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.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. Cannabinoid oils can be formulated into emulsions to form a fine suspension in water to improve bioavailability, stability and flavor. Vertosa is a cannabis infused ingredients company specializing in emulsion technologies. Their technology can be found in a range of CBD and THC containing beverages found on shelves today.
We spoke with Austin Stevenson, chief innovation officer at Vertosa, to learn more about emulsification technology and some of the challenges in testing cannabis infused beverages. Stevenson joined Vertosa in 2019 after spending time as a cannabis advisor at CanopyBoulder as an entrepreneur in residence. Prior to Vertosa, Stevenson ran the hemp and CBD analytical testing laboratory business unit for Eurofins.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Austin Stevenson: I got involved in the cannabis industry nearly seven years ago, when I was an advisor to an accelerator in agriculture technology in Africa. I went to the MIT Innovation Laboratory, and I saw a whole bunch of farmers cultivating green leafy vegetables in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, which piqued my curiosity. I learned that it was all done via hydroponic indoor cultivation and freight containers. I got back to the US and put my detective hat on, and learned that it was really the cannabis industry that was driving innovation in terms of indoor and sustainable agriculture. At that point, I took it as an opportunity to dive in and started, again, as an advisor at an accelerator in Colorado. From there, I’ve been on the amazing cannabis journey.
Green: And how did you get involved with Vertosa?
Stevenson: I became an advisor at CanopyBoulder to a few software companies and got on the founding team there as well as at a few cultivation companies and other license types across the supply chain. Immediately before Vertosa, I ran the business unit for hemp and CBD testing at Eurofins, one of the world’s largest analytical chemistry laboratories, specializing in Ag Pharma. My clients were your traditional retailers: CVS, Kroger. Our team analyzed thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of SKUs of infused products.
At one point I had to tell one of my clients at Eurofins, that all of their beverage SKUs were failing potency tests. Their supplements, OTC products, some of the confections, cosmetics, were all passing, but the beverages were failing potency testing. Cannabinoid ingredients were floating to the top, sinking to the bottom, even leaching into the can liners. It just wasn’t working, so we had to tell them that those beverages could not go to market. On this same day, I happened to run into my longtime friend and business partner in the industry (now Vertosa CEO) Ben Larson at a conference in Oakland, who was running the Gateway Incubator at the time, but had met our other partner and founder, Dr. Harold Han. Ben told me, “I have this PhD chemist, a surface chemist from BioRad. He’s been experimenting with techniques, taking cannabis oils and turning them into fast acting emulsions for beverages. I’d like for you to check it out because I’m considering building a business around this.” I said, “Alright, show me the technology. Let me take it back to the lab, analyze it, verify it, and then try it. See if it works.” Lo and behold, it did. I fell in love with the product. I saw the problem firsthand at my lab and now I saw a solution, so I knew that the next part of my cannabis journey would be to join Ben and Harold in building a business together focused on being the number one technology solving the problem of stability and potency for the infused beverage market.
Green: What is the core technology of Vertosa?
Stevenson: Our focus at Vertosa is being the best delivery mechanism for cannabinoids. That means that we have a portfolio of different technologies that we’re using to take cannabis oils and turn them into fast-acting liquid emulsions, as well as powder-based APIs. When we began, we were using nano-emulsification. We are using nanotechnology in the food space, with a few different methods for creating those nano-emulsions, to infuse a diverse range of different products – everything from seltzer waters to dealcoholized wines and teas.
Green: So, it’s a portfolio of products with the basic idea of encapsulating the oil into smaller components. Can you highlight some of the challenges when you were first developing the product with testing? My assumption is that it was relatively new for testing labs. How did you support method development with them so that you are accurately reporting cannabinoid content?
Stevenson: The biggest problem that we faced at Vertosa is that there’s no one size that fits all. The chemistry of an infused seltzer water is different than the chemistry of a dealcoholized wine. The reason is because, quite literally, the ingredients are different. They’re different products. When we’re making the emulsions for these beverages, all the ingredients have to be compatible – the ingredients in the emulsion as well as the ingredients in the beverage. We’ve had to design a portfolio of different emulsions for different beverage types to ensure compatibility in any scenario, otherwise there could be instability, causing separation between the emulsion and the ingredients.
Additionally, we’ve seen challenges in the packaging type as well as the manufacturing techniques, specifically sterilization, thermal processing, chemical treatment, or the lack thereof. These three core variables (ingredients, packaging, and manufacturing technique) are where all the challenges in potency testing arise. For example, you have an infused beverage that is going to be packaged in an aluminum can. There is a polarity between cannabinoids and the can aligners that ultimately could create leaching, or an absorption type of effect.
