Drink up: 5 strategies for making cannabis-infused beverages

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This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series offering tips and advice for marijuana and hemp extraction companies. The fourth installment is available here.

Cannabis activists have been saying for decades that the plant should be regulated like alcohol. Now science is helping to make cannabis act like alcohol, too.

Extraction scientists and formulators are racing toward faster and cheaper ways to make cannabinoid molecules – which are naturally hydrophobic and therefore impossible to dissolve in water – suitable for incorporating into drinks.

Cannabis binds readily to fat but not to water, which explains why people have long incorporated THC into buttery baked goods such as brownies.

Alcohol, on the other hand, is water-soluble, so it’s commonly mixed into drinks but less so into foods.

But technology is giving cannabis producers better ways to change cannabinoids’ fat-loving ways and incorporate the molecules into water, sodas and even energy drinks.

The innovations help cannabis drinks overcome limitations in taste and stability that have long left consumers with a bad taste in their mouths – literally.

Booming sector

The cannabis drinks sector is getting downright crowded, with beer giants Pabst Blue Ribbon, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors all testing cannabis beverages.

Analytics giant NielsenIQ reported a 25% increase in products containing hemp-derived CBD sold in grocery, drug and convenience stores in 2020, despite cooling sales for CBD drinks overall.

And still more cannabis drinks are coming. Just this month, CBD extractor c received a grant of 227,000 euros ($274,000) from the German Ministry of Economic Affairs to develop water-compatible THC-free cannabinoid emulsion.

Longtime cannabis-product developers say the secret to success in the cannabis beverage game starts at the very beginning, when products are formulated.

Hemp Industry Daily caught up with senior cannabis-product manufacturing executives to find out what makes a successful water-compatible formula and what it costs to bring a product to market. Here are five of their key takeaways:

Start with taste

Cannabinoids need to pair up with water-friendly molecules to get into a liquid and stay suspended there. The challenge is finding the right emulsifier that helps two liquids mix.

“When we start talking to a customer about water solubility, we talk to them about the desired consistency, the desired aroma,” said Casey Flippo, CEO of Natvana, a contract hemp processor in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“You can use a lot of different base substances to encapsulate those cannabinoids and create the ability for them to attach to the water molecule. They have different consistencies and create different end results,” he said.

“It depends what flavor or aroma you’re going for. For example, something with a milky consistency might be great for products that already have some form of discoloration but not for a water.”

Think about packaging

A liquid cannabis product can be judged by its cover, because packaging can have a significant impact on the product inside.

Some cannabis emulsions can “stick” to plastic bottles or the polymer linings in traditional aluminum cans, reducing potency. Others need opaque packaging to keep out light.

So a product manufacturer must consider how the liquid cannabinoid product will be sold.

If the packaging plan isn’t flexible, that must be considered.

“Packaging compatibility is big,” said Harold Han, founder of Vertosa, a company in Oakland, California, that makes THC seltzers for Pabst Labs to sell under the Pabst Blue Ribbon label.

“Are you putting THC in an aluminum can? In a glass bottle? They’re all different.”

Timing is flexible – to a point

Have a time horizon in mind before developing a cannabis-infused drink.

Companies that make water-compatible cannabis can either sell you a ready-made formula – say, a citrusy mix-in – or work with you to develop your own recipe.

Han says his company worked for three years to get the Pabst Blue Ribbon lemon seltzer ready for sales.

“We have some things ready to go, like a unique cider or some unique gumming formula. (But) it’s just a formula. It’s not really a finished product,” he said.

“A big client or a big company, we go forward with a lot of research. We want to have something repeated so we can license that recipe to them.”

Han reminds customers that making a cannabis drink that tastes good and stays homogenous isn’t easy.

“I really encourage our clients to be patient. No one has the patience to wait and to follow the data because they need a decision tomorrow. But you have to balance that out.”

Watch for new technology

One product manufacturer in Colorado is using chelation, a process of causing metal ions in water to bind to other molecules, to bypass emulsion and make cannabinoids more compatible.

Commonly used to soften hard water, chelation is being used at Vantage Hemp to bind cannabinoid molecules.

According to Chief Operating Officer Deepank Utkhede, cannabis emulsions will always struggle with long-term shelf stability. Chelation, however, prevents settling.

“You create a complex whereby you take that … water-hating molecule, and you basically encompass it. You basically put it into a complex that gives it an outside sphere. The outside part of it is able to dissolve in water.”

Confused about the difference between chelation and emulsification? That could be a sign to follow the fifth takeaway.

Don’t go it alone

Skilled product manufacturers concede the internet is awash in easy-to-order emulsifying powders and products that promise to make a cannabis extract water-soluble.

But they say the price of professionally formulated emulsions has come down so significantly that DIY cannabis liquids aren’t worth the gamble.

“When we first started R&D on water concentrates, we were probably spending somewhere in the ballpark of $2,500 to $3,000 a kilo to produce the right product. And that was because of the emulsifiers being so ridiculously expensive,” Flippo said.

“We’ve been able to develop the methodologies in our water-soluble concentrates for a fraction of that. You’re talking about taking something that was $2,500 a kilo and producing it for $200.”

Han agreed that outsourcing water compatibility makes sense for most product manufacturers.

“Don’t do it yourself,” Han said. “You buy software, right? Already made by the software company. You don’t hire 20 coders to code Excel for you. You just buy it, and it can be customized to you.”

Kristen Nichols can be reached at [email protected].