Cannabis beer companies are brewing up a breakthrough

There’s a lot of buzz that cannabis beer is poised to offer consumers a revolution in both cannabis consumption and social drinking – but does it pass the taste test?

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Cannabis beers (and cannabis-infused drinks more generally) have a unique ability to inspire fervent optimism.

Three of the biggest beverage companies in the world – Constellation Brands (the maker of Corona), Molson Coors and AB Inbev – have all been hard at work in Canadian cannabis facilities trying to perfect their formulations for weed-infused drinks.

There are also smaller companies, like Ceria in the United States, or Province Brands in Canada, that have novel production methods that they believe will be a hit with consumers.

And don’t forget the craft beer folks. Lots of small brewers are also dipping their toes in the weed beer. 

There’s a lot of hype. And it’s a sector of the market that producers are investing in heavily. But does the hype pass the taste test?

On one hand, there’s marketing buzz and press excitement and genuine belief that cannabis beer can be every bit as popular as regular beer. And that cannabis beer is poised to offer consumers a revolution in both cannabis consumption and social drinking.

On the other is the fact that, so far, cannabis beers (or weed beverages even) don’t sell all that well, don’t get reviewed very well, and are often either too expensive (or potent) to have mass appeal. 

Even the most optimistic beer industry expert would agree that the product class has a long way to go before it gets to that point. How much of that optimism is warranted comes down to two questions: what do weed beers have going for them, and what stands in the way of mass acceptance? 

The case for cannabis beers 

I was a cynic about weed drinks, and to be honest still harbour some reservations about the claims that the suits like to make about them.

Molson, for instance, claims that the market for weed drinks will be $3 billion, which seems a bit of a stretch, until I actually tried one.

The “Contraband Cola” that I bought from an Indigenous weed grower in southwestern Ontario is probably not going to resemble the drinks that will be commercially available over the next five years.

But the experience of drinking one was remarkably compatible with plain old drinking – except I started by leaving half the drink in the fridge for later once I dialed in the strength.

You know that each sip brings you a little closer to intoxication. But eventually, you stop thinking about that. It sounds like a remarkably lame endorsement to say that you nearly immediately stop thinking about it, but in this case it’s exactly what the makers are going for.

The strongest thing that weed beers have going for them is that they solve an age-old problem for committed stoners – having to go outside to smoke. It still carries a stigma, especially if you’re the only one. (Not to mention that it gets cold sometimes.)

Cannabis beers offer the best of both worlds: you can sip casually, but instead of getting drunk the effect is like taking a mild edible – or in my case, a strong one. The Contraband Cola had 125 milligrams of THC.

The effect was still a bit milder than I’d expected. So, like regular beer, there’s some control over your intake: one beer gets you to one level, six beers to another, and so on.

The problem that many business folks want to solve, though, is the waiting – edibles can be famously mysterious about when they are going to kick in, but alcohol isn’t.

Weed drink makers are all trying to solve this problem, and many, like Keith Villa of Ceria (an American weed beer maker in Colorado) believe they have solved it. Using a somewhat complicated infusion technology, Ceria beers are able to deliver effects in around 15 minutes, which isn’t quite as fast as a beer, but far faster than a pot brownie. 

Some producers in Canada are attempting to make products that wear off in roughly the same time as a beer (90 minutes or so). But whether or not those efforts work as well as their inventors claim still remains to be seen. 

What is keeping weed beer from dominating the market? 

In weed beer as in life, mimicry can only takes you so far. And generally speaking, the more a weed beer tries to taste exactly like a craft beer, the worse it ends up getting – at least in the few reviews that exist.

The drinks that do perform well in review lineups are often those that don’t try to taste like beer.

Weed-infused products all have to deal somehow with the fact that the weed-infused oils used to make them don’t always taste that great. Hiding the weed behind other strong flavours – like the Contraband Cola – or augmenting the plant-like flavour with punchier fruit flavours so far seems to be what the better products have in common. 

Which brings up the next big problem that weed drinks will need to overcome: so far, they don’t constitute a huge market share in the U.S. states where cannabis is legal.

In June 2018, less than one per cent of all weed sales came from the beverages sector. Most don’t actually foresee it becoming that big until regulations change and weed drinks can be sold at restaurants and bars. (Currently no jurisdiction allows that.) 

That is a significant unknown, and not one with a clear solution.

Industry folks are betting that the concoctions from major beer companies will be able to change this by virtue of being cheaper and more consistent.

In the meantime, that leaves a lot of space for newcomers to the industry to make a splash.

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