Cannabis Beverages 101: What Are Drinkables?

One of the newest “edibles” on the cannabis market may also be one of the oldest – the cannabis-infused beverage. What appears “new” to Western cultures has existed in Asia for thousands of years. From China’s cannabis-infused tea to India’s highly popular Bhang, these beverages can be traced back to ancient cultures that leveraged the medicinal and therapeutic characteristics of cannabis.

Following the Road Back to Infused Beverages

Why don’t cannabis beverages already exist and how did we lose our way from cannabinoid-infused teas, alcohols, and additives? If you haven’t read our article on “The Return of the Cannabis Kitchen,” feel free to give it a toke and then pass it along to a friend. We take a deep dive into the history of cannabis and how it has been used in food and beverages for over 4,000 years. (And probably much, much longer.)

In the 1800s, cannabis was used in the United States for its medicinal properties. And then, in 1937, the United States passed the Marijuana Tax Act. This was the first of several legislations that would ultimately lead to marijuana’s inclusion on the Schedule I drug list, which states that cannabis has no medicinal or therapeutic value. However, cannabis advocates are nothing if not masters of perseverance and creativity.

By 1984, Mary Jane Rathbun began fearlessly pushing back on the anti-cannabis legislature, and not long after, California became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana in 1996. She had crowbarred the door open for cannabis, and of course, cannabis-infused drinks. Today, we live in an exciting time where culinary artists and chefs can once again introduce the benefits of cannabis into countless food and drink products.

Weller CBD Sparkling Water
Weller, based in Boulder, Colorado was founded by natural food industry veterans with a focus on natural, high-quality, plant-based ingredients.

What Are Cannabis Beverages?

Nearly every type of drink can be infused with cannabis. Granted, there are production challenges depending on the compounds and ingredients, but this has not stopped bars and beverage manufacturers from infusing the following, popular drinks with cannabinoids:

  • Craft and mega-brewery beers
  • Various types of tea
  • Wine
  • Alcohol-free cocktails
  • Soda, colas
  • Seltzer or sparkling water

As restaurants, bars, and foodservice managers know, a roadblock is just another opportunity to innovate. And innovate they have, using modern, culinary technology to bring the canna-craze to our favorite drinks.

It’s also important to note that just because a drink is marketed as being infused with cannabis, does not mean it contains THC or will get you high. We’ll touch on this later in this article.

Keef Cannabis-Infused Beverages
Keef produces THC- and THC/CBD-infused beverages with electrifying flavors ranging from Bubba Kush Root Beer to Pineapple Mocktail.

The Science of Cannabis Beverages

Food science relies on several branches of scientific study including chemistry, microbiology, and engineering. As it happens, the manufacturing of edibles also relies on these same disciplines. In fact, if you cultivate your own cannabis, you’ll also need to know some botany. It’s the ensemble of these sciences that has driven the success of edibles, especially drinkables.

Edibles consisting of baked goods or infused menu items can often be made using cannabis-infused oils and butter. These infused ingredients are far easier to produce because cannabis oil naturally mixes with other oils, fats, and lipids. Drinkables on the other hand, have a much taller hurdle to jump…

cannabis-infused butter
Cannabis compounds dissolve and bond with other oil and fat molecules, making cannabis-infused butter a popular medium for baking edibles. To homogenize cannabinoids into water-based liquids, an emulsifier is often needed.

Emulsion – Bringing It All Together

Cannabis-infused drink manufacturing relies heavily on the process of emulsion. As ganjapreneurs know, cannabis oil or resin consists of hydrocarbons and lipids. And as everybody knows, oil and water don’t mix. So how the heck do you get cannabinoids and terpenes to dissolve in a water-based beverage?

Answer: Emulsification. This term can be defined as an additive whose molecule has a polar (ionic) end, while the other end is a hydrocarbon. The polar end of the molecule is soluble in water, and the hydrocarbon end is soluble in oils and fats.

How Emulsion Works
Emulsifiers such as soap, are molecules structured to be part water-soluble and part oil or fat-soluble. The same principle that allows soap and detergents to remove dirt and grease from our hands and clothes, can also be used to homogenize mixtures containing both water and oil-based ingredients.

