount of THC or CBD is measured and verified in each batch. An independent, state-certified laboratory is used for quality control before the product is released to the market. Once on the shelves, CERIA products are spot-checked to make sure quality, including taste, is consistent.”
Processors should follow existing FDA beverage production guidelines in order to yield consistent and safe products, notes Primack. Cannabis-infused beverages need homogenous, even distribution of cannabinoids. “The first sip should be exactly like the last sip,” she says.
Flavor presents its own nuances with cannabis-infused beverages, which can sometimes feature noticeable grassy notes or an herbaceous earthiness, says Primack. “Broad or full spectrum provides users with more of the plant’s other compounds, such as terpenes, flavonoids, and other cannabinoids possibly giving the consumer synergistic effects. Isolate-based beverages will give you a cleaner taste profile.”
Demand for cannabis-infused beverages is on the upswing, says Villa. “Of course, federal approval would be a game-changer and lead to explosive growth. But, until then, we’re pleased about increased consumer awareness—the category is catching on. No matter what your tolerance level for cannabis, there’s a dosage just right for you.”