Northern California cannabis industry abuzz with beverage innovation

To get the buzz of cannabis in a faster, easier to control, more socially acceptable way, the latest focus is drinking it.

“It makes sense as an ingestion method, especially for new consumers. Smoking anything in front of people is not popular,” Aaron Silverstein, managing director and enologist with BevZero. The Santa Rosa-based company specializes in removing alcohol from beer, wine and cider.

“Traditional edibles take a few hours. With beverages, you feel the impact within 15 minutes so you can pace yourself. It mimics alcohol consumption. It’s not a huge part of the cannabis industry now, but I expect it to be significant in maybe 15 years where beverages will be 30% to 40% of all cannabis sales.”

Technology and entrepreneurship have contributed to the growing variety and availability of these drinks. But those in beverage industry complain a slew of unnecessary regulations, like what color bottle they can use, is holding them back.

“It’s by far the fastest growing sector of the industry,” said David Quintana, lobbyist for the Cannabis Beverage Association, based in Sacramento. “This way you can do your vice in public, you can have all the fun without the calories, and it’s a lot cheaper.”

Fortune Business Insights predicts cannabis beverages worldwide will be worth $8 billion by 2027.

In the North Bay the cannabis beverage trend is definitely growing.

“Beverages are one of the fastest growing categories at our store and in the cannabis industry. They are picking up a lot of traction,” said Eli Melrod, founder and CEO of Solful dispensary in Sebastopol. “Basically they didn’t exist in 2017 when we opened and now we don’t have enough cooler space. Still, beverages make up only 2.5% of all sales, but it was zero in 2017.”

Variety of beverages

Any beverage, except milk, can get a dose of cannabis without running afoul of the law. Wine is okay, if the alcohol is removed.

“The low-dose sparkling waters are hands down the most popular; in single servings and four- and six-packs,” Melrod said. “I think people are looking for ways to relax and ways to unwind. I think people perceive cannabis as a healthy alternative to alcohol.”

Aimee Henry, a director with Napa Cannabis Collective in Napa, said its two big sellers are Lagunitas’ cannabis-infused hoppy sparkling water and House of Saka wines.

House of Saka was founded in 2018 by Tracey Mason, a wine industry veteran, and Cynthia Salarizadeh, whose expertise is cannabis. In 2020, they sold 530 of the 675 cases of wine they produced. In 2021, they expect to produce 7,500 cases. The increase largely has to do with distribution expansion, though consumer demand and awareness of their products are also key.

The company makes alcohol-free Saka Pink, a rosé made from pinot noir grapes, and Saka White, a chardonnay. Grapes are sourced mostly from the Carneros region of Napa Valley. In February, Saka Sparkling will be introduced in single-serve bottles.

BevZero’s Silverstein, whose company removes alcohol from beverages, said it does not make sense to dealcoholize everything. For example, to do so with vodka would pretty much leave water. Spirits like tequila and bourbon that can rely on wood barrels to be part of the taste profile are also not good candidates for dealcoholization, he said.

For those wanting to imbibe a cannabis cocktail there are other ways to satisfy that craving by being a mixologist at home or on the road by adding cannabis liquid to a drink.

“It’s like a little ketchup packet that has liquid in it. It has 10 (milligrams) and you dump that into your mocktail,” explained Annie Holman with The Galley in Santa Rosa. “The packets are discrete; you can bring it in your purse.” Some are flavored, some aren’t.

The Galley can create these liquids and other beverages for companies in its kitchen, as well as bottle the product. Mobile bottle operations can be brought in if needed, as is similar to what some wineries do.

However, beer presents a different set of obstacles when it comes to taking the alcohol out because if in the process, too much oxygen gets in, it will ruin the batch.

“The big draw to beer is hops. Hops and cannabis are related to each other. There is a natural synergy,” said Wes Deal, co-founder and brewmaster at Barrel Brothers Brewing Company in Windsor. “Anytime you dealcoholize beer the flavor changes because alcohol does have flavor, and it affects mouth feel.”

He continues to experiment with taking the alcohol out of his line of beers to see what works. To start with the brewery has infused an IPA and a blonde ale. The products hit the market last fall. Valhalla Confections in Santa Rosa infuses the beer with cannabis and handles the distribution to dispensaries.

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