The Budding Potential of CBD Beverages

cbd beverages

Brooklyn Hemp’s lemongrass soda. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

There are many ways to ingest cannabidiol—the now ubiquitous hemp extract known as CBD. You can smoke it. You can eat it baked into a cookie. You can release a few drops of a CBD tincture under your tongue where it will quickly find its way into your bloodstream and then on to your achy joints or stressed-out brain.

But these days, many people like to mix it into their favorite beverage, be that coffee, soda or something stronger. For this reason, New Yorkers working in hospitality have until recently been quite high on CBD. Not high high—not the high you get from its cannabinoid cousin, THC, but rather high on CBD’s unknown and untested but seemingly limitless potential as both a wellness aid and a revenue stream.

The new Gramercy Park restaurant Farmer & The Fish had a best seller in its CBD Manhattan, presented under a glass dome of smoke. The Gregory’s Coffee chain introduced a CBD latte with oat milk and strawberry syrup. The Brooklyn Hemp Company had just inked a deal to supply the Michelin two-star restaurant Daniel with its CBD lemongrass syrup for use as a cocktail mixer. From boutique hotel bars to delis to third-wave cafés, CBD was on the menu all over NYC. And then it wasn’t.

In early February, the New York City Department of Health issued a confounding ban affecting restaurants, bars and bakeries. Citing federal guidelines, it determined that CBD could remain legal as a dietary supplement but that it could not be served in prepared foods and beverages anymore. Canned sodas marketed as health aids and sold in retail shops were deemed acceptable. But items such as CBD-enhanced cookies or beverages dotted with CBD oil and served by a bartender were no longer permissible.

This follows an October setback in California, where Assembly Bill 2914 outlawed the sale of cannabis in alcoholic beverages and put the kibosh on Los Angeles’ thriving CBD cocktail scene. While these two laws will harsh the bicoastal mellow—and maybe force more than a few bars and restaurants to redraw their business plans—it’s doing little to slow the phenomenal growth of the CBD market, which by one estimate could rise as high as $22 billion in three years. That figure represents sales of CBD alone, not legal THC or any of the other hemp-derived cannabinoids that chemists and entrepreneurs are now hyping.

For years, many states have allowed the cultivation of hemp—cannabis plants that produce a negligible amount of psychoactive THC—for industrial purposes, such as plastic, soap and fiber. Hemp-derived CBD has caught on more recently, available in licensed dispensaries in some states and prescribed by physicians in others. Yet in many states it was wholly unregulated, and available in retail shops along with herbal teas and tinctures. As more research extolled the potential health benefits of CBD, it became everyone’s next favorite herbal supplement, the new turmeric. Then came the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018, which for the first time made it legal to grow hemp in all 50 states. The CBD market seemed boundless.

CBD is kept in a vial with dropper and added to drinks at Young American. | Photo by Matthew Gilson.

Around the U.S., consumers are often getting their first taste of CBD in boozy beverages. Some of these concoctions are explicitly touted as health aids, such as the Plant Medicine cocktail made with rum, coconut milk, lemongrass and CBD served at Plant Miami, a South Florida spot within a wellness complex that serves “plant-empowered cuisine.” This cocktail, which costs $20, comes with an outline of a cannabis leaf on its frothy surface. Others seem to be more of the fun-and-trendy mind-set. In Portland, Oregon, the restaurant Donnie Vegas serves fanciful hot dogs and frozen prickly pear CBD margaritas. The bright-pink slush is eight bucks and goes down easily.

Coffee and juice shops have been less affected by regulation, and many consumers are adding CBD shots to smoothies the way they once favored wheatgrass. At Boston’s Carrot Flower, you can get a 17 mg CBD boost in your Green Street Tea made with spinach, pineapple and matcha. Meanwhile in bars, CBD has increasingly found a home in alcohol-free mixed drinks. In February, the Chicago bar Young American opened with a menu including spirit-free cocktails served with an optional CBD add-on. These drinks now account for 9 percent of total bar sales. “A lot of broad-spectrum CBD products have a touch of bitterness, which if used with intention can lend a lot of depth to a spirit-free cocktail,” says Julia McKinley, Young American’s beverage director.

McKinley works behind the bar mixing a drink she calls “Honey Do.” To this blend of berry tea, honey, star anise, bee pollen and lemon she adds two full droppers of a water-based CBD mixture. Shaken and strained into a rocks glass, it tastes like a cross between a Sazerac and a kombucha.

McKinley opts to use CBD in spirit-free drinks to keep its purported calming and de-stressing effect from interacting with alcohol. She also doesn’t use an alcohol-based tincture, or an oil-based preparation. (Because CBD is lipophilic—i.e., it loves fat—many prepared products are CBD isolate dissolved in coconut oil, which increases its bioavailability, meaning more of its active ingredients get into your bloodstream and fewer get filtered out by the first-pass metabolism of your liver.) Instead, McKinley relies on a preparation which uses specialized extraction methods to make the product water soluble.

The alcohol-free “Honey Do” at Young American. | Photo by Matthew Gilson.

