The cannabis beverage market is expected to reach $2 Billion by 2026 and is growing at a rapid pace. In Canada, the market share of infused beverages grew nearly 850% since 2020, according to a recent Headset report, the trend is expected to follow in the States. Some traditional beverage companies are hesitant to jump in due to the niche branding and supply chain models needed to capture significant market share. Other adult beverage companies such as Vita Coco and Pabst are dipping their toes into the cannabis beverage market to capture early market opportunities.
Sales and marketing agencies like Petalfast, with a core team stemming from the natural foods and beverage industries, have already started cracking the code for cannabis brands by implementing systems straight out of those industry’s playbooks. This includes disrupting the CA market by becoming the first to implement a traditional three-tier distribution model.
We caught up with Jason Vegotsky, CEO of Petalfast to learn more about the cannabis beverage distribution market. Prior to Petalfast, Jason was Chief Revenue Officer at KushCo Holdings (now Greenlane Holdings), a role he took on after selling his butane supply company to KushCo.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Jason Vegotsky: I began my career in wine and spirits distribution, but I always knew I wanted to work for myself. My first foray into launching a business, raising capital and brand building was through my beef jerky company, Lawless Jerky, which I built and sold after five years. Drawing on my food and beverage experience, I quickly entered and understood the cannabis market. I launched a company called Summit Innovations that sold butane to producers making oil. I eventually sold Summit to KushCo Holdings, Inc. (now known as Greenlane Holdings, Inc.) and became their President and Chief Revenue Officer. Through that experience, I began to notice gaps in the cannabis distribution model. Petalfast was built to fill that gap, providing clients with exceptional go-to-market strategies, leading to increased revenue and customer loyalty.
Green: How does experience in natural foods and traditional beverages translate to the cannabis industry?
Vegotsky: The route-to-market strategy is similar to that of cannabis, and the industry can benefit from the knowledge and experiences of those who work in natural foods and beverages. The extensive regulatory history and long-standing distribution models of these industries can provide a framework that those in the cannabis industry can capitalize on.
Green: What is the current distribution model for the majority of cannabis beverage companies today?
Vegotsky: Cannabis beverage companies face significant regulatory hurdles regarding distribution. Transportation restrictions, state-by-state differences in THC serving sizes and packaging requirements, retail display and storage limitations, and consumer adoption are just a few examples of what cannabis beverage brands run into when looking to enter, compete or scale in a given market.
At Petalfast, we offer a tiered distribution model, and our clients get phenomenal distribution through our logistics partner, Nabis. Products are circulated to all of California’s dispensaries and delivery services, allowing brands to focus on what matters most: creating the highest quality cannabis products on the market.
Green: What is a three-tier distribution model? Why do you think the cannabis beverage market is ripe for this model?
Vegotsky: The three-tier distribution model is commonly deployed by alcohol and other traditional food and beverage companies as it provides each tier to scale their operations and focus on their specific services. The three tiers include the brand, the wholesaler (sales + distribution), and the retailer in this distribution model. Because cash flow is such a significant challenge in the cannabis industry, adding an extra tier by separating your distribution and sales is advantageous to brands as it decreases overhead and allows brands to have the ability to scale.
Green: What are the opportunities for smaller brands looking to carve out a niche?
Vegotsky: One of the benefits of working in an emerging market is the opportunity to get in on the ground floor, learn as much as possible about the industry and find where gaps exist. Brand building in this space requires a deep understanding of the consumer and the overall culture — something that most brands are still trying to crack. If a smaller brand can effectively target a base within a distinct product category, it can be very effective in scaling within its niche.
Green: With big players from adult beverages dipping their toes in the cannabis beverage space, is consolidation inevitable?
Vegotsky: At a certain level, yes. Well-established companies will seek out acquisitions of smaller, successful companies, especially ones that are capital constrained, but buyers need to be aware that capital alone will not be enough. The culture of cannabis is very different from alcohol or other adjacent beverage categories, so the success of these big players in adult beverages will be linked to their ability to locate and understand the consumer and implement branding strategies accordingly. Adult beverage companies entering the cannabis market must also realize that the flow of product to retailers is not the same as in alcohol, so they will need to adjust accordingly. The cannabis-infused beverage market is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, so alcohol companies looking to join this movement should start exploring their options now.
Green: What trends are you following in cannabis beverages? What does the future of cannabis beverages look like?
Vegotsky: Canna-tourism has grown to a $17 billion industry. With the rise in cannabis-infused beverages, we’re seeing an increase in creative consumption offerings, from tastings and food and beverage pairings to dispensary tours and bud-and-breakfasts.
Cannabis beverages are attractive to newcomers as they allow for easier control of the effects. Businesses that provide an experience similar to that of a wine or brewery tour can capitalize on new consumers looking to explore the benefits of cannabis in a controlled environment.
The modern consumer is also more health conscious, and with the increased availability of legal cannabis, many are replacing alcoholic beverages with the plant. There has been a reported decrease in alcohol consumption since the 1980s, and many now believe cannabis is safer than alcohol. This belief is especially prevalent among younger generations, leading to more users incorporating cannabis-infused beverages into their daily lives. How we socialize or unwind at the end of the day will start to look different, and brands will become market leaders by speaking to the varied needs of consumers.
Green: How does the industry get there?
Vegotsky: For one, federal decriminalization and removing cannabis as a Schedule I drug on the controlled substances list would help. Cannabis companies don’t have access to the traditional marketing playbook to promote their brands due to TV advertising and social media restrictions. To build brand awareness, businesses should focus efforts on the retail level. Engaging with consumers in-store allows brands to grab their attention and drive faster sales until other avenues open up. At Petalfast, we decided to invest in field and trade marketing to bring brands to life at the retail level. We do this better than anybody else, and we do it at scale.
California is the fastest-growing cannabis beverage market, according to a recent Headset report. The count of beverage product offerings in California has grown quickly, nearly doubling from 2020 to 2021. As of December 2021, there were approximately 530 distinct cannabis beverage offerings.
Mocktails have been a growing product category within the cannabis beverage segment. Klaus, headed up by Warren Bobrow, the “Cocktail Whisperer,” recently entered the California market with their ready-to-drink THC cocktail, Mezzrole, a unique terpene-forward beverage with three simple culinary-grade ingredients.
We caught up with Warren to learn more about his path to the cannabis industry and his inspiration for Mezzrole. Warren is a multi-published author of six books including “Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics” and has contributed to publications such as Forbes and Skunk Magazine. After the loss of his fresh pasta business in Hurricane Hugo, he worked in banking for 20 years before reinventing himself and following his passions—becoming a bar back to bartender and master mixologist and penning his six cocktail-focused books. Warren crafted Klaus with knowledge gained from years of experience in the mixology and culinary worlds and with his strong enthusiasm for cannabis.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Warren Bobrow: It was a happenstance, and it was something that I never considered before. I was working in the traditional liquor industry, and because liquor is inherently a poisonous substance, I was slowly poisoning myself and my mind with the alcohol. I made a conscious decision back in July of 2018 – I was down to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans – and I said, “this is my last drink.” I was halfway through a Hemingway, which is absolutely my favorite cocktail to have and that’s what I was known for. That’s the drink that paved the way to a wonderful career on-premises and off-premises doing brand ambassadorship and being a named person within the liquor industry. As with all great careers, this one had to come to an end, or I was going to die because liquor was poisoning me. I was probably about 75 pounds heavier than I am right now. I just didn’t feel myself and I was going to be sick.
