The Ontario government has contributed $300,000 to help a Toronto company work with Loyalist College in Belleville to develop what it says will be the world’s first beer brewed from cannabis.
The joint project will create a beer that is “highly intoxicating” but safer and healthier than alcohol, says Province Brands of Canada. The company chipped in $300,000 in cash and in-kind services.
Province Brands joins cannabis industry giant Canopy Growth Corp. in Smiths Falls in betting that drinks will become a dominant way that Canadians consume their marijuana when it’s legal.
And the Ontario government seems to be on board. The grant will help Province Brands create beer that should be ready to sell when edible marijuana products are allowed, says chief executive Dooma Wendschuh.
That will probably be in 2019. The federal government says it plans to legalize dried weed and cannabis oil for recreational use this summer, with edible cannabis products regulated within a year after that.
Some traditionalists will continue to prefer rolling a joint and smoking it, of course, but industry experts say combustible cannabis is not the way of the future. Society has moved away from cigarettes, and smoking pot creates some of the same toxic chemicals.
South of the border, the trends are clear. In Colorado, the first U.S. state to open recreational marijuana shops, sales of dried weed have plummeted. Consumers are buying vape pens and concentrated cannabis, and a wide range of edible products, with gummy candies the most popular.
Beverages make up a small part of cannabis sales in U.S. states where marijuana is legal.
But beverages will become more popular as the technology used to create them improves, says Canopy Growth CEO Bruce Linton. He expects drinks to become the dominant cannabis product category. Drinks will also take a big sip out of sales of traditional beers and spirits, he predicts.
People are used to drinking beverages while socializing, says Linton.
“People might be uncomfortable with a product format that they wouldn’t ordinarily choose to consume. For a lot of adults having (cannabis) gummy bears is not a socially normal format in a gathering of people who are just chatting. So why put up a barrier and ask people to change their behavior?”
Province Brands is developing its cannabis beer with professors and students at Loyalist College’s Applied Research Centre for Natural Products and Medical Cannabis. The lab has a license from Health Canada to do research and analysis on cannabis.
The $300,000 grant from the province was administered through the Ontario Centers of Excellence (OCE), which promotes collaboration between industry and academia to give commercial life to innovative ideas.
A spokesperson for the OCE says brewing cannabis beer might be controversial among those who oppose the legalization of marijuana. However, the project was approved by a panel of outside experts from academia and/or industry, said spokesperson Andrew Robertson.
It met criteria for funding, which include helping businesses develop innovative products and providing a learning opportunity for students, he said. The OCE’s ethical investment policy prohibits funding of projects involving tobacco, gambling, porn, or illegal goods and services.
Loyalist College considers projects with industry partners on a case-by-case basis, said Kari Kramp, a biosciences professor who is in charge of the lab.
The college has also collaborated with Ontario hops growers and craft brewers, she said.
The project with Province Brands will develop the technology to brew beer from the cannabis plant itself. Most cannabis drinks are now made by infusing a cannabis extract into a beverage.
The drink will have the same appeal as craft beer, predicts Wendschuh. “The very idea of craft beer is authenticity. I don’t see how you can be more authentic when making a beer about cannabis than to be made from cannabis.”
His company is nipping at the heels of Canopy Growth, which has been developing and testing cannabis beverages for three years. Last fall, Canopy got a boost to its beverage strategy by partnering with Constellation Brands, the huge American company that makes Corona beer, Svedka vodka and Robert Mondavi wine.
But Canopy won’t be making beer, says Linton. The company will create a new category of drinks.
“We are not going to call it beer. Beer is beer. There will be a cannabis beverage selection, which will not be called something it’s not. Beer is beer, wine is wine, vodka is vodka. I’m not making those things. I’m displacing those things.”
The technology Canopy is developing is sophisticated, he said. In the United States, cannabis drink companies have been unable to attract major investors to develop their products because the drug is still illegal federally.
Many of the drinks sold there are sweet, and have strong citrus or strawberry flavors that masks the taste of the cannabis extract added to them, said Linton. Canopy won’t need to sell those types of drinks, he says.
“God no! Yuck.” Lemonade-type drinks are also problematic because they can appeal to underage youth, he says.
Canopy is creating a clear cannabis distillate that can be produced with various tastes and smells, Linton says, a “platform” that can be used for a variety of beverages that will have few or no calories.
Canopy is also developing a technological solution to a major drawback of edible cannabis products now on the market: it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours before the user feels the effects, which can also last for hours.
One major U.S. cannabis drink maker, Dixie Elixirs, includes an “activation guide” with its drinks to warn users how long they can expect to wait before feeling a buzz.
That creates problems for novice users who have trouble gauging how much to consume, or don’t feel anything at first so try more and end up overdoing it.
It also doesn’t conform to how people typically use alcohol, the most common mind-altering substance. Wendschuh sketches a typical scenario: someone stops after work for a drink, and then goes home within an hour or two. No one wants to wait two hours to feel the effects, and then still be experiencing them late into the evening, he says.
Both Wendschuh and Linton say their companies are developing technology to create drinks with rapid-onset effects, although they are reluctant to go into details to protect their commercial advantage.
Linton says Canopy’s goal is to have cannabis drinks that take effect in seven to 12 minutes, similar to alcohol.
But cannabis drinks will also have to outperform their alcoholic competitors in other ways to win over consumers, he says. He’s pretty confident about their ability to do that.
“Come on over to my house, I will pour you a glass of Tweed,” he said, using the name of Canopy’s subsidiary based in Smiths Falls in his scenario. “I’ll mix it with some tonic, and it will be a nice thing to sit on the back patio. It will have the same effect and duration of effect as if you were having a gin and tonic, except it will have no calories and very little to no inter-drug reaction. And it’s not a depressant, as alcohol is. It’s a stimulant to cause you to feel more positive, if that is the aim of that particular beverage.”