text: Jacob Muselmann / photography: Viet Nguyen & Blake Brown
published 11.28.2019

Pour one out for Millennials—their tipsy may soon be reaching a tipping point.

Earning less and often working more, maybe multitasking younger generations simply can’t afford it. Or perhaps it’s the ubiquity of walking, talking media brands—their peers—and their eagerness for salacious new content keeping those spontaneous (often compromising) wild nights at bay.

Whatever the reason, the numbers are sobering: Drinking among teens and early twenty-somethings has declined each generation since the Boomer era. Meanwhile, nonalcoholic beer sales have grown by 3.9% on average for the past five years, making it the fastest-growing segment in the beer industry. Young people, it seems, just aren’t getting stupid like they used to.

Thirsting for new revenue streams in a market fixated on wellness, some of the nation’s biggest beverage brands have begun to make inroads in the wild world of cannabis. Cannabis drinks pulled in $86 million in 2018, and are expected to be a $1.4 billion industry by 2023, according to beverage industry analyst Zenith Global. Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors, and Corona-maker Constellation Brands each announced partnerships with Canadian cannabis companies. And Diageo, parent of spirits such as Tanqueray and Johnnie Walker and recent majority holder of nonalcoholic spirit label Seedlip, is poised to make a similar move in the U.S.

Whether this is a prescient pivot or flimsy bandwagon betting is yet to be seen, but it does provide a unique opportunity for the cannabis market: a new way to consume for a broader, more mainstream customer base. Unlike smoking—obtrusive and stinky!—sipping has the potential to feel less like an illicit drug and more like the socially acceptable ones, like coffee and alcohol.

But there are some potential hiccups on the road to mainstream use, starting with the price. A four-pack of THC-infused bottled (nonalcoholic) margaritas runs around $25; so too could one 12 oz. bottle of gnarly lemonade. Just a glimpse could scare away consumers before they get to the details, like potency, which informs the price but is a wildcard all its own.

The potential pitfall with potency is that it’s all over the map. Early on, when the medicinal cannabis market was more niche, infused drinks reliably skewed strong. Now, a beer-sized infused drink might contain a modest 2.5 mg of THC…or a walloping 100 mg and beyond. While products with mind-erasing potencies are often divvied up into reasonable servings in fine print on the back label, one can easily see how they could induce a real nightmare for uneducated consumers (i.e., first-time buyers). If the goal of many of these brands is to replace social alcohol drinking, an uninvited psychosis isn’t the way there.

Perhaps the most basic issue regarding premades so far has been, does it actually taste good? With terms ranging from soapy and barnyard to dirty socks and urine, the Wall Street Journal surveyed many startups’ struggles to tamp down on the trifling taste of cannabis drinks, whether by soaking and straining, nanoemulsion, or selectively enhancing more palatable flavor profiles in the plant while attempting to minimize others, all to varied success.

As is often the case, some of the complications come from the oily, hydrophobic properties of cannabis compounds. This makes THC and CBD drinks prone to unsightly separation, with all of the greasy, grassy cannabis taste floating to the top, ready to kiss your lips. (Then again, lots of people routinely find a way to look past the less-than-exquisite taste of alcohol, so maybe there is hope?)

A newer wave of infused beverages, however, comes in the form of powder and liquid mixes, many of which use technology to extract the active ingredients while filtering out the unsavory elements, rather than fussing with flavors to disguise them.

“The problem with most mixes is that there’s usually some clumping or sediment, or like premades, the mix doesn’t stay suspended,” says Michael Frid, chief scientific officer at Manna Molecular Science. Another common problem, he says, is all the sugar.

“We always keep in mind that some of our customers may be diabetic or have diets that don’t involve carbohydrates or just people who watch what they eat,” Frid says. “So we’re very cognizant of not adding anything that will meaningfully impact anybody’s dietary intake.”

By extracting only the desired plant compounds and tweaking their chemistry, he and his team are in the lab developing drink mixes to get around these pitfalls, starting with the flavor: flavorless.

“If someone is drinking coffee, then presumably that person likes the taste of coffee,” he says. “We don’t want to interfere with what people already like.”
Employing the same nanoencapsulated liposomal technology used in Manna’s other products, the mixes are expected to similarly boost absorption rates and disperse evenly throughout the drink with a modest shake, Frid says.

Further testing, including pharmacokinetic studies, which are commonly done on new pharmaceuticals to examine what the body does to a drug, is planned sometime near the products’ launch, which is expected in early 2020.

The statements on Lab Notes have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products mentioned herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.