So, I decided to take my knowledge of cannabis, which was something that I’ve enjoyed since I was 12 years old – I am 61 now – and put it to use for me in this book, Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails and Tonics. My first book, Apothecary Cocktails, really did pave the way. I wanted to include cannabis in my early books, but my publisher wouldn’t let me. It just wasn’t time until 2015 when I wrote Cannabis Cocktails, which is all based on the early apothecary. The inspiration for writing the book certainly was from being down in New Orleans and going to the Pharmacy Museum. They had an exhibition of cannabis in the early apothecary, and I knew immediately what I was going to do with the rest of my life. There you have it!
Green: It seems like it was a sharp cut off with the alcohol industry
Bobrow: Yes, like one day to the next, literally. It was absolute. I made the decision; I came back to New Jersey, and I never drank again. I drink a little beer and wine, but I haven’t had a distilled drink in years.
Green: How did the concept for Klaus come about? Was it something that you always had in the back of your mind?
Bobrow: The idea for creating a cannabis infused beverage came from being incarcerated in New York City for smoking cannabis in the street and being taken out of commission for 48 hours, I knew that if I was drinking a cannabis infused beverage like Klaus, which is the one that I created in California, no one would know my business. Of course, when this happened, it was in the early 2000s, so the technology and the pretense just weren’t available yet. But it did put something in my mind. If I was to create a cannabis-infused beverage using my knowledge and experience as a master mixologist, the fear of consuming cannabis would be diminished.
If you look at the book, Cannabis Cocktails, and you see the recipes, they’re not for the meek. They’re really meant for a medical community – someone who needs to really eliminate pain, if you will. Cocktails in the book started at about 250 milligrams of THC, whereas with Klaus they’re 10 milligrams, Two different stories completely!
My inspiration for creating Klaus certainly was from the gnome [Warren displays Klaus, The Gnome]. He’s a star and he’s been all over the world with me. I don’t know why I first started traveling with him. Maybe it’s because he was sitting up there up on my mantle and he told me that he wanted to go out on the road with me. I was traveling all over the world as a rum judge for the Ministry of Rum and for Rum XP. We just show up at food events. I’m a trained chef, I love going to the Fancy Food Show in New York City, and I’d meet people and they invite me out to see their places. Then I started writing for Forbes and I don’t know, my career has been up and down. I’ve tried to follow my dreams ever since I left the corporate world in May of 2009.
Green: Let’s talk about the product.
Bobrow: I just have one SKU right now, which is the Mezzrole named for Mezz Mezzrow, Louis Armstrong’s weed dealer. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all real.
Green: First, how did you land on the flavor profile?
Bobrow: For someone who’s a rum head like myself, we used to drink rum for breakfast. That’s how you become a rum head. The Mezzrole is based on a Ti’ Punch, which is the national drink of Martinique. Ti’ Punch is usually made in Martinique with rum Agricole, which is a sugar cane-based rum rather than a molasses-based rum. It’s the freshly pressed sugar cane rum before it ferments so it has a lovely floral quality and it’s 100 proof. There’s nothing weak about it!
A Ti’ Punch is freshly squeezed lime quarters, the 100 proof Agricole – one or two ounces – and cane sugar syrup stirred usually with your finger like my old friend Gaz Regan, who’s no longer with us, used to do it. He was known for his finger stirred negronis. I would do it preferably in a clean glass and there’s no ice involved because if you’re on a sailboat, you probably don’t have ice anyway. So, it’s potent. It’s a very potent drink. That’s the basis of the Mezzrole.
The Mezzrole contains a single strain of cannabis. We used a craft, land-raised strain called Hippie Crasher. It’s an indica leaning hybrid that is terpene forward. The Mezzrole utilizes the terpene aromatics of the cannabis strain. So, we have this gorgeous French lime puree that I get made from limes that are sourced down in Martinique. They have a certain oily quality to them and they’re very pungent. They’re very citrus forward and very flavorful.
Then, I’m using a ginger syrup that’s made in what I would say is a Great Britain or Jamaican style called Picketts. It’s from Denver, Colorado. My old friend Matt Pickett, and his late brother Jim created it. Jim was the bartender for Malcolm Forbes on his yacht, the Highlander, when they had it in the waters between me and Palm Beach, or wherever they happened to be on the island. Jim crafted this incredible ginger syrup, which is really authentic. And in later years, it became the Pickett’s ginger syrup that I would use in this beverage because I’m paying homage to Matt’s brother by using his extra hot and spicy ginger syrup in here along with the French lime purée.
The final element – there are only three flavor elements [besides the cannabis] – is rice vinegar. Rice vinegar in this case is something called mirin. There are two different types of mirin. There’s the sweet mirin and then there’s the dry mirin, and Mezzrole utilizes the dry mirin. I didn’t want to add any sugar. Mezzrole is six tenths of a gram of sugar for the entire can, which is eight ounces, 16 calories.
So, to recap, each can of Mezzrole is eight fluid ounces, six tenths of a gram of sugar, ginger, lime and rice vinegar with THC infusion. And it’s not a seltzer!
Green: What was special to you about the Ti’ Punch?
Bobrow: My family had a yacht, and we would go places in the Caribbean. One of the places we would go in the Caribbean was Down Island and they would have drinks like the Ti’ Punch. I remember that it was emblazoned in my brain. It was a drink that got me drunk. It was what sailors did; they got drunk. And you would get drunk on drinks that go back to the days of the pirates, because they probably didn’t have ice on the sailing vessels. So, why should a couple million-dollar yacht make any difference? We had icemakers, but you drink the drink without ice. You drink it like it was drunk in the age of sailing.
I wanted to reinterpret the Ti’ Punch and bring credence and life to that drink by bringing it to life in the Mezzrole. But the Mezzrole has another story behind it entirely. That’s because Mezz Mezzrow, who was a jazz head during the jazz era, brought between two and 4,000 pounds of cannabis up from Mexico, and sold it in Detroit, Chicago and Harlem during the early days of jazz. He made quite a name for himself. At the time, cannabis was not illegal on a national level yet. If you were to ask for a joint or reefer, you might become detained by the police, especially if you were Black. Not only were the police at that time incredibly anti-jazz and anti-Black and anti-cannabis, but they were just anti people having fun! So there had to be code names and a well-rolled cannabis cigarette was known as a “Mezzrole” and that’s what I named the cocktail after.
I’m paying homage to Louis, and I’m friendly with Louis’ daughter, Sharon. She’s the daughter that no one ever knew about. It’s a very interesting story. We’re hopefully going to do something together. I find great inspiration in jazz, and we wanted to pay homage to the role of characters in jazz by creating a beverage that hopefully wouldn’t get us arrested.
Green: Can you walk me through your choice of strain for the beverage?
