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The time is high for cannabis drinks


There are big changes coming to the blends of intoxicants people consume … Philip White keeps an eye on the psychoactive drinks segment set to boom in North America.

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Some readers may be old enough to remember the introduction of Red Bull and the sweet fizzy caffeine drinks which followed in a flood, changing the fridgescape in every roadhouse, liquor barn and supermarket.

I believe that until caffeine was understood, this boom coincided with a change of attention span in schoolrooms and a certain anxiety emergent in traffic patterns.

There was a fair dinkum state of crisis in the wowser camp when it became evident that some folks were mixing these devil drinks with alcohol. The hissing was mainly directed at the young, but it wasn’t just kids doing the dastardly deed. I can vouch for this, recalling mobs of grown men coming back to The Exeter after a day drinking beer in the sun at the cricket, to order rounds of double vodkas with Red Bull on the rocks. A few pick-me-ups. Not many dead; move on to the red.

Of course the coffee revolution was brewing, too. Since baristas joined sommeliers as glamour purveyors of cool potions, most aspiring young boulevardiers now have a background caffeine number like a rat on speed well before they even nudge the booze bar.

I’m guilty.

People mix intoxicants. Some intoxicants work together better than others.

Like, tragically, you can now find entire towns whose populations seem to believe that ice is what you have before, during and after your Bundy’n’Diet coke, but never in it. You have ice instead of sleep and sanity. Those poor broke-down towns are scary. With a drought coming down the River.

On a less destructive note, it’s going to be fascinating watching the cannabis drinks business unfold in North America, and how the Australian booze and beverage industries prepare to compete with it, join it, or be damaged as it eats into their market.

There’s a wartime joke that Aussies are defrosted Canadians but right now there would be quite a few Aussies thinking that Canada’s a lot hotter since it just voted to legalise pot.

Like legalise it. Not just medicinal, not just fibre, or oil or seed, not all the business and busybody bullshit involved in fanatically defining and delineating all that. That’ll happen to an extent, sure. The backrooms are gonna be busy – the States have until September to prepare for it going on sale. But no more tests or reports. They did it. Just like that.  You can grow some in your yard.

This coincided, not accidentally, with an ascendant San Francisco-New York-London bulk-and-wholesale oriented outfit called the Beverage Trade Network (BTN) announcing the Cannabis Drinks Expo. This will be staged at the South San Francisco Conference Center, “centrally located at the heart of the Bay Area biotech region”, in July 2019.

“Particularly relevant in light of the new wave of cannabis-focused alcohol brands,” BTN says the event will be “a unique chance for the industry to determine what strategies it needs to put in place now to capitalise on the huge opportunities for legalised cannabis drinks-related products over the next five to 10 years.”

ABV is alcohol by volume. While the network is obviously thoroughly convinced this bracket it calls “psychoactive, non-ABV drinks” will boom, psychoABV products are not far below the surface.

BTN cites Arcview Market Research predictions that the legal cannabis market, already sitting at $7 billion, will grow to reach $23 billion by 2021. It also quotes Rabobank figures showing that of the demographic “most likely to consume wine”, 34 per cent of women, 56 per cent of baby boomers and 67 per cent of those who earn over $US50,000 said their marijuana consumption would increase with legalisation.

The implication being they would spend less on alcohol.

Constellation Brands, a previous owner of BRL-Hardy, was the first big liquor mob to invest in Canadian marijuana. Other booze giants, like Miller and Pernod-Ricard, watch very closely.

Cannabis once grew like a weed in New York’s Brooklyn.

Many of the early legal cannabis drinks, like the THC-infused “beer” from Ceria Beverages, are non-alcoholic.

The psychoactive component of the pot can be isolated and infused or the pot plant can be used in place of, or in conjunction with hops, the usual preserving bittering agent. Like the early white settlers who couldn’t get hops to grow in the Aussie bush and instead used heads of wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, as the bittering agent in their ales.

But like the early legit pot “wines”, these early US brews contained no ethanol. Suds aside, to me wine by definition means alcohol, ethanol, however modest.

Out of all the bits and pieces of cannabis physiology and biochemistry, only two of its cannabinoids get much attention, and this pair have already transfixed the beverage industry. These are Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

While both are muscle-relaxing painkillers, the newly-popular CBD works well to relieve anxiety and psychosis. It can be good for PTSD. It is anti-convulsive. For many, it tempers, even stops seizures. For some reason, it has become known as the “non-psychoactive” cannabinoid, and is so far the preferred infusion for those vendors who add a little pot to their ethanol.

THC, on the other hand, is getting a bad rap for its trippy-or-tanked extremes. To give more dumb bang for the buck, modern outlaw hydro croppers have isolated pot strains rich with THC and low on CBD. This is what makes people eat all the Tim Tams and Nutella and chips and then chew on the empty fridge or turn into blocked Easter Island stoneheads on the couch.

More usefully, it’s the one you want a wee puff of for the art gallery or a good concert or movie. Or just a touch to kick the broken appetite up if you’re on chemo. So far, legit beverage manufacturers have avoided using this one much with ethanol.

But damn, all the customer’s gotta do, which they will do, already do, is make cocktails out of anything they like.

A mate who’s lived awhile in Portland, Oregon, who doesn’t smoke pot, said sure, she had a favourite THC soda a bit like lemonade there but always poured it on Tito’s vodka.

And of course you can tie your little fluffball to the leg of the table and sit there and let the sommelier or barista mix something up just for you, depending on the way you feel.

If I were an exporting winemaker not totally preoccupied with pleasing China, I’d be watching this segment closely. I can smell very big changes in the market.

I trust there’s a red maker out there with an eye to the future, reading about terpenes to discover which ones from the Leafly Terpene Wheel  are common in red grape skins. Thinking of smells and flavours and feelings. How to select and meld them. By the time you’ve got your head around that and have done the science, with recipes and trials beginning to shimmer in the back of the brain, I’m sure the THC vs CBD battle will have relaxed somewhat.

A better balance will emerge. But whether they take their newly-legalised pot in place of ethanol, or infused in some of it, it seems likely that many people will drink less ethanol. They will modify their intoxicant intake.

It might pay for some of our exporters to be prepared for this trend.

What time is it? Who’s the Minister for Agriculture?

*This article was amended on July 11.

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