Cannabis Beverage Association’s President Diana Eberlein On How To Grow Cannabis Beverage Category
We need to build this category for the long haul, and there's plenty of room for all of us at the table!
Your Place Of Work
SōRSE Technology, Cannabis Beverage Association
Tell us a little about your background and journey into Cannabis
I was an award-winning DARE graduate that found that cannabis was the gateway to a higher quality of life after a personal struggle brought me to look for more natural and homeopathic remedies to complement western medicine. I found solace and relief, after a period of trial and error (mostly error), when I found an infused beverage additive/mixer that allowed me to microdose effectively. That's when my passion for cannabis and my personal, turned professional, a mission to educate my peers and a new generation of cannabis consumers on the benefits of infused products was born.
Explain your current role
VP of Business Development and Marketing at SōRSE Technology, Chair/President of the Cannabis Beverage Association - I'm all about education and bringing awareness to the improved quality of infused cannabis products, particularly beverages which I believe will grow to be over 25% of the cannabis market due to social acceptance, accessibility, and overall quality of (and ability to control the) experience.
What trends do you see in cannabis beverages?
Currently, the most successful beverages have been high dose, small format (2oz, for example), and affordable (with the exception of Cann, Wunder, etc., but I'll get to those in a second). I believe there will always be a market for these products, but they are also often high in sugar or produced using ingredients that might be frowned upon in the traditional food and beverage space. If we want cannabis to be treated like other food and beverage ingredients, we must think about that when we are formulating products. As this category grows and matures, and is accepted and perhaps regulated by major food & beverage industry groups, I believe we'll see more of a focus on lower sugar and calorie options with clean labels (think Whole Foods-approved!) to appeal to the health & wellness market that still wants to "get high" (which I personally define as getting to a healthier and happier state, whether physical, mental, or emotional, which is to be determined by each individual for themselves).
There are still hurdles in the retail and marketing side of the industry, such as educating the budtender "gatekeepers", but in the future when the infused beverage category has more awareness and market share, I believe we will see ready-to-mix drink additives and mixers, in powder and liquid formats, be accepted by consumers. They are a familiar format to consumers (LiquidIV, Crystal Light, etc.) that is transportable/convenient, cheaper to ship, and allows for easy and accurate dosing. Right now, we're seeing a lot of interest in hemp-derived D9 beverages across the US. The biggest infused beverage players in the game are getting involved, such as Cann, and I believe that if these products are created with the same focus on quality and safety standards as the cannabis-derived THC products, this will be the "gateway" to federal legalization or at minimum expediting states turning recreational - just look at Minnesota!
What tips do you have on growing the category when it comes to product development?
If we want cannabis to be treated like other food and beverage ingredients, we must think about that when we are formulating products and define/maintain a level of quality, safety, and testing standards. At the end of the day, we're producing products that consumers will ingest. The ingredients, manufacturing process, dosing, and stability - all matter when it comes to creating a safe and consistent experience for consumers. The cannabis industry has a trust problem - 1 mistake by 1 brand is not just a step back for the infused beverage category, but for the entire cannabis industry. That's why it's so important for us to collaborate and self-regulate, to an extent. We need to build this category for the long haul, and there's plenty of room for all of us at the table!
What are the 3 things that we can educate end consumers more on in growing end-consumer awareness?
1) Quick onset is great (10 - 15 min), but the consistent offset (~1 hour) is what makes beverages truly sessionable and a good replacement for alcohol. 2) These products taste good now! 3) Emulsion technology used to infuse beverages is a technology commonly used in the food, beverage, supplement, and pharma industries. While all emulsion technology isn't created equal, this technology isn't new and is trusted by professional trade and regulatory bodies.