Bobrow: I work with a company named Vertosa. They are the magicians in the world of nanotechnology emulsions. They’re scientists like yourself, who are upper intellects who dream in color. And the colors that they’ve chosen are the colors of the plant. So, they’ve enlivened the plant chemically through their process. I’m not privy to that process, but I’ll tell you it works. Their emulsion is gorgeous stuff. I just chose the emulsion for my next two SKUs and it’s exactly what I was looking for. It’s slightly bitter, it has depth and character, and we haven’t even added the terpenes in yet. So, it’s well balanced, and it will work exceptionally well with the craft ingredients that I’m working with. I don’t use industrialized ingredients, these are all bartending ingredients, if you will. We do 5,000 can production runs with bartending ingredients. It’s incredible food science. I love it.
Green: What was behind your decision in adding the terpene flavors?
Bobrow: What makes that interesting is no one else is doing it. So, we’re the first again! Not only did I write the first book on cannabis, and cocktails, and tonics, and all that stuff, but I created the first beverage that actually smells like cannabis. So, when you’re drinking one of my beverages, and you drink down maybe a quarter inch, and you put your nose right over the top and smell it, it smells just like the plant along with that ginger and the lime and that tangy quality of the mirin. And it’s spicy. It has an herbaceous quality to it. It’s really uncanny.
Green: Were there any challenges in working with terpenes in a beverage?
Bobrow: Yes, there’s always challenges. First off, I’m here in New Jersey, and the company that I’m working with is in California, so they can’t send me anything. So, I work very closely with a food scientist named Chris Anderson who did my scalability, and he’s absolutely brilliant. His palate mimics my own. I don’t want a sweet beverage. I want a tangy beverage. I want something that has balanced quality and fun and it makes you want to dance. I’m not looking for something to put me to sleep. That’s not my goal in life. Life is very short, and you want to have a beverage that is talkative and doesn’t get you totally destroyed. There are beverages out on the market that have 500 milligrams of THC called syrups. They’re absolutely delicious, but they’re so destructive because they want you to put them in a sugary beverage and drink the whole thing down.
I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t drink like a kid. I drink with sophisticated flavors and make beverages that are memorable. People come to me – and have since the early part of 2009 – and they say things like, “That’s the best cocktail I’ve ever had in my life. How do you do that?” My aim in life is to ruin people for their bartender because I expose all the things that our bartenders are doing to rip them off.
I started as a bar back and I worked my way up. I went to this guy named Chris James, who was working at The Ryland Inn running their beverage program. I needed a job, and he hired me as this bar back for a year and they kicked my butt. After that I could write about this stuff with knowledge and not just with something I read in a book. There’s a lot to be said for education and going to bartending school. There’s also a lot to be said for cutting your own ice and squeezing your own juice and taking out the trash.
Green: What are some of the challenges you are facing at Klaus?
Bobrow: We’re hoping to do a Series A round of financing. I wonder who would be interested in lending to us or giving us money or investing in us. I always wonder why anyone would be interested in any of this! But I have a talent and a passion, and I know that it will take me to the next step in life. I’ve waited and been very patient. I have massive shoes to fill, and I’m so committed to being ambitious.
I was an executive assistant in a Trust Bank for 20 years. I put my life on hold for others because they wanted to make an example out of me. I never became the person that my parents wanted me to become. They wanted me to become a lawyer and I didn’t have the aptitude for that. I had the aptitude for being a creative soul and a creative mind. It just took me 20 years longer to be able to achieve that.
I consider myself the luckiest man in the world because I did work for the C-suite and for the top of the house and I sold wine to them when I worked on the nights and weekends in a wine store. My customers were the presidents and “kingmakers of the world.” Here in Northern New Jersey, if nothing else, it’s pretty affluent. So, I’ve long been accustomed to coming from that environment. I know what that environment means and the importance of that environment. I had to figure out how to make it myself because I was, in polite parley, “disowned.” So, I am self-made, and I have a great product that I’ve created out of nowhere. It’s hopefully going to allow me to figure out what the next step will be in my life. I want to make this a national name.
Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis beverage space?
Bobrow: I’ve had some good ones. I’ve had some okay ones. And I’ve had some that are just, I don’t know. I’m a cook. I’m a saucier. I love flavors. I’m trained in France. I cook. It’s a lifelong thing. I started as a dishwasher, and I worked my way up. I’ve traveled the world eating.
I’ll tell you, if you don’t know flavors, you can’t put anything together. And if you don’t know what goes into making a beverage that’s different than what anyone else is doing in the world, then you don’t deserve to be in this business because it’s highly competitive and people play for keeps. If I only get one chance to capture people’s imagination, it comes with this beverage right here [Warren holds up a can of Mezzrole].
Green: What’s next for Klaus?
Bobrow: I hope to be doing Klaus Nein. It’s a terpene forward, non-cannabis infused craft beverage. It doesn’t have any THC, so I can sell it everywhere. I caught the travel bug years ago, when I was traveling all over the world for the rum business. And I got it back again. I hate that the world became such a small place during COVID. Because it really is a big place. And it’s a place that I need to explore more of. Stay tuned!
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Bobrow: You know, it’s funny. I think everyone that I come across I can learn something from. My teachers at Emerson and later at MIT, where I spent a fitful year, taught me that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I certainly was the most inquisitive. So, I want to be known as someone who has pretty good listening skills. I also have great skills in the way of trying to draw out answers from people. So, I have a lot to learn and I’m excited about the opportunity of learning. If I can share a little bit of my knowledge with other people within the industry and they respect me for what I’ve achieved, then I’ll be a much happier person. I’m already happy. I’m very lucky. I am the luckiest guy in the room.
Green: Thank you Warren. That concludes the interview!
Hangovers are one of the aftereffects often experienced with spirits. Who doesn’t love a good martini or a refreshing margarita? One company is on a mission bring the flavor profile and buzz of spirited drinks without the negative consequences.
Like this article and want to see more? Subscribe to our free newsletter hereMXXN is a California-based cannabis infused beverage manufacturer specializing in 1:1 non-alcoholic replacements for everyone’s favorite spirits, enhanced with a touch of cannabis. By combining new technology in cannabis oil nano emulsions and alt-alcohol, MXXN is able to create flavor matching spirits sold by the 750 mL bottle. MXXN recently launched with three product SKUs including London Dry (gin), Jalisco Agave (tequila) and Kentucky Oak (bourbon) with a rum replacement due to launch soon.
We caught up with Darnell Smith, founder & CEO of MXXN, to ask about the technology going into infused non-alcoholic spirits, regulatory challenges and more. Prior to MXXN, Darnell was a spirits industry veteran, having worked with companies including Diageo, Pernod-Ricard and Bacardi.
Aaron Green: Darnell, nice to meet you. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Darnell Smith: For me, it wasn’t something that was premeditated, in a sense. I had always been a cannabis user in my adult life. I played Division I sports. Cannabis replaced a lot of painkillers and medications that I probably would have had to take just to cope with athletic injuries. That’s how I got introduced to cannabis. And there is the recreational use of it as well.
To get to the origin story of MXXN, I spent a large part of my career working in spirits, namely, on the innovation and commercialization side of bringing new products to market under very well-known trademarks for large multinational companies. A few years into it, my liver was kind of at a point where it was like, “It’s gonna be you or me here, buddy.” So, I made the decision to start making – this is 15 years ago, in New York – a tincture where I would just heat up flower and decarb it and soak it in a high proof spirit. I would cover it for 30 days then strain it and have my tincture.
I’d be the guy in the bar, that would say “Hey, can I get a tonic and lime?” and I would put three drops of my tincture in there, and I would session cocktails along with everyone else. Next day at work, I’m the guy that’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and everyone else is kind of feeling a little bit weathered by that alcohol.
