The Buzz-Making, Hangover-Free Promise of Weed Drinks
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Weed drinks are less ... weeded these days.
"You almost forget you took THC in the first place," says Kat Turner, cook and partner at the Highly Likely Café in Los Angeles (and a friend of mine), referring to a type of microdose-flavored seltzer called Cann. It does not contain alcohol. Of the more than one hundred cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main poisoning agent. This is what people generally refer to when they say "weeds". This is what gets you high.
Turner's first encounter with a cannabis drink was fifteen years ago and its taste was either grape or cherry - she can't exactly remember which one. It came in a glass bottle with a "College-Stoner, Scooby-Doo-like" label that said "Soda Pot" - at least, she thinks that's the brand name. Turner is certain that she and her friends lay under blankets in their back yard, hearing the dark side of the moon, "unable to do anything other than talk about how stoned we were."
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When the first California pandemic began in March, Turner worked eighteen hours a day to keep the restaurant afloat for months. Not only was she concerned about the usual things like equipment and food costs, but the future of her industry as well. In the evening she unwrapped herself with a couple of glasses of wine. But for gymnasts, consecutive days of drinking have boosted their productivity and led to depression. At some point she opened a can of cann instead. The blood orange cardamom "Social Tonic", as its founders call it, contains only two milligrams of THC, which for Turner reached the state of mind that these two glasses of wine would have. Come to her alarm at 6 a.m. but there was no hangover to breastfeed.
A few weeks later, Turner brought a four-pack of lemon lavender cann to a small, detached gathering. "I was a little more talkative and some of my stress was melted away," she says. "I was less concerned about the broken oven in the cafe and I could be more engaged and present right now."
Apparently there are a lot of Kat Turners out there. According to BDS Analytics and New Frontier Data, beverages are the fastest growing segment of the cannabis industry. Of the people who both use cannabis and drink alcohol, almost half prefer the weeds. These customers - the very ones targeted by the makers of Cann, SHOKi, Calexo, Wunder, House of Saka, and Artet, as well as other new, non-alcoholic, low-dose, THC-infused beverage brands - are looking for a slight excitement but want to cut down on your alcohol consumption and sugary ones Soda in Scooby-Doo-style bottles won't cut it. Maybe you are one of those people.
Maybe I am one of those people? "The fastest growing consumer group is canna-curious women, ages thirty-five to fifty-five," said Tracey Mason, CEO of House of Saka. This is a group that Mason says may feel stigmatized to smoking and whose members are intimidated by the idea of stepping into a pharmacy and keeping up with the budget tender. Drinks are a more popular format. And, as Mason put it, in the middle of the worst pandemic in the country's history - from a disease affecting your respiratory system - "do you really want to rock a vape?"
Each serving of House of Saka non-alcoholic rosé or white wine contains THC and one milligram of CBD, which some manufacturers claim will help reduce unwanted THC effects like anxiety and paranoia. (Scientific studies are inconclusive, but show promise for this claim.) Having drank on both pink and white, I can vouch for the uplifting mood - like Turner, I was less concerned about the problems that arose during my work day although I felt more sluggish than chatty - but while the white was definitely wine-like, the pink just tasted like juice. But "the industry is moving so fast," says Mason, "that every time we manufacture, emulsion technology just keeps getting better."
That's the keyword for all of these brands: emulsion. Or rather, nanoemulsion. Oil, the main form of cannabis extract, does not mix with water and it takes some effort to happily marry her in order for you to have a tasty drink. In fact, entire companies are dedicated to this endeavor. House of Saka buys its emulsions from Vertosa, a force in cannabis-infused nanotechnology. Ben Larson, CEO of Vertosa, says the company has quintupled its monthly production of cannabis-infused beverages since April.
While the FDA, USDA, and science may define nanoemulsions differently, the point is that the droplets infused with cannabis oil are tiny - about ten times smaller in diameter than the technologies of the past, says Larson. In other words, the THC can spread evenly throughout your drink, resulting in a better mouthfeel than that of the earlier weed drinks, which tended to separate and leave an oily film on your lips.
