When a Minnesota-based cannabis beverage company approached Alamo Beer Company earlier this year seeking a manufacturer for its faux beer products, which contain hemp-derived THC instead of alcohol, it had already struck out with two other brewers.
“The first said no, we can’t do that, which I appreciated,” said HighBridge Premium CEO James Hunter. The next brewer said yes, but was unable to follow the recipe, even after three attempts, which cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars [and] tens of thousands of cans,” he said.
Enter Alamo Beer. The San Antonio brewer’s first crack at the complex formula was “a fabulous success all the way around,” Hunter said. “We were just super impressed. It’s a fabulous facility.”
Alamo Beer Company is now producing the company’s three faux beers, and starting next month, it also will begin making THC-infused seltzers, or “effervescent botanicals,” as HighBridge calls them. All of HighBridge’s drinks will be sold initially in Texas and Minnesota, with plans to expand to other states.
Their sale is legal in every state, thanks to the 2018 federal Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the definition of marijuana in the federal Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is defined as cannabis and its derivatives that contain no more than .3%, by dry weight, of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
In Texas, hemp became legal through House Bill 1325, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in 2019. That has allowed businesses in the Lone Star State to sell many types of consumable hemp products, as long as they remain under the .3% THC limit. The notable exception is smokable hemp, which remains illegal in Texas.
HighBridge’s website describes the drinks as offering “a mood-boosting delight” with “faster cannabinoid absorption times.” The faux beers are produced in three different potencies, with 5 mg, 8 mg and 10 mg of hemp-derived delta-9 THC. A customer testimonial on the site extols the lack of hangover, one of the selling points of THC beverages.
Trial and error
This is not Alamo Beer’s first foray into cannabis-infused drinks, said founder and CEO Eugene Simor. The brewery has been contract brewing since 2019, making other companies’ beer, soda, tea and coffee. Those products now make up more than half of Alamo Beer’s output, Simor said.
The $8 million brewing facility opened next to the Hays Street Bridge at the end of 2014; Alamo Beer was brewed at Real Ale Brewery in Blanco before that. It produces drinks for Southside Craft Soda, Puro Nitro Coffee and Special Leaf teas, among others.
Alamo Beer was first approached by a customer seeking a drink infused with cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not cause a high. That required a state license from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services’ Consumable Hemp Program — and a lot of research and development, Simor said.
For example, Alamo Beer brewers learned that certain can liners soak up some of the CBD and THC in the beverages, Simor said. Finding the right liner to reduce that absorption and figuring out how to add enough “active ingredient” to get the desired amount into the cans took “a bit of trial and error,” he said.
With HighBridge, he said, the company came to Alamo Beer with its own recipe. Simor said the brew team nailed “on the first shot,” leading to contracts to produce some of the company’s other formulations as well.
Hunter said he was interested in creating a beer-like THC product because no one was doing it well. When he first formed HighBridge several years ago and began researching THC-infused beverages, he said the market share of drinks compared to other types of cannabis consumables was very low. He learned that was because most cannabis drinks at the time “tasted like s— and separated.”
He found a former Pepsi chemist in Hermosa Beach, California, who solved those two challenges, and Highbridge was on its way. The company is now one of several that produces cannabis-infused faux beers.
At a cannabis expo in San Francisco, he was approached by Nano Hemp Tech Labs out of Houston, eager to partner up. At first Hunter didn’t understand how HighBridge could produce its products in Texas, given that recreational marijuana remains illegal in the state. But after learning that Nano Hemp created its THC powder from hemp, he was sold.
“Now we’re no longer bound by banking restrictions and interstate commerce issues,” he said.
‘It does taste like beer’
On Tuesday, Jan Matysiak, Alamo Beer’s vice president of operations, who joined the company in March, could be seen pouring THC powder and other ingredients into various vats inside the 18,000-square-foot Eastside brewery, then stirring with a long-handled paddle.
David Esof, Alamo Beer’s production manager, said HighBridge’s faux beer recipes used several ingredients their brewers had never used before, such as ashwagandha, an herb used as a nutritional supplement, and hop essence.
“It does taste like beer,” Esof said, with tasters giving the drinks high marks for aroma and taste that mimic lager, IPA and pilsner.
HighBridge officials will be back in town next month to taste the first batch of seltzers, which Alamo Beer will blend on May 31 and package the next day, Esof said.
The faux beers will not come cheap. The “premium” in the company’s name is reflective of the quality of the ingredients, Hunter said. The suggested retail price will be $12.99 for a 12-ounce can; the company’s seltzers, which will come in flavors like watermelon basil and cucumber mint, will have a suggested retail price of $7.99
The global cannabis-infused beverage market was estimated at almost $1.4 billion in 2021, according to market research firm Reports and Data, with a projected growth rate of more than 17% through 2030. Rising demand for alternatives to alcoholic beverages is driving some of that demand, and major beverage manufacturers are joining startups like HighBridge in creating novel cannabis-infused beverages.
The market is changing rapidly, Simor said; between recreational users and those who use cannabis for therapeutic reasons, he expects to see cannabis-infused drinks eventually take away market share from beer and spirits.
“Personally, I have a hard time getting rid of the voice in my head put there by Nancy Reagan to just say no,” he joked, “but the more I learn, and the more personal experimentation I do, I think it can be a real alternative.”