Innovation is usually born out of a personal need and that’s the same way here. So, fast forward 15 years and the technology has finally caught up. The rise of non-alcoholic spirits, the rise of cannabis and water-soluble emulsification, those two things combined really made the light bulb go off and say now is the time to offer this product. I feel like MXXN has a very specific place in our consumption of beverages and can fill a unique need that I think is rising.
Green: I’m interested in learning about the technology and the product. We can start with the technology that went into the product development process. I’ll go on to product next.
Smith: From a technical standpoint, up until a few years ago, the way that edibles were made was basically like raw extraction. There was very little ability to be precise about dosage. It was like trying to throw softballs through a chain-link fence. Non-uniformity made it very hard to say, “Here’s how this is going to affect you.” Fast forward and companies like Vertosa and Source have perfected this kind of nano-emulsion technology, which is basically water-suspended cannabis that can uniformly be used in food, beverage and cosmetic applications. And it’s akin to trying to throw sand through a chain-link fence. It’s just much smaller. It can remain more uniform, and thereby be more predictable in terms of dosage and effect.
So, that technology made it possible for us to then combine it with another wave that’s happening, which in the spirits industry is called alt-alcohol. What we do is distill all the flavor essences of well-known spirits and skip the alcohol. We then add the emulsified cannabis in place of the alcohol. And so with that, we offer a new kind of experience which is basically all the buzz but none of the booze. That’s really where technology-wise things have evolved. The rise of the non-alcoholic spirits and then the rise of being able to do water-soluble compatible cannabinoid emulsions.
Green: Are you selling this then as packaged goods or are you selling it as bladders similar to Coca-Cola in a bar setting?
Smith: This is a CPG packaged product and it really is analogous to a 750 ML spirits bottle similar to Tito’s or Grey Goose. The form factor is the same as spirits bottles, same 750 ML bottle. It doses just like a spirit would. Standard spirit pour is an ounce and a half. For us, an ounce and a half shot has six milligrams of THC.
For the average consumer, you can session cocktails and we give you the option to dose between two and six milligrams between a half ounce and an ounce and a half pour. So, it’s very analogous to what people are experienced in when it comes to spirits from the bottle to the dosage and to the actual recipes. We pride ourselves on being able to demystify something that has been a little bit complex in terms of making cannabis-infused cocktails. We are sticking close to what people are familiar with. People have a lot of experience with tequila or gin or bourbon and so we wanted to stay very familiar but also give people a chance to make the same recipes but sans alcohol.
Green: What kind of flavor profiles are you launching with?
Smith: We’re launching with three SKUs. Our first is London Dry, which is our take on a gin and that one has cucumber, juniper, coriander, and a nice peppery finish. We have Jalisco Agave, which is our take on a tequila or Mezcal. You have notes of agave, flint, salt, oak, and vanilla. And then the last one is Kentucky Oak, which is our version of a bourbon or whiskey. There you have charred oak, vanilla, and other flavor components that make up what bourbon is.
Now we have a rum in development that’s nearing the end of a robust R&D pipeline. We have some other options like ready-to-drink cocktails made with MXXN to more high-dose products for what we consider the “legacy consumer” who is maybe more medically inclined in the hopes of being able to give people more options when it comes to consumption of flavored spirits.
Green: On the cannabis side, with the infusions that you’re doing, is it pure THC or are you doing full spectrum?
Smith: Yes, full-spectrum cannabinoid. You’ll notice some beverage brands have what we consider a hybrid, some THC and some CBD. For us, and for the effects that we wanted to have the product to have we stuck with a THC-forward blend. There is a trace of CBD in there, but we don’t even claim it. It’s not something that we go forward with. Our emulsion is THC-based.
Green: Where are you at today in terms of the launch and presence?
Smith: We just finished a pilot test here in California. We started late-January, early-February and we’ve been selling direct-to-consumer. Just order and you can have it at your door in 24 hours for about 85% of the state. We’ve blown through our entire pilot run. Now we are entering into what we consider our launch phase which will be available in select retailers late-July. We are gearing up for our next big production run here in mid-July. We are basically all systems go.
At the same time, we’re exploring multi-state expansion. We have a lot of interest in states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and we’re having constant conversations with partners in those states to help bring the product to market.
Green: Have you looked at lounges?
Smith: Lounges have been our biggest traction as we start the retail rollout. We literally just started the dispensary piece of what we’re doing last month. And this is by design. First, we wanted to go direct-to-consumers for proof of concept to make sure we weren’t, you know, saying the story to ourselves. I think just by the performance of the pilot run and direct-to-consumer sales, we proved okay, this is a viable concept.
So as we go out, our number one targets are obviously establishments that also are connected to or have connections with a consumption lounge. There aren’t a ton at this point. They’re still kind of proliferating. But I will tell you the moment we walk into one of these accounts is like a no-brainer because it allows this account to offer a whole new experience. When it comes to consumption lounges in terms of great cocktails you already know: gin and tonics, margaritas, paloma, with no real education required on the part of who’s ever going to be serving. We basically take 20 retailers a month in chunks and so far of the 15-20 that we’ve done, four or five of them have consumption lounges and you’ll see it in those very soon.
Green: Are there any challenges there with dosing in a lounge where the onus is on the operator to dose? How do the regulations work there?
Smith: It’s similar to alcohol, right? As an establishment, you have a responsibility to kind of pay attention to what’s happening as the consumer is consuming. Typically, most of the legislation that was written is for an inhaled consumption lounge. Ingestibles weren’t necessarily considered heavily when it came to legislation. What we tell folks is you have the same responsibilities you would if you were a bartender. Our recommended pour in consumption lounges is a lighter dose. This way, the customer has a chance to start low and go slow, and really recognize how it’s going to affect them.
Legally, there is no firm guidance on what overconsumption looks like for the typical consumer. So, we tell folks you have to kind of get a feel for who the consumer is. If they’re curious person who doesn’t have a lot of experience with cannabis, we typically recommend not to exceed a five-milligram serve per sitting until you figure out how it’s going to affect them. However, if you have very high dose legacy consumers, who buy and drink these 100-milligram single-serve bottles it’s a different story. You kind of need to gauge that from consumer to consumer, and what their tolerance level is. A lot of onus is on the consumption lounge. And I think that’s why they’ve kind of been slow to really roll out how they deal with beverages, because it’s just a different beast. It’s absorbed differently by the body from inhalable products
Green: What trends are you looking at in the industry?
Smith: I love seeing more food-based options. Edibles to this point have been mostly candies and gummies and I see the trend going to more high-end, curated food selections. I think that’s super interesting. The condiments that go into cooking is a category that I’m keeping an eye on. I came across a THC and CBD-infused Siracha sauce the other day and I was like, “wow, this is fantastic!”
In the beverage space, there continues to be innovation, which we are on the forefront of. There’s a point of saturation that’s going to come for how many seltzers can exist in the market at the same time. And I think we’re kind of reaching that point. So, it’s going to be incumbent upon the beverage space to continue to innovate.
I’m also watching where things go with hemp-derived THC, the Delta-8s and those things and how is that going to be dealt with when it comes to the legal market. I think you see varying ways that it’s being dealt with across states. That’s a trend I’m certainly keeping an eye on as things continue to roll out across the country.
