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Colorado beer makers are expanding to cannabis beverages: “Down the road it could be as big as beer.”

Ska Brewing in Durango and Left Hand Brewing in Longmont are teaming with cannabis companies to make seltzers with THC or CBD

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DURANGO — The evening before its 24th anniversary party, Ska Brewing invited friends and brewers from across the country to celebrate with a toast as the sun set behind Perins Peak.

The Durango brewery brought a special keg to the event held earlier this month: a pomegranate-flavored CBD seltzer set for release later this fall through its sister company, Oh Hi Beverages.

The debut marked a significant shift in how the state’s beermakers approach the cannabis industry. Once considered a rival, marijuana is now being embraced by Colorado brewers including Ska, Left Hand and Ceria, all of which are making seltzers and beers infused with CBD, THC or both.

Matt Vincent, a co-owner of Ska Brewing and Oh Hi, said the new synergy reflects a changing perception of the cannabis marketplace five years after Colorado started recreational marijuana sales.

“I think the beer industry is a little more open arms, it’s becoming that way,” he said between sips of the CBD seltzer at the party. “Being on both sides of the table, I see a lot of similarities. I see every reason why they should come together.”

A machine fills cans of Oh Hi at a facility in Durango. The sister company to Ska Brewing is making THC seltzers and soon will debut CBD seltzers. (Courtesy of Oh Hi Beverages)

Launched in early 2019, Oh Hi is a collaboration between the Ska Brewing family and Durango Organics, a southwestern Colorado marijuana dispensary and grower. Oh Hi makes four flavors of seltzers infused with 5 or 10 milligrams of water-soluble THC — the psychoactive element marijuana — and now sold in about 100 dispensaries. The company plans to distribute the new CBD seltzers — which don’t include the high associated with pot — to natural foods shops, grocery stores and even bars and restaurants starting in November.

The THC seltzers are made at a Durango Organics facility. And the CBD versions are made at Ska Brewing. Both are sold in 12-ounce cans and neither have alcohol. Instead, Oh Hi’s founders joke that they are in the business of making “weed claw,” a riff on the popular White Claw hard seltzers.

The company sees the CBD version as a marketing tool for the THC seltzers, and both are aimed at an active, health-conscious crowd looking for low-calorie or nonalcoholic alternatives to beer. The 10 milligram THC beverages amount to what Colorado law considers a single-serving size.

“A lot of us are growing out and away from drinking as much alcohol,” said Ben Steenblik, an Oh Hi salesman. In his mind, drinking THC-infused beverages is a more social experience, like passing around a joint. “We are at an exciting new phase.”

A window opens for beer makers to develop cannabis beverages

The expansion into cannabis seltzers and beers represents a broader trend in the brewing industry to diversify offerings as traditional beer sales stagnate or decline. The Brewers Association, a Boulder-based trade organization, even amended its definition of “craft brewer” in late 2018 to include those who make beverages in addition to beer.

The warming attitudes from brewers toward the cannabis industry come as recreational marijuana legalization spreads to 11 states and the District of Columbia. But Bart Watson, an economist at the Brewers Association, said joint ventures still are not “super common.”

“Moving into cannabis is a very different regulatory environment and one that brewers are cautious about as long it remains federally illegal,” he said. But at the same time, he added, “the growth opportunity within craft beer has been more challenging in recent years, so we are seeing firms broaden the horizon to bring their company growth.”

In the early years of legalization, brewers feared the potential for marijuana to eat into beer sales. But the latest research from the Brewers Association shows that marijuana isn’t making much of an impact, if any. Vincent at Ska Brewing and Oh Hi isn’t concerned either.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh my god, all the stoners are not drinking beer anymore,’” he said. “They are still drinking beer.”

What helped open the door to the symbiotic relationship between beer and cannabis is the legalization of hemp — and the CBD derived from it — under the 2018 Farm Bill.

Aurora’s Dad & Dudes Breweria was the first brewer to put CBD into alcoholic beer after winning approval in 2016 from federal regulators. But George Washington’s Secret Stash, as the beer was called, didn’t last long after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down. Earlier this year, Dad & Dudes sold to California-based Cannabiniers, which is making non-alcohol CBD beer under the Two Roots Brewing label.

A new THC-infused beer made in Colorado arrived in December from Keith Villa, the creator of Blue Moon beer at Coors Brewing, through his new company, Arvada-based Ceria Beverages.

Ceria makes beer in the traditional method and then removes the alcohol before adding the cannabis extract. The Grainwave Belgian White Ale, brewed with blood orange peel and coriander, is sold in 10-ounce bottles and infused with 5 milligrams of THC. “Ours tastes like beer,” Villa said.

So far the response is strong, Villa said, and the company plans to release an IPA with 10 milligrams of THC by mid-October and an American lager with 2.5 milligrams later this year. The company is also expanding to the California market next month.

“With cannabis, we really wanted to show the world you could make cannabis part of your lifestyle, use it socially like alcohol, but also stay in control,” Villa said.

Like seltzers, he’s aiming at health-minded consumers. Ceria’s THC-beers include roughly half the calories of alcohol versions of the same styles. But he’s also making an appeal to craft beer drinkers, too. “We are seeing that craft beer drinkers enjoy cannabis here in Colorado, and they are very willing to experiment and try a craft beer with cannabis in it,” he said.

Cannabis beverages follow in craft beer’s footsteps

Much like craft beer, Ska and Ceria emphasize that their products are locally made and hand-crafted with quality ingredients.

Left Hand Brewing is making a similar pitch and leveraging its reputation for quality beer to sell its new CBD-infused Present sparkling water.

Present sparkling water is a collaboration from Left Hand Brewing in Longmont and WAAYB Organics, a hemp farm in Northern Colorado. The CBD seltzers comes in three flavors. (Courtesy of Present)

The collaboration with WAAYB Organics, which operates a hemp farm in Northern Colorado, premiered in August. Present makes organic seltzers in three flavors at its facility in Longmont and adds 20 milligrams of CBD distillate. “Clearly there are a lot of spiked seltzers out there, but we wanted to go a different route” with CBD, said Jill Preston at Left Hand.

And again echoing the early days of craft beer, one of the early obstacles for cannabis beverage makers is education. When it comes to THC, some consumers are wary about entering dispensaries and unsure about proper dosage. And when it comes to CBD, the health effects for the supplement remain inconclusive. And more often than not, people confuse the two.

But the early adopters from the beer world in Colorado are optimistic about the potential for cannabis beverages.

“For us it’s a brand new venture,” Preston said. “But we do feel like down the road it could be as big as beer.”

Updated 11 a.m. 9/20/19: An earlier version of this story misstated where Oh Hi’s THC-infused beverages are made. They are made at a facility connected to Durango Organics, a dispensary and marijuana grower.

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Once considered a rival, marijuana is now being embraced by Colorado craft brewers including Ska, Left Hand and Ceria, all of which are making seltzers and beers infused with CBD, THC or both.