Over 10,000 years ago, cows discovered the secret to combining oil and water, and we called it “milk,” one of the first emulsions. In fact, the term “emulsify” can be loosely translated from Latin as, “milk” or “to milk.” As always, nature is ahead of the curve. Cows naturally produce a protein called casein, which is the emulsifier that transforms the water and fats found in milk into one, stable solution. It also gives milk its white color.

The Application of Emulsifiers in Cannabis Kitchens

Like all restaurants, emulsions exist on the menu of every cannabis kitchen. These manufactured products have become part of our everyday lives at mealtime and include:

  • Pesto
  • Hollandaise
  • French Style Ice Cream (with egg yolk)
  • Chocolate Milk
  • Cannabis-infused Beverages

Emulsions can be found on nearly every restaurant menu and are widely used in the processing of countless food items. As you can see, we’re no stranger to this chemical technology.

Boneyard Elixir CBD Sparkling Beverages
Busy on the line, Boneyard Elixir crafts sparkling CBD beverages with crisp water from the aquifers in the High Cascade mountain range and fresh hemp grown out of Oregon.

Why Emulsion is Essential to Cannabis Infusion

You might be thinking, “If you can dissolve cannabinoids in ethanol, then wouldn’t cannabis oil be a perfect match for an alcoholic additive?” And scientifically speaking, you would be correct, however federal law prohibits the infusion of any cannabinoid or terpene into an alcoholic beverage. See more below under, “Legal Challenges.

We can see that chemists and molecular gastronomists cracked the case on “oil and water don’t mix” a long time ago. This was a critical precursor to cannabis drinks because cannabis resin is in the family of oils and fats, whereas many of our favorite drinks are water-based. Some of the first cannabis beverages were thick and lumpy – much like the consistency of salad dressing. Emulsification changed that.

Backyard Bev Co CBD Cocktail Syrup
CBD cocktail syrups by Backyard Bev Co are the perfect way to incorporate CBD in spirits, champagne, sparkling water, desserts, and more.

What Are the Benefits of Cannabis-infusion?

Cannabis beverages have several distinct advantages over “baked” edibles. The cannabinoids mixed into infused beverages are easier to absorb and can begin making their way to the bloodstream through the membranes in our mouths, esophagus, and stomach. This allows the effects to be felt more quickly than ingesting a cookie, gummy or other edibles that get processed by the liver.

In many ways, we can thank the process of emulsion and homogenization for the bump in drinkable efficiency. The solution to the “oil and water don’t mix” dilemma also results in a liquid edible that is much easier to consistently dose. Since many drinkables only need a fraction of the time to take effect, medical cannabis users experience relief in about 15 to 30 minutes rather than the traditional 1-2 hour countdown.

For the health-conscious, drinkables can be crafted into low-calorie seltzers and teas. And THC isolates can be used to mitigate the scents and flavors associated with the cannabis plant that some find unpleasant. This allows customers to enjoy the natural flavors of the drink being served.

Happi THC-Infused Sparkling Beverages
Image courtesy of Happi, the first THC-infused sparkling beverage on the market in Michigan.

Common Challenges With Infusing Cannabis

Cannabis has been a steady companion to humans as we’ve traveled through history. Unfortunately, our relationship with cannabis was at its lowest point when our ability to perform high-tech culinary feats was at its highest. That said, mixologists, chefs, and food scientists have been making up ground in spectacular fashion, knocking down barriers one by one to bring cannabis to foodservice.

Manufacturing Challenges

We’ve already discussed the challenges associated with the manufacturing of cannabis and hemp-infused beverages above. Through the application of solutions already being used by foodservice, cosmetic, and retail industries, cannabis oil and water-based beverages can be infused together. Science to the rescue! Who said, “oil and water don’t mix?”

Although it can be tricky to infuse some beverages with CBD or THC, using the correct compounds and formulas can overcome the most significant mixing and manufacturing. This, in turn, has opened the door to a vast array of drinkable possibilities.