Green: What, in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Smith: Given where the world is today, I feel like we all live in this “OR” mindset. It’s either you OR me, it’s either this OR that. And I think you can see with some of the more recent political things that have happened, it’s this ideology of like, trying to force your beliefs on someone else. For me, it’s more about like, how can we learn to live more in the “AND” right? You can have this AND this and they can coexist, and they don’t have to be in competition. In my personal life, that’s where a lot of my energy is going. How do I spread that thought of getting out of this living in OR. We must move to this kind of mindset of AND. How can we be accommodating for a bunch of different beliefs, a bunch of different approaches? It causes so much friction when we try to impose beliefs on others that may not share the same beliefs.
I am thinking about how I can apply that to the cannabis industry as well. In terms of federal legalization versus state, where can we find that the happy ground? If we think about going across state lines, that’s effectively building a whole other business in the state, and in virtually no other industry does that exist. I can tell you economically this country could use infusion of cannabis to be more freely available. So those are the types of things that keep me moving these days. I’ve had a lot of success in my past and so for me, it’s less about financial achievements, and it’s more about how we can help move folks to this is AND mentality and not everything has to be OR.
Some consumers participating in the legal cannabis market want to avoid inhalable products. They are concerned about the effects of the smoke or they want their usage to be discreet — without the pungent aroma emanating from burning cannabis flower. For those consumers, edibles are the preferred option and a growing product category.
Within the edibles space, the beverage segment — with limited product options in some states — may offer significant potential for growth. In 2021, cannabis-infused beverages accounted for only 1% of total legal cannabis product sales and about 5% of the edibles segment in the United States, reports market researcher BDSA. But cannabis beverage sales are growing around the U.S.
In California, cannabis drinks grew their market share in the edibles category from 4% in 2018 to 7% in 2021. Nevada saw beverages increase their share of edibles revenues from 7% to 10% in the same time frame. And cannabis beverages’ share of edibles sales in Massachusetts went from less than 1% in 2019 to 8% in 2021.
Pegged at $180 million in revenue last year, the cannabis beverage market is projected to reach nearly $500 million by 2026, predicts BDSA.
Today, gummies and chocolate products dominate the edibles category. Although beverages are currently a small segment of edible sales, they may have some inherent advantages — familiarity, faster-acting products from improved bioavailability, and taste and flavor innovations — over other cannabis products. Since beverages can incorporate many different flavors from fruity, cola and sweet to coffee, tea, sour and bitter, these myriad flavor variations can mask or minimize any off-tastes associated with THC.
Viewed as part of their everyday regimen, consumers drink beverages for hydration, nourishment, refreshment and enjoyment. Cannabis beverages are well-suited for consumers’ lifestyles, while gummies and chocolates may be perceived as sugary treats and special occasion items.
Brand owners are beginning to recognize the limited availability of products and growth potential of cannabis-infused beverages and are looking to enter the category. Packaging plays a key role in cannabis beverages, with sustainability, regulatory compliance (e.g., child-resistant), labeling compliance (e.g., warning symbols and text), convenience and branding all contributing to the success of the expanding product category.
Consumers, especially younger generations, are concerned about the environment and support brands that align with their values. According to the 2020 Sustainable Market Share Index from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, sustainability-marketed products delivered about 55% of the market growth in consumer packaged goods (CPG) from 2015 to 2019 in the U.S. despite being only 16% of the market. Sustainability-marketed goods grew seven times faster than products not marketed as sustainable and nearly four times faster than the overall CPG market.
As a primary consumer touchpoint, packaging is a good way for cannabis beverage brands to show their commitment to the environment. But finding the most sustainable packaging option for a particular application may not always be as straightforward as it seems. Many considerations are involved — material choice (e.g., plastic, glass, or aluminum), recyclability of the material, the weight of the material, recycled content of the final package, package design (minimalist vs. excessive), transportation costs and other factors like reusability.
To help facilitate the process, Berlin Packaging uses life cycle analysis to determine a product’s environmental impact or carbon footprint over its entire life cycle, including sourcing & raw materials extraction (minerals resource use), manufacturing (energy and water usage), distribution (freight miles, fuel usage) and end-of-life (recovery, recycling, reprocessing).
We have the know-how to improve the sustainability of any packaging material — whether it be lightweighting, use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, greater recycling rates and more.
Because legal cannabis products are regulated by individual states and not at the federal or national level, the regulations for cannabis packaging requirements can vary widely from one state to another. However, there are some common rules that all states follow.
All cannabis products — including beverages — require child-resistant packaging to meet the standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. For aluminum cans, Berlin Packaging offers a child-resistant capable mechanism that fits snugly over the top of a can. Available in polypropylene or a bio-based resin, the single-use device can be custom developed to fit the exact specifications of the customer’s cans. In-stock products are available for standard 202 can ends.
Along with child-resistant capable packaging, states also require some type of warning symbol and statement on the label to indicate the product contains cannabis. Depending on the state, the symbol may be a triangular or diamond shaped in a bright or contrasting color to call attention to it on the label. The symbol typically houses a cannabis leaf image or “THC”.
Like any packaged drink, cannabis beverages need to check all the boxes for consumer convenience — easy to drink, portability, cupholder friendly and resealable.
Users can easily reseal PET and glass bottles with continuous thread or lug finish closures, but cans present a challenge. Berlin Packaging offers a solution with a resealable can that opens like a traditional stay-on-tab. Here’s how it works. Lifting the pull tab breaks the tamper-evident band and unlocks the slider mechanism. Pulling the slider opens the can and makes the familiar venting sound — even after reopening.
The configuration of the opening creates a smooth laminar flow to improve the drinking experience. Moving the slider back to its original position and pushing down the pull tab, which produces a clicking sound, reseal the closure. The tamper-evident band remains on the can underneath the pull tab.
Cannabis beverages come in drops, shots, syrups, carbonated, iced tea, lemonade, fruity, water, sports & energy, mocktails, tea, coffee and hot cocoa.
Because cannabis has been associated with medicinal uses, many consumers use cannabis products to manage their wellbeing and health. Thus, some cannabis products have been positioned to relieve stress, promote relaxation and sleep, reduce pain and inflammation, improve mental focus, enhance mood or simply for indulgence and enjoyment.
Product positioning and the experience the brand owner wants to create for the consumer can help inform the brand design, personality, and narrative or storytelling. It’s also important that the brand design and messaging resonate with the product’s target audience.
Studio One Eleven, Berlin Packaging’s in-house innovation division, can help cannabis beverage marketers with their product branding from concept to commercialization. We offer market research and consumer insights, brand strategy and visual branding design, brand name development, structural package design, and more. Our services are available at no additional charge in exchange for a customer’s packaging business.
Cruise Beverage distributes nitrogen-infused CBD drinks with all-natural ingredients in 12-oz aluminum cans under the B Happy brand. The team at Studio One Eleven helped Cruise Beverage and its B Happy brand tell their story of free-spirited enjoyment with updated branding, expressive flavor names (i.e., Loosen Up Lemon, Peaceful Pear, Mellow Mango, and Blissful Blood Orange), and unique packaging graphics.