People who create CBD beverages start with a CBD preparation, but then they must ask the question: Do they want to taste it or not? Many strive to strip the compound of its herbaceous character. “It doesn’t smell very good, and it doesn’t taste very good,” says Rob Brown, owner of The Lebermuth Company, which produces essential oils for flavor and fragrance in everything from toothpaste to chewing gum. Lately he’s been consulting for “large beverage companies” that want to be prepared if and when the FDA approves CBD as an additive to bottled beer and wine.

“Our objective is to be able to standardize materials—to make sure they’re the same every time,” he says. “But the problem is every producer uses different equipment, different extraction processes and different botanicals, so you get different products.” Even the farming of hemp is inconsistent. “Not every seed is the same. You’re going to see inconsistencies in the supply chain for a number of years.” Brown envisions a day when odorless, flavorless CBD will be widely available in everything from beer to soft drinks, albeit with more regulation than currently exists.

But if you move from the realm of mass marketing to premium cocktails and sodas, you’ll find more folks leaning in to its distinctive natural flavor. “CBD has these tea and bitter and green herbal flavors that I really do feel are indicative of modern flavor profiles in both food and drink,” says New York drinks educator Eamon Rockey. “It’s just really, really tasty.”

Rockey, now the director of beverage studies at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York, first began experimenting with CBD after meeting Lorelei Bandrovschi, a brand consultant who has staged a series of spirit-free cocktail pop-ups in Brooklyn called Listen Bar. Bandrovschi invited luminaries from the cocktail world to develop recipes.

“Whenever we did a shandy of sorts, using nonalcoholic beer with a fair amount of hops influence and accenting this beer with CBD,” says Rockey of the fizzy highballs he created, “it made perfect sense. The aromatic and flavor compounds present in hops are a dead ringer for cannabis,” he says. As an added bonus, “the foam of the beer helps integrate the CBD. It becomes well dispersed in a nice, homogeneous way.”

He also likes CBD in cocktails (with alcohol), as long as it’s incorporated with care. “Some people make an Old Fashioned and then just drip CBD on top. It gets solid when cold, so you get these lily pads of fat. It doesn’t look nice or taste nice.”

Hemp being added to alcohol at Brooklyn Hemp. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

These days Rockey is partial to the cannabis-forward flavor of the CBD oil sold by the Brooklyn Hemp Company, which processes its CBD in New York City from hemp grown biodynamically and organically upstate. The company’s CEO, Heather John, claims that this oil isn’t only appealingly herbal but also more bioavailable than other oils on the market. “We use a cold-processing technique with organic human-grade ethanol,” John says. “We extract it at minus 25 degrees Celsius using dry ice, which preserves the terpenes and all of the other cannabinoids. It’s like we flash freeze the flower.”

Terpenes? Other cannabinoids? Yes, we need a little more science here. Terpenes are the compounds that give CBD its taste and smell, and their presence makes the effects of the compound more active. Meanwhile, more than 80 other cannabinoids—all nonpsychoactive—have been identified in hemp extract. CBN has a light sedative effect; THC-B may help with appetite control. Once you have all these other cannabinoids interacting with CBD, you get what scientists call the “entourage effect” and what John describes as “all of these parts of the plant helping each other.”

Brooklyn Hemp is one of the more expensive CBD oils on the market, with 1-ounce bottles of tincture ranging in price from $65 to $210 depending on the concentration. The latter is amber in color and delivers 3,000 milligrams of CBD. Chances are you’re not getting anything close to this as a $3 add-on in your espresso drink. “At a café or a restaurant, you don’t know how much CBD you’re getting. I’d be shocked if they’re putting more than 10 milligrams in a product,” says Verena von Pfetten, co-founder of Gossamer, a cannabis lifestyle publication. Even when bartenders and baristas share this information, the question remains just how effective a liquid beverage can be in delivering its cannabinoid payload. After enjoying a Honey Do at Young American, I tried an Electric Eye made with brewed botanicals, citrus, soda and two full droppers of carefully sourced and dosed CBD. Afterward, I felt totally satisfied, but I experienced no physical feeling beyond the desire for an actual cocktail later in the day.

I bring this question to cannabinoid scientist Alex Capano, who sits on an FDA committee that studies testing and standardization in hemp agriculture, which has been legal in all 50 states following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. “I hate to be a bummer and wag my finger at people who have CBD cocktails,” she says, “but you may not know where the CBD comes from that they’re using, or even if it’s real CBD, or if it’s free of harmful chemicals. There are some widely distributed products I’m dubious about. They’re just not transparent about where they’re getting it from.”

But what if the CBD is well sourced and dosed? Can you benefit from its supposed anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving properties? “I don’t want to be the nanny who says you can’t put CBD in your cocktails, but it’s lipophilic,” Capano says. “It’s oil-based and not going to be absorbed into a water-based cocktail. At least put an egg in there to emulsify it.”

Capano thinks that when the CBD market shakes out, we’ll be seeing fewer people splurging on cocktails and lattes and more consuming it like a vitamin. Meanwhile, consumers around the country are getting their first taste of it in buzzy bars and cafes. But who knows what they’re getting.

“There are so many benefits from CBD and cannabinoids in general,” says von Pfetten. “But if you buy a CBD coffee or cookie and it doesn’t do anything for you, then you say it’s a scam, and that’s a shame.”


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