Beer That Gets You High Has Arrived, And It's Just The Beginning
Inside a Denver bottling plant, Keith Villa watches as rows and rows of 10-ounce silver bottles whisk by, all filled with a golden-colored Belgian-style ale called Grainwave.
It looks and tastes like beer. But instead of alcohol, there's 5 milligrams of THC mixed inside. That's the psychoactive compound in marijuana that gets you high.
The brand is CERIA. The company's inaugural brew hit more than 50 dispensary shelves across the state last December, making it the first mass-produced THC-infused beer on the market.
It's likely not the last.
Recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado for just over five years, giving rise to a booming industry.
Last year, total sales in the state hit nearly $1.6 billion — a new record.
But changes in federal and state laws around cannabis sales are ushering in yet another wave of new marijuana and hemp products — and Colorado brewers, driven by their penchant to create beer out of almost anything, see an opportunity.
Villa said he envisions endless variations for his product.
"You could pretty much simulate the beer world," he said during a recent tour. "Everything from a light beer like a Coors Light, Bud Light, Miller Light all the way up to a super heavy imperial stout or a barrel-aged product. Really, the sky's the limit."
The United States' market for edibles is expected to top $3 billion a year by 2022.
In that same time, the cannabis-infused beverage space — which includes beer made with marijuana and hemp — is expected to grow to $1 billion, according to cannabis market research firm BDS Analytics.
Legalization is one obvious factor driving the growth, said Jessica Lukas, BDS' vice president of consumer insights.
Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot sales so far, with more likely to come on board. Canada also became the first country to fully legalize the drug last October.
Beverages have a broader consumer base than other marijuana products, Lukas said. A lot of consumers, she added, are more comfortable holding a drink than vaping or smoking.
"If you have a beverage that is infused with cannabis and it has an appropriate level of THC or whatever the other cannabinoids might be, you don't have to think too hard about how to consume that and what that looks like to other people," she said.
Several established names in Colorado craft brewing have launched or are considering selling their own spin on cannabis-infused beer.
Last spring, New Belgium Brewing released the Hemperor HPA, an IPA made with non-psychoactive hemp seeds or "hearts." It was a big success.
But not everyone was receptive at first.
The state of Kansas refused to allow its sale, said Bryan Simpson, communications director at New Belgium.
"They balked and said 'No, we're not comfortable with it,'" he said.
The state banned the beer for about 10 months.
Due to some advocacy work on the company's part and changes in last year's farm bill that legalized industrial hemp at the federal level, Kansas eventually came around, Simpson said.
Now New Belgium is selling its hemp seed beer in all 50 states and looking at brewing using the whole plant.
"For us, we'll be able to look at our recipe and go back to different strains of hemp and reimagine the entire project," he said. "I think drinkers can look forward to a whole-hemp HPA in the near future."
Aurora-brewer Dads and Dudes Breweria is already offering a hemp-based, CBD-infused beer. Odell's in Fort Collins is hoping to do the same soon, according to a company spokesman.
The Brewers Association, a national trade group based in Boulder, surveyed thousands of its members last year on whether they'd consider making cannabis-infused beers.
Julia Herz, craft beer program director, said nearly half would consider it if federal regulations allow.
"Craft brewers — as the innovators that they are — are always going to be looking for what's next of next," she said.
For Villa, who also created Blue Moon, making beer with cannabis isn't all that different from traditional brewing.
He points to a nearby glass beaker full of bubbling green goo. It's concentrated THC.
"Hops and cannabis are like close cousins in the plant world," he said. "Here, we're almost recreating the brewing process by putting oils in solution."
Once cooled, a lab technician pours the goo into big fermentation tanks where it mixes with the beer and loses its distinct marijuana flavor and — most importantly — smell.
Villa cringes at the scent of his new product's star ingredient.
"Some people describe it as the smell of a dead skunk on the side of the road," he said. "And that certainly is not appealing."
A long hose carries the finished brew to the production line.
Once the bottles are filled, a robot seals them with childproof caps. Another machine wraps each with a dark blue and gold label. Then, it's off to pasteurization, packaging and shipping.
"It's almost unreal," Villa said. "I would never have dreamed of this as little as five years ago, but here we are."
For those curious about the taste — it's only available in dispensaries and it's not cheap to try.
Depending on the chain, CERIA goes for about $9 dollars a bottle and $36 for a six-pack.
Villa said due to its initial success in Colorado, he's now looking to expand the company's operations to California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Canada in the next year.
"Because up there (in Canada), smokeables became legal last October. But edibles and drinkables will not legal until this coming October 2019," he said. "By that time we'll have a lot of sales experience, marketing experience to know what works in the marketplace."