Uplifting illustrations speak to the brand’s sense of freedom and relaxation, and the hand-drawn style reflects the craftsmanship of the CBD beverage product. A white background with flavorful pops of color says clean and fresh, while tiny bubble imagery communicates the delightful effervescence of the fizzy drinks.
The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.
Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.
The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.
Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged
The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.
However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.
The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.
Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect
The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.
Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.
A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.
Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.
There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.
The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.
Even if you don’t know much about cannabis pop culture, people are probably familiar with the phrase, “puff, puff, pass.”’But what if the future of cannabis is really more like “sip, sip, sip“? That’s what has everyone from the largest cannabis companies to the most mainstream beverage companies buzzing.
Soft drinks, beer, juice, tea, coffee and bottled waters are major categories of the beverage industry, valued at approximately $1.5 trillion globally and $150 billion in the U.S. It’s no secret beverage companies have long eyed the next big growth opportunity in the cannabis market. Beverage makers, large and small, are now experimenting ‒ some even bringing to market ‒ cannabis-infused drinks in each of these categories.
Pepsi Co. created a hemp-infused energy drink; Canopy Growth introduced a top selling CBD drink, Quatreau, and the company is backed by beverage industry leader Constellation Brands. Meanwhile, Molson Coors revealed a cannabis-infused beverage line with Truss, and Boston Beer developed cannabis-infused beverages in Canada. Jones Soda recently announced its launch of a line of cannabis-infused sodas under the name Mary Jones. These are just a few of the major beverage industry names adding cannabis drinks to their product lines.
That’s not to mention the established cannabis beverage brands and market leaders such as BellRock Brands, Keef, Evergreen Herbal, CannaCraft and CANN, or infusion technologies companies like Vertosa and mainstream beverage packagers such as Zukerman Honickman.
When will you be able to go to a bar, restaurant, concert venue or lounge and drink your cannabis? Maybe sooner than you think.
Right now, several states are formulating plans to launch adult-use markets, with New York and New Jersey figuring prominently. And with more mature state markets contemplating venues such as lounges, many are pushing for expanded access to beverages. Internationally, Canadian regulators have taken notice of the segment and recently issued regulations on cannabis beverages.
It’s the mainstreaming of cannabis.
Companies are betting big that consumers who choose not to consume cannabis because of perceived social stigmas or fear of getting “too high” from highly concentrated THC products, or who simply don’t want to smoke or vape a product, can find an alternative in cannabis beverages. Cannabis beverages offer consumers an option to microdose and are often more socially acceptable and user-friendly ways to consume cannabis.
It makes sense given larger trends. Consumers who are health-conscious are less likely to smoke anything, let alone cannabis, and are looking for alternatives in their lifestyle choices ‒ and for a relatable product experience that doesn’t ruin the next day.
Think of it this way: Cannabis beverages are to high-THC cannabis products such as vapes, butter and shatter what beer and wine are to high-proof alcohol products such as tequila, vodka and gin. Consequently, just as the lower alcohol content of beer and wine makes those drinks more appealing to more people for more situations, cannabis drinks can reach a larger consumer base than traditional cannabis products.
However, for cannabis beverages to meet their growth potential, a number of things need to happen according to industry experts.
First is the harmonization of state requirements on labeling, testing and packaging and the regulatory acceptance of beverages as a form factor play a role. If regulations are not harmonized, it will impact the cannabis beverage companies’ ability to scale. Second, cannabis beverages need their own separate regulations. Too often, cannabis beverages are shoe-horned into edibles when they are different and distinct product offerings. Third, opportunities for on-site consumption are critical to mainstreaming cannabis beverages.
And, cannabis is still federally illegal. Therefore, many beverage giants are approaching and entering the industry cautiously. Alcohol companies have largely been quicker to jump into the fray than traditional, nonalcoholic beverage brands. It is illegal to combine alcohol and cannabis in the United States, however, so the cannabis-infused market consists of water-based drinks.
Due to national prohibition, beverage companies bringing cannabis into their portfolio are largely operating under state-by-state laws and a varied regulatory environment – catering to states with adult-use cannabis programs. This patchwork of regulation impacts business operations from advertising and marketing to packaging, labeling and even dosing instructions. For most companies, the cost of doing business increases in this operating environment as laws vary across state lines.
When federal prohibition ends, a policy priority for the industry and regulators will be to reconcile the regulatory environments and state-by-state differences. We’re also likely to see the industry come together and advocate for responsible consumption, standard policies and best practices. Expect massive public service campaigns and industry and trade groups coming together to educate the public and policymakers on smart, responsible use of infused cannabis beverages.
Today’s federal cannabis prohibition is also why some manufacturers are embracing CBD-only drinks. Sales of CBD drinks (federally legal as they are derived from hemp versus the psychoactive component of THC) are expected to hit $2.5 billion and are available in places where cannabis is not legal yet.
Meanwhile, THC-infused beverages will account for $1 billion in U.S. sales by 2025, according to Brightfield Group. While not a huge part of the pie in relation to the $24 billion cannabis industry, cannabis infused beverages are one of the fastest growing segments.
So don’t be surprised if sometime soon you see a cannabis drink for sale. Companies are betting big and it might just be time to imbibe.
According to a press release published this week, Quicksilver Scientific, a nanoemulsion delivery technology company, announced a partnership with Truss CBD USA, which is the joint venture between Molson Coors and HEXO Cannabis.
Quicksilver is a manufacturer of nutritional supplements that uses a patent-pending nanoemulsion delivery technology. Their technology is what enables companies to produce cannabinoid-infused beverages.
Because cannabinoids like CBD are hydrophobic, meaning they are not water-soluble, companies have to use nanoemulsion technology to infuse beverages. Without this technology, beverages with cannabinoids would have inconsistent levels of compounds and they wouldn’t work well to actually deliver the cannabinoids to the body. Nanoemulsion essentially cannabinoids water soluble, thus allowing the delivery of cannabinoids to the bloodstream, increasing bioavailability.
Dr. Christopher Shade, Ph.D., founder & CEO of Quicksilver Scientific says they have perfected their nanoemulsion technology over the past decade. “CBD is not water-soluble, which creates challenges for manufacturers when attempting to mix it into beverages,” says Dr. Shade. “Our innovative nanoemulsion technology overcomes these challenges by encapsulating nano-sized CBD particles in water-soluble spheres that can be directly added to beverages. The result is a clear, great-tasting product with greater bioavailability, a measure of a compound’s concentration that is absorbed into the body’s bloodstream.”
Quicksilver is providing their technology to be used with Veryvell, the joint venture’s new line of non-alcoholic, hemp-derived CBD beverages. The beverage line is already available in the Colorado market. According to the press release, the three product offerings include: “Focus” (grapefruit and tarragon with ginseng and guarana), “Mind & Body” (strawberry and hibiscus with ashwagandha and elderberry) and “Unwind” (blueberry and lavender flavors with ashwagandha and L-Theanine).
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water. By formulating these ingredients using various technologies, companies like Caliper and Ripple have learned how to change the solubility properties of the cannabinoids. In addition, formulations can improve bioavailability and onset time of the cannabinoids.
Stillwater Brands is a cannabis formulation company based out of Denver, Colorado, leveraging proprietary technologies for solubilizing cannabinoids in water. Stillwater has a partnership with the Canadian company Green Organic Dutchman and will soon expand their THC line of products, Ripple, into Michigan. Their CBD product line, Caliper, is already sold nationally.