Which states / markets do you think present good growth opportunities for cannabis beverages in 2023-2024
I'm excited about the NY market, but it will take time to straighten out, just like all markets. NY is a very large and influential market when it comes to lifestyle and experiences, so I think that market will bring infused beverages to the next level. Massachusetts, being a low-dose market, has a lot of strong beverage brands emerging so that is a fun one to watch. Illinois has a new co-packer, Contract Canna, that has already doubled the infused beverage offerings in the state and I look forward to seeing the growth of that market. Beverages sell better when there are other beverages around them. Not saying we want to oversaturate the market, but when there are 100 gummy brands and 2 beverage brands on a dispensary shelf, consumers tend to ignore the beverage altogether - it's all about perception.
What do you think are the current challenges in the cannabis beverage category
Overall awareness. When I travel to new markets, even ones that are turning recreational in the next year, and mention my work in beverage, consumers say "there are cannabis beverages?" We've had the same experience with legislative groups. There's a lot of education that is still left to do. I feel like every time I bring a cannabis beverage to a social event, I met with interest and excitement. This market has grown from word of mouth, but we need more! There are other bottlenecks in markets (pun intended) - from a limited number of licenses to a lack of co-packers, to dosing regulations, which vary across all markets.
If you were to give advice to a first-time cannabis beverage consumer, what tips would you give?
Start low and slow. Depending on the person, I'll recommend they start with a 2.5mg or 5mg dose (from a beverage), and after 30 minutes track how they feel. If you feel like you can handle more, add another 2.5mg or 5mg increment - but wait a little longer before you add onto your 2nd dose. Everyone's different so pay attention to how YOU feel. Another huge factor is your surroundings. Early experiences, it's best to be with people, and in an environment, you are comfortable with. Trying too many new things at once (and this isn't just with cannabis, this is a living thing!) can create a stressful environment, but what makes it worse, you won't be able to figure out what variable is creating that feeling so correcting it for the future will be difficult and an elongate process.
Your favourite cannabis beverage brands?
Cann and Cann Roadies (liquid stick packs), Pabst (the teas are phenomenal!), Vertus (WA Non-Alcoholic THC 'sparkling wine'), Pearl Mixer (WA Drink Mixer/Additive)
What do you look for when you purchase a cannabis beverage brand?
Dose, Pricing, and Suppliers/Co-Packer partners - As a marketer, I'd be lying if I didn't say branding impacted my purchasing behavior! Flavors also matter - If it's a flavor I don't already love, much harder for me to purchase for the first time without a recommendation. Lemonades, Iced Teas, and lightly flavored seltzers are right up my alley. That said, I love a good stick pack for on-the-go use!
Any out-of-the-box ideas you have for bud-tenders in promoting and educating the cannabis beverage category?
I wouldn't call this "out-of-the-box", but beverages are a great "upsell" opportunity. If they are asking buyers what their desired effect is, there is likely a beverage that aligns with that experience. Especially if it's gummy or another edible, whether low or high dose, a beverage might actually be a better fit for the experience they are after. If the product tastes good and delivers on the experience, including the quick onset and offset, there is a good chance that the buyer will be a repeat buyer.
If you were to make a new cannabis beverage today? What sort of product would you make and why
High dose (100mg THC), 2oz shot - to differentiate the product in the market, I'd have 1 be straight 100mg THC (brand it with a "time to go" or "LFG" type slogan), then the remaining 2 I would add an additional cannabinoid for functional application. Perhaps CBN for "DREAM", and CBD for overall health & wellness (1:1). The flavors and branding would take inspiration from the pharma market, yellow/orange/red to signify "sunrise" and "energy", dark purple for nighttime, and a bright blue (reminiscent of refreshing water) for ongoing wellness.
If you were to market and distribute that cannabis beverage, what would be your top 3 areas you would focus on?
Illinois, Michigan...WA is a high-dose market already, but not a ton of functional options so perhaps that line would do well in WA since 100mg 1:1 THC/CBD beverages have done well in that market (also, the largest beverage market in the US at 3% of the market). Eventually, NY and NJ would also be strong markets.