Matt Hawes admits it’s a little late – or early – in the year for Shipyard Brewing’s Pumpkinhead ale to hit stores and bars again, but when his company tested the first batch of its Pumpkinhead “THC elixir,” Hawes said he and his colleagues decided the brew was too tasty to wait.
The cannabis-infused beverage is the first from Novel Beverage, a Scarborough-based manufacturer specializing in what it believes will become the next big thing among adult-use cannabis products in Maine. Industry experts agree that beverages infused with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, eventually will comprise a large share of the adult-use market.
Novel’s foray into the market comes through a partnership with popular Portland brewery Shipyard Brewing Co. Another partnership with Bangor-based Sea Dog Brewing Co. will produce a THC elixir version of Sea Dog’s Wild Blueberry Wheat ale, scheduled to be released in a few weeks.
The drinks, which are steeped using grains and hops, are designed to look like beer and in some ways behave like beer. But with no alcohol and their own flavor profiles, which the company insists don’t just taste like marijuana, the products are their own distinct beverages.
Because of a process known as “nanoemulsification,” drinkers will feel the beverages’ effects in 15 or 20 minutes, according to Hawes, and they will last for about two hours. That’s a divergence from traditional cannabis-infused edibles, which can take an hour or more to kick in and several hours to wear off. The shorter high makes the drinks more “user-friendly,” Hawes said, and allows for better dosage control.
Nanoemulsification works by taking large cannabis oil droplets and breaking them down into tiny particles that can mix with water in a way that allows the body to absorb a higher amount of the THC, according to the cannabis information website Leafly.
With no odor and, naturally, no smoke, the drink is “perfect for social occasions” and is something a cannabis user doesn’t need to step outside to imbibe, he said.
The alcohol alternative is just about to launch in Maine, but it’s expected to take off in a big way.
The global cannabis-infused beverage market is projected to reach $2.8 billion by 2025, up from $1.2 billion in 2019, according to a report from San Francisco-based market research and consulting firm Grand View Research.
Larger alcoholic beverage companies seem to be taking note.
Last summer, California brewery Lagunitas, owned by Heineken, launched its own THC-infused “beer.”
“Hi-Fi Hops,” which comes in versions with either 5 or 10 milligrams of THC, is inspired by the beer company’s IPA and is only available in California and Colorado. The product is marketed as having no alcohol, carbohydrates or calories.
In 2018, Canadian pot firm Canopy Growth received a $4 billion investment from Constellation Brands, a major U.S. producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits, including Corona, Robert Mondavi wines and Svedka Vodka. The company is expected to launch its line of cannabis-infused beverages soon.
Novel’s beverages will set shoppers back about $7 for a 12-ounce bottle, which Hawes said is in line with other high-quality craft beverages. Bottles will contain 5 mg of TCH each and will be available in seven recreational marijuana shops across the state: SeaWeed Co., Theory Wellness and Maine Cannabis Exchange in South Portland, Sweet Dirt in Waterville, Northland Botanicals in Stratton and Brothers Cannabis in Bangor, which Hawes opened with his brother, Greg, in February.
With its relatively low THC content and speedy high, Hawes said, Novel’s drink is a good choice for people who may be curious about cannabis but don’t want to smoke anything or are wary of the powerful high a potent edible can induce.
As with any mind-altering substance, though, Hawes cautioned that anyone unfamiliar with using cannabis should start slowly.
“It’s better to drink half a bottle and not feel it than to have two and have an uncomfortable experience,” he said.
The first batch of about 200 cases will be a limited release, Hawes said. After its initial run, Pumpkinhead will become a seasonal product and be released again in the fall.
Blue Paw, the THC-infused version of Sea Dog’s Wild Blueberry Wheat Ale, will follow a few weeks later and be available year-round.
According to Karl Alterman, managing director of Innovative Liquid Solutions, the company helping the Shipyard and Sea Dog brands explore cannabis-based beverages, the decision to expand beyond beer was a natural one.
“They’ve always been innovators in craft beverages and in that world,” he said about the breweries. “With the legalization of cannabis in Maine, it naturally created a new opportunity. There are a lot of people who have been discovering cannabis products as an alternative to alcohol. It just made sense to try to develop products that appeal to our customer base who are discovering THC is something that helps them relax and get into the same headspace that alcohol used to.”
Innovative Liquid plans to pursue other opportunities in the cannabis industry for Sea Dog and Shipyard nationwide, but only once they “perfect the craft in Maine,” Alterman said.
With the two flagship beverages set to launch soon, they are already discussing other products, including versions of other seasonal favorites, he said.
The partnership with Novel Beverage is “something we’re really proud of,” Alterman said. “We’re thrilled to be working with them.”
The possibility of a Novel-branded beverage isn’t entirely off the table, Hawes said, but the company plans to stick to its business model as a contract manufacturer.
That said, Blue Paw and Pumpkinhead won’t be the only Novel beverages hitting the market this year.
A line of sodas – including cola, orange soda and root beer – is expected to be ready within the month.
Hawes, who moved back to Maine from California about eight years ago, has worked in the legal cannabis sector for 22 years and is a big fan of regulated markets, which he said have facilitated the development of more specialized products.
THC-infused beverages are the “most exciting thing to happen to cannabis in my career,” he said, calling them “the future of the market.”
Hawes isn’t the only one to think so.
THC-infused beverages are “primed for dynamic growth over the next few years,” said John Kagia, chief knowledge officer for New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C.-based cannabis data, analytics and technology firm.
Historically, beverages and the rest of the edibles category have faced some fundamental problems, including the delayed high, marijuana flavor profile and unpredictable dosing, Kagia said. Because of that, edibles always have lagged behind other product categories.
But in the past few years, innovation within the industry has helped address those problems, he said, and there’s now a flood of opportunity within the sector, as seen in the range of beverages appearing on the market.
Edibles make up about 10 percent of the legal U.S. cannabis market, and within that, beverages account for about 4 percent.
Kagia expects that to grow.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a fairly significant acceleration of cannabis acceptance while the (product) landscape has also expanded significantly,” he said. “More markets are legal now, and with more legal and operational markets, there are more cannabis-infused products available to consumers. As we think about getting back into social society post-pandemic, I expect to see greater visibility of cannabis-infused products in social settings.”