We spoke with Drew Hathaway, senior food scientist at Stillwater, about the Stillwater technology and aspirations for growth. Hathaway joined Stillwater in 2018 after engaging with them as a technical sales representative in his previous role at a food ingredients supplier.
Aaron Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Drew Hathaway: I can mainly speak to the science side of the business since that’s where I operate, but I do have some insight into the marketing approach and some of the things we look at. We’re looking at traditional food and beverage trends, whether it’s beverage formats, with its unique ingredients that are going to be general flavor trends, which can definitely be very region-specific. One of the things we definitely look at, especially on the THC side, is dosage differences. What are people putting their dosages at? Are they doing a combination of cannabinoids or terpenes? Are they really using individual ingredients? I think that’s something that’s been fairly well established in the THC market, especially since you have the regulatory mandate of 10 milligrams THC being your max single dose.
When Stillwater first launched in 2016, our company started with lower dose products to provide microdose options. We focus all of our products on functional foods for consumers. It’s why we have three different options for every single one of our products. We have what we call the Pure 10 which is 10 milligrams of THC per serving. We have what we call the Balanced 5. That’s 5 milligrams THC, 5 milligrams of CBD. Then as well as our Ripple Relief, which is a 40 to one ratio of CBD to THC at 20 milligrams CBD and 0.5 milligrams THC. We provide a variety of options for people looking for different dosage levels. We have to look at all of those trends. Packaging trends are also high on our radar.
Aaron: How about flavors?
Drew: We recently launched additional SKUs for our Ripple gummies here in Colorado. We have four different options. We have a sour variety pack that contains sour watermelon, sour apple and sour peach. We also just launched peach cherry, kiwi apple and sour watermelon by itself — and all of those are at the five milligram THC per gummy dose. That aligns with the Pure 10 line as well. We also have been working on some new flavors for the 10 milligram THC quicksticks, which we’re looking to launch early next year. Then, like I mentioned earlier, we’re expanding into Michigan with the THC business, which has been a big goal for us and something that’s gotten a lot of effort behind the scenes.
Aaron: So Drew, how did you get involved at Stillwater?
Drew: I like to describe myself as a traditionally educated food scientist. I went to college and got my bachelor’s and master’s in food science and technology at Ohio State. And then I ended up at a really cool company that was a very large food ingredient supplier. I was technical support to sales for their team. Through that position, I covered the Colorado territory as well as California and I got to cover Stillwater as one of my customers providing technical advice on different products and ingredients that they were looking at. I got involved with Stillwater through that position, back in the early days when they were still trying to develop and figure things out. That would have probably been about four years ago. I was able to see from the sidelines and I was dealing with some other cannabis companies in the space here in Colorado at the time too.
I recognized very early on what they were trying to do by making cannabinoids water soluble and water compatible. It was not only extremely challenging, but also had a ton of potential if they were able to pull it off. At that point, they were still trying to figure out how this is going to work. How do we produce it? How do we sell it? How do we make sure that things are stable? Things of that nature. I got an inside look at Stillwater from the very start, back when there were really only a few people at the company. I would check in with them regularly as they needed help.
I always joked that they were my least important, most interesting customer and I mean that only because they were buying extremely small amounts of ingredients from us. From a sales perspective, naturally, my manager didn’t necessarily want me spending a ton of time working with them. From a personal interest perspective, I was like, “these guys are doing something really intriguing and if they can pull this off this has a ton of potential, so I want to help them however I can.”
I dealt with them in that sales capacity for about two years before they talked about expanding into the CBD space with the Farm Bill passing at the end of 2018. I recognized at that point that I think they had two scientists including Keith, our head of R&D, and I said “alright, that’s really ambitious. You probably need some help! I think it’s time for me to take the leap and see if you guys are interested in having me come on board.” Fortunately, they were and so I’ve been with the company a little over two years now.
Aaron: Can you explain at a high level what the Stillwater products do?
Drew: The base technology behind all of our products for Ripple and Caliper is essentially converting your fat-soluble cannabinoids, whether it’s CBD or THC, into a water compatible product in a process referred to as emulsification. What you’re essentially doing is taking CBD and THC containing oils, whether it’s a distillate or isolate, and you’re essentially breaking those fat droplets into extremely small droplets and then stabilizing them at that size. We make our own emulsion — the fat droplets are extremely small — then when you draw that down into a powder format and redissolve it into water, you are dispersing billions upon millions of fat droplets into your glass. Those droplets are evenly dispersed through the beverage so that you get the same amount of THC or CBD in your first sip that you get in the last sip. That’s really the core technology behind everything that we do.
Taking cannabinoids and making them water soluble is the base technology necessary in order to make something like a shelf-stable infused beverage. There’s no way that you’re going to take traditional distillates or cannabinoids and be able to make a beverage that is shelf-stable otherwise. It’s been really cool since joining Stillwater to learn and understand how that process changes the way that those cannabinoids are absorbed by your body. Emulsification changes things like the onset time, as well as the total amount of cannabinoids your body’s absorbing and using. That’s been something that’s super interesting to see through the clinical research that we’ve done with human participants through Colorado State University.
Aaron: Let’s say if you just take THC oil and put it into an infused product. What’s the difference between that and Ripple?
Drew: Some products formats, such as beverages, just aren’t possible with THC oil without an emulsification technology. As the old saying goes in science, water and oil just don’t mix. So, if you were to take a traditional THC distillate and try to add it to a beverage, that would just float on top as a big oil slick. When you took your first sip, you would essentially get all of the cannabinoids in your first gulp which not only makes precise or partial dosing impossible, but also would taste absolutely terrible. Emulsification makes those infused beverage products possible and stable over a normal one-year shelf life or potentially longer.
Emulsification also changes the way that your body absorbs those cannabinoids, which is something that we’ve definitely put a heavy emphasis on and have really been able to validate with clinical research. I think that’s one of our biggest differentiators versus our competitors. We’re definitely not the only ones in the water-soluble cannabinoid space, but from my understanding, I think we’re one of the few companies that have actually executed human-based clinical trials (vs rodents) through a third-party university and been able to prove that these cannabinoids are detected in your bloodstream as fast as 10 minutes after consumption. We measured those results directly against an oil-based control, where you’re not going to get a peak absorption until maybe 60 to 90 minutes after consumption. What this research found was that not only was our product absorbed much faster, but it also enabled a significantly higher amount of the cannabinoids to actually make it into the participants’ blood stream where it can be used by their bodies. We also found the type of food emulsifier makes a significant difference in absorption – not just emulsion size, counter to common belief.
We use the analogy, “It’s getting a better bang for your buck.” The main purchasing consideration for a lot of edibles consumers when you go to a dispensary is “what is my cost per 10 milligram dose of THC?” That’s one of their key purchasing parameters, especially for your lower budget customer. What’s great with Ripple is one milligram of THC consumed through our Ripple technology is not really equivalent to one milligram of an oil-based product and that your body is actually going to absorb a higher percentage of it. And therefore, you’re going to get more of an effect, whether you’re looking for a medical effect or whether you’re looking for more of a recreational therapeutic effect. It also improves the consistency of that experience. So, with oil-based products, you could have the same products multiple different times and based on what you recently ate, you might get a higher or lower absorption rate or a faster or slower absorption rate. It’s also in the consistency of the experience and I know that from our market research of our consumers of Ripple products here in Colorado since that’s been in the market for a few years now. That’s the number one reason why people really trust our brand is because they can count on getting a consistent experience every time for the same dose.
