Less than 40 years after anti-drug campaigns enlisted everyone from Zack Morris to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to scare kids away from marijuana, cannabis products are legally available in 19 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam. And, in places where recreational cannabis is legal, THC-infused beverages like Wunder, Cann, Keef, Kalo and Hi5 line retail shelves, often alongside beer, wine and other drinks.
Should alcoholic beverage producers worry about competition from weed-infused beverages? Or will weed’s market share be restricted by inherited stigmas?
Colleen McClellan is the regional director of client solutions for Datassential, a leading food and beverage insights platform, and a trained sommelier. She has high hopes for the future of THC-infused drinks, so long as they taste good.
“I think as more states relax the regulations, we will continue to see an increase in interest and use,” says McClellan. “The critical aspect to adoption is going to be the taste of the product. Taste is extremely important for repeat purchase.”
McClellan predicts brands will continue to enter the cannabis beverage space, eventually leading to consolidation.
“There are consumers who enjoy the use of cannabis or THC-infused products, as it provides a functional benefit without the hangover effect,” she says. According to a recent Datassential report, in the U.S., consumer awareness of THC beverages grew by 9% in 2021, and 51% of adults over 21 now profess familiarity with them. The company also found that THC beverages have the highest amount of interest and awareness with Gen Xers.
This might be due to strides that cannabis industry marketing has made in the last decade. In many U.S. cities, entering a dispensary feels like walking into an Apple store or swanky cafe. Weed has never been so bespoke. You can choose the strain, strength and method of consumption as you would a bag of coffee beans.
To succeed in this market, some producers experiment with promised effects.
“I think the most interesting development for infused drinks as of late is the expansion of minor cannabinoids that are being featured in these drinks,” says Michelle Mendoza, head grower at Sweet Flower, a California dispensary. “We are only going to continue to see more of these minor cannabinoids as the star of the sector.”
Mendoza says to keep an eye out for cannabinoids like THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin), believed to help increase focus and aid appetite suppression, and the somewhat controversial Delta-8, which she believes will appear in more drinks.
Delta-8 is used in Wunder’s selections. Its Sessions line has two milligrams each of Delta-8 and Delta-9 TCH, as well as four milligrams of CBD, while its Higher Vibes drinks combine 10 milligrams each of Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC, positioned to provide a lighter, paranoia-free high.
“Purpose-driven products are the wave of the future,” says Travis Tharp, CEO of Keef Brands, a Colorado-based cannabis beverage company. “These products are based on extensive data and appeal to consumers and patients looking for specific intended effects. We’re starting to see beverages move beyond THC to incorporate lesser known, but therapeutically promising, alternative cannabinoids.”
Earlier this year, Keef Brands launched a new line of purpose-driven cannabis beverages that look to cannabinoids like THCV, CBG and CBN to give consumers a taste of something different. All inherently non-psychoactive, THCv is known for its stimulating and energetic high while CBG and CBN sit on the relaxing, pain-relieving side of the spectrum.
In many U.S. cities, entering a dispensary feels like walking into an Apple store or swanky cafe. Weed has never been so bespoke.
Morgan McLachlan is the cofounder, chief product officer and master distiller at AMASS, a beverage company specializing in botanics-based adaptogenic drinks. She recently had a hand in developing Afterdream, a cannabis-infused non-alcoholic spirit that blends 14 botanicals with cannabis-derived terpenes like limonene, beta-myrcene, and eucalyptol as well as emulsions of THC, CBD and Delta-8. It’s designed to produce what the company describes as “a limb-loosening, mind mellowing” high that mirrors the feeling that comes on from a strong cocktail, which McLachlan believes could appeal to those who also drink alcohol.
“The Afterdream consumer is someone who sees drinking as an important part of their social life, but is searching for alternatives to their standard spirit or glass of wine,” she says. “They want to bring the experience of cannabis, something they’re less familiar with and trying to get to know better, closer to the evening cocktail ritual they already know.”
According to McLachlan, cannabis beverages and non-alcoholic beverages are the fastest growing sectors of the drinks market, with sales rising from $67.8 million in 2019 to $95.2 million in 2020.
“The adult-use of recreational marijuana is a fast-growing market, and non-alcoholic beverages have an even more meteoric rise,” she says. “No- and low-ABV sectors have grown 506% since 2015, and are anticipated to reach $280 million in revenue this year.”
Distill Ventures analysts report that 58% of consumers are drinking more non-alcoholic beverages than last year. To reach them, McLachlan aims to continue working with cannabis venture studio, OpenNest Labs, to help brands educate consumers and destigmatize the plant.
Despite this market growth, Jim Higdon, cofounder and chief communications officer of Cornbread Hemp, a Kentucky-based company that produces full-spectrum hemp oils, doesn’t think traditional wine, beer and alcohol producers need to worry.
“THC beverages have their place, but that place is probably not in the hand of a wine lover with a sophisticated palate,” says Higdon. “The ideal customer for a THC beverage is either someone trying to cut down on drinking alcohol, or an entry-level consumer looking for a non-smoking option to consuming cannabis.”
Like Datassential’s McClellan, Higdon believes the success of THC-infused drinks ultimately depends on how they taste. He also thinks cannabis beverages might not be the best way to bring wine lovers to weed.
“There’s no sense of the terroir of the cannabis flower in the finished beverage product,” he says. “For a wine aficionado looking to savor the full complexity of a cannabis strain’s terpene profile, there’s no substitute for a well-cured flower.”