As regulations loosen and cannabis products become more mainstream, the average consumer is learning how to differentiate between non-psychoactive CBD and hemp in food, beverage and lifestyle products, and the high-inducing THC.
Keef Brands from Colorado was founded in 2010 and was one of the first companies to infuse soda with THC. Now the industry is crowded with cannabis beverages, and CEO Erik Knutson has seen the market evolve and adapt over the last decade.
“The cannabis industry is shifting towards a trend of normalization,” he told BeverageDaily. “As decriminalization and legalization of responsible adult-use continues to emerge across the US, we expect cannabis consumption to become less taboo and more products, in more variety, will be readily available to consumers.”
Knutson likened the future accessibility of cannabis to the revolution of gluten-free food. Even 10 years ago, gluten free options were hard to come by and confusing to understand, and now they are commonplace in most retail, bar and restaurant establishments.
He said that there has been a significant and growing demand for more specialized, branded and top-quality products, infused with both CBD and THC. There is less of a stigma around the industry, and full legalization is complete in 10 US states.
“While I don’t think alcohol will disappear completely from our culture, I think more people will start to opt for cannabis-based beverages as these drinks become more accessible to the public.”
A difference in nutrition
US adults have been cutting back on alcohol, choosing low ABV options or ditching it altogether with mocktails and other alternatives. There’s been an upswing in the craft mocktail market, spurring the drive to skip the booze.
Knutson points to the difference in nutrition as a major factor for people choosing a cannabis soda over a beer.
Knutson has noticed that many cannabis beverages on the market are lower in calories and higher in nutrients than alcoholic drinks.
Keef sells 12 flavors of Keef Cola, two flavors of Keef Sparkling Water and a handful of other shots and flavors. The Cola comes in varieties like Bubba Kush Root Beer, Orange Kush, Purple Passion and Blue Razz.
The Keef Life drinks are less than 50 calories per bottle, and Knutson said that Keef Sparkling is the world’s first zero-calorie and zero-sugar cannabis-infused sparkling water. He believes beverages like Keef can give alcohol a run for its money because of their ability to assimilate into traditional alcohol occasions.
Keef markets its drinks as easy substitutes for beer and wine in both high-intensity and casual settings. Knutson sees them fitting into after-work drinks and drinks with dinner occasions as well as weekend events.
Arbitrary dosage numbers?
One of the biggest struggles cannabis-infused drink developers have faced is choosing the right dosage for mirroring the onset time of alcohol. Knutson said it’s been a particular concern for regulators, as 10mg of THC has long been the industry standard for single servings in edibles.
Knutson described this number ‘pretty arbitrary’ and the ‘product of negotiation,’ given that reaction time can vary so widely.
“Personally, I prefer a 5mg THC dose, especially in beverages, as it allows for longer periods of consumption. For me, one 5mg dose is equivalent to a 6-8% beer,” he said.
“Our ability to replicate a consistent and relevant onset time has improved tremendously with the implementation of our newest emulsification formula. Most customers experience onset within 10-15 minutes as opposed to 30-45 minutes with traditional edibles.”
After nearly 10 years in business, Keef sells a range of cannabis-infused beverages, edibles and oils at more than 800 retail locations in Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. It plans to launch in California this summer.