As we all know, with the THC market and edibles market being newer in general, that’s most people’s biggest fear, especially if you’re a new consumer of THC — you obviously don’t want to consume more than what you can handle as far as getting higher than you want to be or anything like that — So consistency is a really, really key aspect for us and something that I’m definitely proud that we can provide that for our consumers.
Aaron: What does your product look like when you dissolve it into a liquid – let’s say something clear? Is the resulting mixture clear or cloudy?
Drew: We do have liquid concentrates, especially in the Caliper side of things, but with our powders, it kind of billows in as a cloud when you add it to a clear liquid. You can almost think of it like when we pour creamer into coffee: you see the cloud expand and then slowly fill out the cup and then be fully mixed in. Whereas with our products if you pour it into clear water, and you’ll see this white cloud form and then disperse. The final solution is generally a little bit cloudy depending on how much water you add it to.“I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old.”
Aaron: How are customers using your products?
Drew: For a long time, we’ve had a variety of products in the market, some of which are still in the market, and some of which we’ve pulled since then. The key product for us has always been the Ripple dissolvable powder. It’s an unflavored, unsweetened powder that comes in a little sachet packet that you can tear open just like you would any other product and add to really anything. With its water compatibility, there’s really not a single product that you can’t add it to. It’s been really cool to see through social media, and in general, consumer engagement is electric and is kind of viewed as a novelty. The initial reaction is “Oh, I can take this little powder, put it in my eggs and now I have infused eggs!” It’s been great to see the creativity that our consumers have. We’ve seen it put in such a wide variety of products that literally you can make anything into an edible. I think that’s one of the coolest aspects of that product and why it’s been so successful.
One of the things we did realize pretty fast is that for a lot of people, the convenience and the consistency of the experience was a main driver for why they were purchasing our products. A lot of our real consumers just take that packet apart, ripping it open and pouring it straight in their mouth. It’s the fastest and most convenient way to consume the products, pretty much anywhere. We dug into that with our more recent launch of Ripple Quicksticks. And then we added some flavor, we added a little bit of sugar and sweeteners to make it a consumer-friendly experience where you get a really enjoyable flavor. It’s still just as convenient to consume by just ripping the packet straight open and pouring it in your mouth.
Aaron: It sounds like there must have been some interesting internal product development testing!
Drew: Yeah, definitely. That’s a fun one. I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old. It can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely not the easiest thing to do. We’ve looked at traditional berry flavors, citrus flavors, as well as weird, kind of out-there flavors, to see what we like and what we think will work with our consumers.
Aaron: What states do you operate in?
Drew: Currently, our Stillwater THC business only operates in Colorado. That’s essentially the genesis of all the companies (Ripple, Caliper) is Stillwater being here in Colorado. We’re excited to announce that we’re expanding to Michigan next year. That’s something that we’ve all been working pretty heavily on developing and getting ready to go. That will be our first expansion of the THC brand to a different state.
We do have a licensing and distribution agreement with The Green Organic Dutchman (TGOD) in Canada. They produce our products using the same technology up there and license also under the Ripple brand name. So, it’s great to see the presence that we’ve been able to expand up there.
Then with Caliper on the CBD side of things with Caliper Ingredients and Caliper Consumer. We operate nationwide for that based on the more recent rules with the 2018 Farm Bill. For me, especially working across all of those business units, it’s really interesting to see the different business approach between your target CBD consumers and your target THC consumers because they’re really different markets. There’s definitely some overlap, but you’re targeting a different demographic to a certain degree. We keep those decisions in mind when we’re choosing how to market and what flavors to use and what products to make. So that’s been really interesting for me to see the behind-the-scenes discussions.
Aaron: I saw on your website, you’ve got consumer options via the dispensaries. Do you work with any infused product manufacturers on a licensing basis or partnership basis?“I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve.”
Drew: I’d say the majority of them are definitely on the CBD side for Caliper, partly because the regulatory environment of CBD just is a little bit easier to kind of engage other customers and to sell products across state lines and things of that nature. We do have some partnerships with some of the companies here in Colorado. I’d say the main one that we’ve promoted externally is with Oh Hi infused Seltzers based out of Durango, Colorado. It’s been a great agreement where we provide our base technology via liquid Ripple formulation that they can then infuse into their seltzers. They’ve done a great job with those products and it’s definitely a partnership that’s been mutually beneficial.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Drew: For me, the whole appeal of joining the industry was research. With prohibition and decades of those restrictions preventing true research there are so many unknown questions that still need to be investigated. I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve. I think we’ll get better clarity on the efficacy of individual cannabinoids versus different combinations and ratios of cannabinoids. The entourage effect is something that’s pretty heavily talked about in the industry. I do think there’s some research to support that. I also think there’s still way more unknowns than things that we actually know. So, I’m super interested in seeing how our understanding of everything will continue to improve over time.
I’d love to see the medical research eventually expand into what synergistic benefits exist between cannabinoids and other bioactive ingredients such as turmeric, catechins, antioxidants and other plant-based ingredients that have gotten a lot more interest through the medical research in the last decade.
Then one of the things I’m always excited about being on the science side of things is we’re still investigating the general compatibility of cannabinoids with various types of food and beverage products. That goes not only for ingredient interactions, but also factors like pH, water activity and moisture content. Even packaging definitely plays a role in cannabinoid stability for a variety of products. There’s also a variety of production processing technologies that still need additional investigation, whether you’re talking pasteurization, for beverages, or retort for canned products or newer technologies like high pressure processing (HPP). So, I think the most exciting thing for me, and the reason I was really willing and interested in joining the industry, is there’s so much to learn. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to explore. I think as an industry the better we conduct this research, the better off we’ll all be.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview! Thanks Drew.
According to a press release published in late August, CBD watchdog Leafreport found a large number of inaccuracies when testing CBD-infused beverages on the market today. Leafreport conducted independent lab testing on 22 different CBD-infused beverages and found more than half of the products had less CBD than the label claimed. To be specific, 12 out of the 22 products tested contained less CBD than advertised.
Canalysis Laboratories, the lab contracted to conduct the testing, found two of the products didn’t even contain any CBD. 18 of the beverages had CBD levels with a label claim variance greater than 10%. 14 of the beverages had CBD levels with a label claim variance greater than 40%. Only 4 of the beverages achieved an ‘A’ letter grade for coming within 10% of their advertised CBD levels.
According to Lital Shafir, head of product at Leafreport, the CBD beverage market is a bit tricky, largely due to product formulation issues. “This is in line with our expectations because CBD beverages are difficult to formulate and contain relatively small amounts of CBD, which means that variations of even a few milligrams can have a big effect,” says Shafir. “The CBD industry is completely unregulated and there have been many cases of companies selling products that contain little to no CBD. That’s why third-party testing is important for brands in this industry.”
Interestingly, this report did not find a positive correlation between a company’s reputation and their product’s test results. The full study can be found here. Leafreport is an independent, peer-reviewed website dedicated to increasing transparency in the CBD marketplace.
CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.
The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.
CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.
In the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.
It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.
It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.
In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.
The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.
The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.
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