"It also means it can hit you faster," says Larson's partner Harold Han, who wears scrubs and a hairnet two hours east of Toronto in Vertosa's new lab. In order not to get geeky, I'll rewrite what Han, who has a PhD. In Organic Chemistry and Surface Chemistry told me: nanoemulsion may intuitively mean an increase in the total surface area of the cannabis-infused droplets, which means faster absorption, which means you can get the effects of THC likely within fifteen minutes as opposed to an hour and An hour will feel halfway through. You will feel more in control of your high.
This more sophisticated category of THC drinks has been visible for a few years now. Introduced by Lagunitas in 2018, the IPA-inspired hi-fi hops were one of the first to use nanotechnology, followed a year later by Tinley, which started as a hemp beverage maker in 2015 and now makes non-alcoholic cannabis. Infused "spirits" and mixed drinks in bottles. Both definitely made the headlines for Soda Pot, but ran into confusion: do these drinks have alcohol and weed in them? Wait - is that okay? There is now more clarity on what these drinks are (low-THC infused, sedentary) and what are not (alcoholics, a gateway to the dark side of the moon), and in particular the technological improvements of recent years have made more room for nuances in the category.
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Half of the drinks in this new class are like cann sodas, though their makers don't call them that. "It's just a Calexo, baby," says Brandon Andrew with a wink from his Los Angeles home. Andrew, one of the three founders of Calexo, which he regards as a marriage between soda, champagne and beer because of its "sparkling, refreshing, optimistic brightness", did not try cannabis until he was thirty-four. Doctors diagnosed him with a rare form of eye cancer associated with impaired liver function and told Andrew he could no longer consume alcohol, but the longtime bartender loved the drinking culture. "It's so much about how and who I've become," he says. At ten milligrams of THC per serving, Calexo is at the upper end of the spectrum. The rest of the drinks in this category are anywhere from two to five milligrams. For context, for example, it may take a skilled cannabis user twenty or thirty milligrams to actually feel something, although, as anyone who has been stoned can tell you, tolerance varies widely.
The story of the making of Wunder, which was released in July, is a little different. Alexi Chialtas relied too heavily on alcohol to cope with the stress of working for Zynga, a gaming technology company that was a Silicon Valley favorite. "It was a rocket ship," he says. So where was the alcohol alternative? Where was a drink he could enjoy in a social setting that gave him a low buzz and still allowed him to go about his fatherly duties in the morning? Wunder is available in blood orange, watermelon and lemon-ginger flavors and contains a mixture of three cannabinoids: CBD, THC and delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a sibling of THC. "Delta-8 gives you the body relaxation that alcohol offers," says Chialtas. Many believe this is the future of cannabis drinks: brands could use various compounds in the plant in addition to CBD and THC. Instead of communicating the identity of a drink through branding and taste alone, there could be a third element: a unique high.
All of these brands are betting that enough people will want to drink weed - even if it tastes less like weed - for this niche category to really take off. Big Alcohol also buys into cannabis companies. When it comes to statewide legalization, everyone believes that it's all about when.
"New York has such a vibrant underground scene," said Tiffany Yarde, CEO of SHOKi Beverages. “They have these upscale, private dinners [with THC drink options]. That's what I'm excited about, what's to come - and it has nothing to do with putting people behind bars. "Yarde, whose family emigrated from Barbados in the 1970s, will soon have two flavors of their THC-infused cocktail mixers on California pharmacy shelves: passion fruit and mint. Pineapple and a spiced hibiscus blend, her grandmother's recipe, will be released in early 2021 "I want you to be able to enjoy your cannabis in a posh rooftop bar and not be ashamed. I want to question the idea of what a" normal "drinking experience should be."
This “normal” is also questioned by Xander Shepherd and his cousin Zachary Spohler, who founded Artet, an Italian-style alcohol-free aperitif inspired by Aperol. "We want to bring that experience to moments that have traditionally been in possession of alcohol but are not actually owned by alcohol," says Shepherd. Artet comes in a marine bottle with an abstract Matisse-meets-Miró design and, like most, is infused with THC and CBD. It's nifty, makes you feel warm, and isn't weedy. As Spohler says: "It doesn't always have to be about alcohol."
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