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Brief Published: 3 Jul 2018

The Beverage Buzz: Alcohol-Style THC Drinks

Legal cannabis poses a clear threat to alcohol brands. Now, several companies are developing THC-powered, alcohol-free beverages that look and taste like beer, wine or spirits – positioning cannabis as a direct replacement.

Brands are vying to leverage the newly legal status of recreational cannabis in nine US states and Canada (Canadian legalisation begins in October, but edibles/drinkables will be barred for the first year). They're promoting alcohol-inspired beverages infused with THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) as hangover-free booze alternatives and an easy format for social cannabis consumption. Because the effects of conventional edibles are normally slow to kick in but can last for hours, some producers are also designing their products to mimic the response curve of alcohol.

As explained in A Budding Opportunity: Commercialising Cannabis, different strains of the plant naturally serve as alcohol alternatives for both thrill-seekers and their opposing counterparts, moderate millennials. In Canada, 41% of current/likely recreational cannabis consumers regard it as an alternative to alcohol, according to a new study from Deloitte Canada, which concludes that "all alcohol categories could be affected". A 2017 survey of Californian millennials by local cannabis producer OutCo found 34% would choose cannabis over beer, while 18% would favour it over wine.

We initially discussed this concept in Fluid Flavours, part of our Future of Flavour Industry Trend, pointing to drinks like the alcohol-free sauvignon blanc produced by Rebel Coast Winery in California. Here are five 2018 launches worth tracking:

  • Lagunitas, the California brewery owned by Heineken, has announced an "IPA-inspired" sparkling THC drink called Hi-Fi Hops, described as "bubbly, aromatic, bitter, fruity and herbaceous". Unlike beer, the drink is zero-calorie and carb-free – key selling points. Lagunitas is partnering with cannabis-oil producer ABX, whose infusion method is designed to ensure even dispersion of THC. Packaged in childproof cans, Hi-Fi Hops will come in a 10mg THC version and another containing 5mg of THC and 5mg of CBD (the non-psychoactive component). It's set to launch in California this summer.
  • Colorado-based Ceria was launched this year by Keith Villa, former longtime head brewmaster at US brewery Molson Coors' Blue Moon Brewing brand. Villa plans a line of THC drinks that will be brewed like beer and then de-alcoholised. He's working with Colorado cannabinoid research company Ebbu, which has developed formulations intended to produce specific results (from energising to chilling out). The water-soluble formats have the same onset time as alcohol. Villa says the products will be available by year-end. 
  • Toronto start-up Province Brands of Canada plans to launch a line of beers brewed from the cannabis plant itself, plus a non-alcoholic barley-based beer infused with cannabis oil. The drinks will incorporate an accelerant to speed up the onset of intoxicating effects, as well as a proprietary decelerant.
  • Two Roots Brewing, from San Diego-based company Cannabiniers, is preparing a beer that will be de-alcoholised and then infused with micro-doses of THC – enabling consumption of several bottles without overdoing it. The company says the electrolyte-filled non-alcoholic beer is healthy – akin to a sports drink – and that such products will help negate any fears still associated with cannabis edibles. The five varieties (a lager, stout, IPA, blonde ale and wheat beer) will launch initially in Nevada.
  • Toronto-based Tinley Beverage Company is producing alcohol-free, THC-infused coconut rum, amaretto extract and cinnamon whiskey extract, as well as a ready-to-drink “margarita” designed to deliver a level of psychoactive intensity comparable to a traditional cocktail. The drinks are currently sold in California.
Two Roots
Corporate-backed products will be joining these brands on the shelf. After taking a 10% stake in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth in 2017, Fortune 500 alcohol company Constellation Brands is now developing cannabis-based beverages. Molson Coors is reportedly exploring similar plans in Canada.

Expect more alcohol brands to follow. Americans already believe regular marijuana use is less risky health-wise than regular alcohol consumption (Marist College, 2017). In the recreationally legal era, as cannabis comes to be perceived as a natural wellness product, products like these are likely to supplement or replace their alcoholic counterparts.