As cannabis laws loosen the industry for edibles and cannabis infused drinks is set to grow, with some commentators predicting doom and gloom for the beer industry as consumers seek to spend their recreational dollars in cannabis instead of beer.
But the Brewers Association - the trade body representing US craft brewers - says that competition from cannabis is unlikely to be any different to that from existing competitors such as wine and spirits.
Meanwhile, cannabis could bring a host of opportunities for innovation, with craft brewers unlikely to shield away from the controversial move of mixing alcohol and cannabis should it become legally permissible.
Concern over cannabis
Cannabis was legalised for recreational use in Canada earlier this year with edibles set to follow in 2019. Meanwhile, a select number of US states have also legalised recreational cannabis.
Increasing liberalisation of cannabis laws looks likely to follow across other US states and potentially at a federal level in the coming years.
While this would open up the market for cannabis infused products, some brewers are worried that their consumers could turn to cannabis or cannabis infused products instead of beer.
Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, says that a number of craft brewers are concerned about the impact of cannabis on their businesses and that there have indeed been anecdotal stories from brewers who see consumers turning to cannabis instead of beer. But he says that there has been no large scale tangible effect of cannabis legalisation on the craft beer market to date.
“Is it a concern? Yes. Are we seeing hard evidence so far that - in states where cannabis is legal - it’s cutting into sales of craft beer? No, we’re not,” he said, speaking to BeverageDaily at Brau Beviale in Germany this month.
“We look at that very closely – we look at Colorado, California, Washington State in particular – and in those three states there’s no data to support the supposition that cannabis will become a substitute for craft beer. Craft beer’s share of market in all three of those states continues to grow.”
While cannabis may emerge as a competitor to craft beer, Pease sees this as no different to any other competitors the craft beer sector already has.
“We look at cannabis as just another product beer consumers can choose to enjoy with their disposable income – just like wine, spirits – just like the iPhone. We think the iPhone is a bigger threat right now, probably, to beer than cannabis. You used to go out to meet people, go out to a bar… now you just swipe right on your phone, you don’t need to go anywhere. All this is just part of the evolving society.”
With Canada legalizing recreational cannabis this year, this market could help US craft brewers understand the impact potential cannabis legalisation across US states could have.
“We’re certainly watching what happens in Canada right now, federal legalisation, that’s really the big bellweather, what happens in a nation that size.”
Beer and cannabis
Beer giants Constellation Brands and Molson Coors have both made significant investments in cannabis: Constellation Brands with its $4bn investment in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth and Molson Coors Canada with its joint venture called Truss.
These are both looking to develop non-alcoholic cannabis infused beverages.
Heineken's Lagunitas, meanwhile, has released a cannabis infused sparkling water this year.
Cannabis and alcohol? ‘It’s mindboggling’
Cannabis infused products – such as cannabis infused waters, coffees and teas, are creeping onto the market in several US states. Brewers cannot, however, create cannabis infused beer.
“Right now you cannot legally make cannabis infused beer,” said Pease. “It would be a violation of your federal permit to sell beer commercially.
"But things change, and I can certainly foresee a day where cannabis is legal on the federal level, where it will be legal to make beer with cannabis, and we want to position our brewers to be able to compete in that space if and when that day does happen.”
What could cannabis infused beers look like? Innovation could go in all directions, says Pease: whether it’s with CBD, THC, non-alcoholic beer or even alcoholic beer.
And while a combination of cannabis and alcohol would certainly draw criticism, craft brewers are not ones to shy away from controversy, says Pease.
“To make a beer that has alcohol and also has cannabis in, see how those two substances interact – the aspect of creativity and experimentation – it’s mindboggling,” he said. “That’s where eventually, you could see brewers end up,” he said.
“We are used to controversy - alcohol itself is always under some element of attack. I think my motto would be that beer can be part of a healthy everyday lifestyle and would imagine the same approach could be taken for cannabis."