This July, Minnesota state legislators quietly (and perhaps infamously) passed a law legalizing the sale of THC food and beverages, adding it to a larger health and human services funding bill. The law allows for the sale and consumption of food and beverages containing 5 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the chemical that produces most of marijuana’s psychic effects — per serving, or 50 milligrams per package.
The legislation is a notable step toward marijuana legalization in the state and has given food and beverage producers in Minnesota the creative freedom to explore cannabis products. So far, THC drinks have proven the most popular: Minneapolis Cider Company was among the first to hop on the hemp train, releasing its Trail Magic berry basil THC drink and THC hop water in July, and other local breweries, from Indeed to Bauhaus and Eastlake, have followed suit. But all these bubbly THC drinks beg the questions: How do you actually make a beverage out of cannabis? How is the process different from that of a gummy or edible?
First things first, says Jason Dayton, co-founder of Minneapolis Cider Company, is understanding the difference between marijuana and hemp. Both are part of the same species, Cannabis sativa, but are distinct in their THC concentrations. Marijuana has a THC concentration of 0.3 percent or above, while hemp is anything less — and Minnesota’s new law stipulates that all THC food and beverages must be derived from hemp. Hemp is used to make a range of products: rope, insulation, biofuel, shoes, textiles, and more. But transforming this pungent plant into an effervescent drink is a relatively modern endeavor.
To make Trail Magic, Minneapolis Cider Company partners with a local processor. That processor sources hemp from local Minnesota farms, extracts the THC from it, and sends it to MCC as a water-soluble emulsion. After MCC’s staff have blended up fresh fruits (like strawberry-blueberry juice and fresh basil, or hop pellets for the hop water) and filtered the liquid, they add the emulsion to the manufacturing tank and blend it. Then, they take a sample and send it to a lab, where it’s tested for THC potency. Once all is in order, MCC carbonates Trail Magic and packages it. All in all, says Dayton, it’s a much faster process than the 10 to 14 days it takes to make cider. “We’re not fermenting the product in any way, shape, or form,” says Dayton. “There’s no alcohol involved in any step of the process.”
Ultimately, Dayton says, the water-soluble emulsion defines the difference between a THC beverage and a typical edible: It allows for an even dispersal of the THC throughout the entire drink, whereas the oil in an edible can concentrate in one place. “If you have a gummy with that oil, you may eat half of the gummy with no THC in it because it’s all clumped together in the other half.” Dayton also says the emulsion allows for the THC to take effect at a much faster, but more gradual pace than an edible or gummy, which helps people feel in control. “We want people to feel the effects at about the same rate that they would with alcohol.”
In a culture that in many ways demonizes drug use, marketing THC drinks has been unfamiliar territory for Minneapolis Cider Company and other craft breweries. “I give the example of my mother-in-law,” says Dayton. “She’s from a small Minnesota town and wouldn’t be caught dead in a marijuana dispensary. But a THC beverage from a cidery, it completely changes the dynamic because it gets away from the ‘feels like a drug’ stigma.” After the law’s sudden passage in July, Minneapolis Cider Company and other craft breweries and cideries producing THC beverages have had to learn a great deal in a short period of time.
But the somewhat haphazard legislation has provided a golden window of opportunity. As Vice reports, Minnesota’s relatively lax regulation around THC foods and beverages has allowed breweries to expand to new markets, whipping up THC seltzers in the same facilities they use to brew beer and make ciders. “Minnesota’s in a really unique position in the THC world,” says Dayton.
That could soon change. More regulations are expected to be discussed in January, and there’s some fear that legislators will move THC products to a different regulatory channel than alcohol, as is the case in many other states. “If they removed craft beverage manufacturing and put it in its own category, you would allow national companies to come in and take over the market at the expense of local Minnesota businesses,” says Dayton. In other words, local breweries and cideries would potentially no longer be able to produce THC drinks — the beverages would only be sold at dispensaries. Dayton firmly believes they belong in liquor stores, and while cannabis beverages make up an extremely small slice of the overall cannabis market, he sees it only continuing to grow.
“Our core consumer is someone who is brand new to the category and is looking for a healthier alternative to alcohol,” says Dayton.” If cannabis beverage can continue to expand outside of the dispensary channel and into the craft beverage market, it can be a serious contender for the beer industry.”