Cannabis entrepreneurs gear up to disrupt Big Beer

Will Canadians make the switch from suds to Sour Diesel? These companies are banking on it

MARCH 6, 2018

Once you’ve spoken with cannabis beer entrepreneur Dooma Wendschuh a few times, his pitch becomes familiar.

“I used to be the black sheep of the Canadian cannabis industry,” he says of his burgeoning weed beer and spirits company, Province Brands. “And now we're like the whitest sheep of them all. And that's precisely because Constellation Brands became the first Fortune 500 company to get into the industry.”

For the past three years, Wendschuh has been working non-stop to drum up investment in the company. But edibles won’t be legal in Canada until a full year after dried flower and oils are legalized later this year. And even then, will Canadians be tempted to replace beer with a cannabis brew? And are vape- or smoke-loving cannabis consumers interested in weed drinks?

But Wendschuh says investor attitudes changed after news broke that big booze powerhouse Constellation Brands bought a 9.9 per cent stake in cannabis company Canopy Growth. Suddenly, Province was attracting more interest, bringing in $2 million since October of 2017. They now have 16 full-time and part-time people on staff and he’s filed a provisional patent for its cannabis plant brewing technology. And soon, the company will sign a lease on a brewery about two hours outside of Toronto.

Wendschuh says the beer – which is in development in Boulder, Colorado, where it is legal to develop edibles -– is different from any other cannabis beverage or alcoholic beer on the market: rather than removing the alcohol from a conventional beer and infusing it with cannabis extracts, Province’s products are brewed from cannabis plant stocks and stems. They are alcohol-free, but do produce a "high" from THC in the plant. Hops and cannabis share similar flavours and scents, and some researchers even believe they’re even part of the same plant family. Cannabis replaces the barley typically used in the brewing process, and there are trace amounts of a vegetable oil and starch which accelerate the effects of the THC and CBD. Normally, cannabis edibles can take up to two hours to take effect.

Jordan Sinclair, Canopy’s director of communications and media, says its cannabis beverages plans are still in the “ideation” phase. But he said Constellation’s deep experience producing and marketing brands such as Corona will be useful, and that its partnership with Moellerup, a division of Spectrum Denmark, will lean on that company’s experience developing hemp seed beers to create cannabis beverages.

Approximately 22 per cent of Canadians use recreational cannabis on an occasional basis, according to Deloitte’s Recreational Marijuana report [PDF]. But we’re also heavy beer drinkers: 51 per cent of us prefer beer to wine (22 per cent) and spirits (27 per cent), according to a 2014 World Health Organization survey. And while we don’t drink alcohol as much as people in countries such as Russia, Lithuania and Belarus, those of us over the age of 15 consumed about 10.2 litres of pure alcohol in 2010. It's the most popular drink in Canada, but sales have declined since 2008, except for a slight increase in 2015.

Sinclair said that it’s that close relationship between Canadians and alcohol that could break the ice for new cannabis consumers when the rec market goes legal.

“We live in a stigmatized world,” Sinclair said. “The effects of prohibition are going to last a long time, so it might be strange for someone to show up at a dinner party with a Volcano vaporizer for the first time. It’s easier for people to introduce it in a format that is familiar to everybody. A bottle of wine is a universal concept. A cooler filled with a few beers is an entry point – that’s the thinking. We want to change what people’s perception is of cannabis, and we think this is a cool way to do it.”

In a study examining how legal medical cannabis impacts alcohol consumption, researchers at the University of Connecticut said booze sales have dropped by approximately 13 per cent since medical cannabis was made accessible.

But it could be a tough sell, particularly for the craft beer aficionados who loyally shop at their local breweries.

“People drink [craft beer] because they're really interested in the styles of beer, they're really connected with the local breweries and the people that are making it and they're really interested in the flavour profiles,” said Crystal Luxmore, an advanced Cicerone-certified beer writer and events planner. “But I do think that breweries are worried about market share and losing sales of beer as people choose to consume cannabis instead and maybe don’t want to drink as much.”

Hemp beers aren’t new: rec cannabis brand San Rafael '71 recently launched its lightly hemp-flavoured 420 pale ale with Amsterdam Brewing. And Toronto’s Cool Beer brewery developed its Millennium Buzz lager, flavoured with toasted hemp seed in 2001. But it took two years of negotiating with Ontario’s Liquor Control Board to get the product on shelves. Now, with legalization on the horizon, the company has ramped up marketing efforts and they’re seeing results: even though the beer is a conventional brew with toasted hemp seed, Cool’s Andrew Costa says sales have increased, likely thanks to the cannabis leaf on the product’s label.

“We’ve been ahead of the game,” Costa said. “Brewing beer with hemp and cannabis will become a popular trend post-legalization.”