At Eurofins, we would see beverages that were supposed to contain CBD in the can but were testing at 0 milligrams, despite manufacturers confirming that they had added the CBD. All the CBD had been absorbed into the can liner. Our teams of method development chemists and management had learned to acid rinse the can liner so that we would be able to capture the cannabinoids and identify them. That was a step that we had to learn through trial and error, and we were able to bring this over and build upon this at Vertosa.
Here at Vertosa, the biggest challenge in the lab currently is that there aren’t consistent methods for analyzing beverages. Every lab has different standards, and the instrumentation hasn’t always been calibrated. To ensure that these low dose beverages are measured properly, you have an accurate LOQ to identify the cannabinoid content. Part of the challenge is that the analytical chemistry community has only started to collaborate here recently, literally in the last few months as the AOAC made a call to action for methods for beverage.
At Vertosa, we’ve had to work together with the labs and ask if they have a method for developing beverages. It’s a three-step approach: we send a lab the oil, the emulsion, and the finished product, and ensure that the accurate cannabinoid profile is being diluted across the entire chain to make sure that each step the instrumentation has been calibrated the correct way. We want to make sure that they calibrate it into the HPLC and that the correct cannabinoid profile is always consistent in the finished product. It’s a lot of intimate hand-holding with the labs.
Green: So, you took it upon yourself to go out and get the methods validated, anticipating the need for finished goods testing with your customers and partners?
Stevenson: That’s right. From the beginning, we understood that the problems we are setting out to solve are consistent potency testing and accurate dosing. We wanted to be able to say confidently that when you work with us, you’re going to pass potency tests every time. And if you don’t, we’re going to uncover the reasons why.
For us, we have been able to provide that consistent and reliable ingredient. And yes, there’s been stumbles along the way, but those stumbles are the learnings that make us better. In the beginning, we had just one formula but the chemistries of different beverages vary too much for that to work. We also know that packaging type and manufacturing processes play a role. So, we now have a portfolio of different emulsions, such as conventional, natural, and organic, that can work with any given varibale and that have verifiable potency.
We anchor ourselves to the promise that our clients will pass potency, because that’s the biggest problem most brands have.We know the ingredients inside and out – knowing how heat plays a role, how polyphenols play a role, how oxygen plays a role, and helping the labs and our brand partners succeed while minimizing all the risk and pain that they go through with failed potency. You’d be surprised how many people are using the wrong product in formulation. A new client will come to us frustrated after adding CBD isolate powder to their beverage and seeing it fail potency tests. That’s where we’re able to come in and correct the course.
Green: Someone comes in with a magic wand. What do they solve for you?
“Efficacy research is the most interesting aspect of industry research to me.”Stevenson: If I had a magic wand, I would use it to accelerate efficacy research to validate and verify specific cannabinoids/terpene formulas for targeted effects. In other words, I’d love to have a peer-reviewed, scientifically validated cannabis formula for any desired effect, like anxiety or pain relief, aid in sleep, or increased energy, for example. At Vertosa, we’re currently investing in third party academic research to empower our clients with validated information; however, it takes a lot of time, money, and effort conducting research and clinical trials. It’s a long but essential and beneficial process!
Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Stevenson: In the world of edibles and ingestibles, I’m extremely interested in exploring onset times and bioavailability technologies, as well as trends in ingredients. More of our clients are interested in rapid onset times so that consumers feel the effects within minutes of consumption, removing some of the stereotypical hesitation around edibles and wondering when “it’ll hit.” It’s also fascinating to explore and integrate minor cannabinoids as well as active and functional ingredients and how they interact together in an ingestible.
I’m also extremely interested in keeping up with changing regulatory policy around consumption lounges and access in recently recreational states. Open consumption lounges are a fantastic solution to further normalizing cannabis usage and decentralizing alcohol in our culture, as consumer behavior is increasingly reflecting a move away from alcohol towards more health-conscious choices.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Stevenson: Efficacy research is the most interesting aspect of industry research to me. Most of us cannabis professionals are passionate about the plant, and anecdotally know how cannabis can be used to improve quality of life. However, the scientific and academic community needs to see hard evidence. As we build the industry in a post-prohibition era, there is more access to research grants to evaluate the efficacy and safety of cannabis. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has identified four (4) key areas of cannabis research eligible for grant funding: (1) cannabinoid research (2) cannabidiol research (3) endocannabinoid system, ECS research, and (4) therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. It’s the latter two, ECS and therapeutic effects, that really spark my curiosity. At VERTOSA, we’re spending a lot of time and resources with our Scientific Advisory board to help accelerate this research, and I’m personally excited about the forthcoming discoveries we make, which will help our entire industry grow and thrive!
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