The holy grail of THC-infused alcohol isn’t available… for now. The laws surrounding the introduction of cannabinoids into alcoholic beverages are very complicated, especially at the state level. However, on the federal level, the laws are simple – you cannot infuse cannabinoids into an alcoholic beverage, nor can you sell drinkables and alcohol in the same establishment.

Under the section labeled, “Alcohol Labeling and Formulation, section A29,” the federal rules are clear. You cannot infuse alcohol with THC or CBD. Then again, the laws surrounding cannabis or hemp-infusion are as thick as rosin and just as sticky, so always be sure to check the laws in your state for clarification.

There is no current scenario where beer, wine, or liquor can be legally infused with CBD at the federal level. However, the laws quickly change and vary from state to state. So as always, be vigilant in keeping up with your state’s cannabis and liquor laws.

Marketing Challenges

Cannabis remains on the US government’s schedule 1 drug list alongside the likes of heroin. While this remains true, advertising platforms including Google Ads (the largest advertising platform) will not run advertisements of any kind that use keywords that reference cannabis, THC, or even CBD. This makes digital marketing a bit of a challenge. In addition, cannabis products cannot be sold or shipped across state lines.

There is a little wiggle room for hemp-derived cannabinoids, but even these can be challenging to get approved by advertisement platforms. Some basic tips for advertising your drinkables include:

  • Avoiding the use of the word “Cannabis” in digital ads.
  • Lean into “hemp-infused” as hemp and hemp-derived cannabinoids have been legalized. This is still a bit dicey as the FDA has not approved CBD-infusion into food and drinks, but it’s a much easier digital battlefield.
  • Currently, most cannabis-infused drinks leverage CBD, not THC. Advertising your drinkable as a canna-beverage may generate hype but can leave some customers disappointed when they find the cannabinoid used is CBD.
  • If your state allows THC-infusion into alcohol-free drinks, consult a lawyer familiar with your state’s laws to ensure your advertising stays within legal bounds. For example, you cannot advertise tobacco or alcohol to children.

By advertising your drinkables within the limits of your state laws, you avoid headaches such as having your advertisements taken down, being fined, or worse.

Fortifying Your Minimalist Menu With Expanded Drink Options

It’s becoming increasingly popular for restaurants and foodservice businesses to scale back their menu offerings. There are tremendous cost savings in streamlining your supply chain and reducing the use of expensive and rarely used ingredients. That said, one way to offset a minimalistic menu, is to have a creative drink selection that contains ingredients that are easier to source.

Although you cannot currently sell both alcohol and cannabis beverages in the same establishment, CBD-infused drinkables (which includes most cannabeers and wines) may be a candidate for sober bars, that intentionally do not sell alcohol. Again, do your homework and become very familiar with the laws surrounding cannabis and liquor licenses and permits.

Cheers to Weller CBD sparkling water!
Cheers! Image courtesy of Weller.

Are Cannabis-Infused Drinks Right for Your Business?

Infused beverages are gaining momentum, and it’s easy to see why. Let’s recap some of the advantages drinkables have over other edibles:

  • Drinkable popularity is increasing exponentially every year. Drinkables can modernize your beverage selection.
  • The method cannabis-infused beverages are manufactured makes the cannabinoids more bioavailable. This means their effects can be felt much quicker than baked dishes and desserts such as the famous cannabis brownie.
  • Cannabeverages greatly expand on the options people have available to consume THC and CBD. For the health-conscious, relaxing to a lightly flavored cannabis-infused seltzer offers therapeutic effects without all the calories.

Unfortunately, offering cannabis-infused drinks to your customers isn’t quite as easy as adding another flavor of ice cream to your dessert menu. You’ll have to source legal cannabis and hemp oils. And often, beverage manufacturers will send their products to a separate processor for cannabinoid infusion. This is because it takes specialized equipment and compounds to leverage the properties of emulsion.

Still, at Omega, we encourage the adventurous, just as we also encourage careful planning and execution. Cannabis-infused beverages are not just here to stay, they are an extremely popular product that continues to grow in demand.

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