Those attending cannabis expo MJBizCon — hosted every year in Las Vegas’s mammoth convention center — can expect to demo marijuana greenhouse software, peruse vapes, or watch Pimp My Ride star Xzibit host the Lasagna Ganja podcast. It’s one of the world’s largest annual events in the cannabis space: An estimated 30,000 growers, seed specialists, and budtenders crowd its teeming booths, panels, and networking mixers, all soaking up the latest industry buzz. But while many topics sparked interest at last December’s convention, one was practically inescapable.

“Everybody wanted to talk about the product market here in Minnesota, mainly the [THC] beverages,” says Leili Fatehi, a Minneapolis-based attorney and consultant who helped quarterback the state’s recent cannabis legalization. “People are looking at what’s happening in Minnesota and want to see how they can replicate it in other states.”

It doesn’t take aCannfluencer to understand the rabid interest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Although a number of publications have reported on Minnesota’s THC beverage boom over the past year and a half, it’s been tricky to distill exactly why THC beverages have resonated so powerfully in the state. The demand for cannabis practically hangs in the frigid Minnesota air — but not in the way skeptics may have feared when recreational cannabis became legal last summer. While social THC consumption in many other legalized states has centered around dedicated cannabis lounges and bars (see California; Nevada; Colorado) hemp-derived beverages have become a practically ubiquitous fixture at taprooms, restaurants, liquor stores, hotels, bars, and even ski chalets across Minnesota. They offer an almost clairvoyant glimpse of what a totally legalized THC beverage market could eventually look like around the country.

Trail Magic was one of the first hemp-derived beverages to hit the market. Minneapolis Cider Company

The seeds of the THC takeover were planted in July 2022, when Minnesota lawmakers (a few of them, unwittingly) authorized the sale and purchase of hemp-derived delta-9 edibles and beverages containing no more than five milligrams of THC per serving. (Hemp, a longtime industrial crop outlawed in 1937 and then legalized again by the 2018 Farm Bill, is the same species of plant as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but it has a THC concentration of 0.3 percent or below.) Enterprising breweries and cideries — already well-equipped with tanks and canning machinery — quickly began to experiment with creating low-dose cannabis drinks. Minneapolis Cider Company was one of the first local producers to jump on the THC train, taking its Trail Magic line from an exploratory meeting to a product launch in just 19 days.

“I saw an opportunity for us to get into a market very early that had the potential to broadly change the landscape of drinking in Minnesota,” co-founder Jason Dayton says. “It ended up being a larger category than any of us were necessarily expecting.”

That fall saw a THC gold rush in the Twin Cities beverage scene. Many breweries quickly put out hemp seltzers — which are fairly easy to make, compared to beer or cider, because they don’t require the same time for fermentation — in a variety of flavors and THC concentrations. Indeed Brewing Company offered a botanical lavender lemonade; Eastlake Craft Brewery offered tart seltzers in flavors like passionfruit and grapefruit. Modist kicked its THC seltzer dose down to three milligrams; Fair State balanced its THC content with 25 milligrams of CBD. And the list goes on: Minneapolis Cider Company even hosted a four-day “THC Taproom” pop-up, showcasing the new beverages from local makers.

“Our goal has always been to be the Bud Light, the Coors Light, the Miller Light, of the THC beverage category.”

As a result, many Minnesotan consumers’ earliest encounters with THC beverages came from familiar brands in familiar places. Instead of having to seek out cannabis drinks at, say, a dispensary — as is the case in many other states where weed is legalized — Minnesotans had the chance to sample them at their favorite taprooms. Beloved, pre-vouched local brands made cannabis drinks feel approachable, even mainstream. It was the perfect marriage of product and environment: The dedicated stoner who goes to her dispensary every third Thursday to re-up on Grandaddy Purp might be less interested in experimenting with five milligrams in a can — but an adventurous diner out for a drink could make the perfect consumer.

That ease of discovery has helped transform Minnesota’s entire culture around cannabis. “We probably have the most destigmatized retail market in the country,” Fatehi says.

It helped, too, that THC beverages offer a larger sense of control than smoking or eating a gummy. The THC, after being extracted from hemp, is processed into a water soluble emulsion and blended with fruit juices and carbonated water, then tested for potency. It’s evenly distributed throughout each serving, so the effects come on faster but more gradually than an edible or a puff. Mileage may vary, but the feeling tends to be a warm, sensory rhapsody that envelops without overwhelming.

Jake Bullock, CEO of California-based cannabis beverage company Cann, says that THC beverages’ low-key, euphoric effect is well-suited for social settings like bars: “Grain alcohol is the cheapest way to get drunk, but most people don’t drink it at bars because they’re not trying to get that drunk — they want to have a nice light buzz and unwind with their friends.”

Customers can add a THC-infused tincture to Hi Flora’s smoked juniper cocktail with a hand dropper. Erica Kale

Cann launched in Minnesota shortly after THC drinks were legalized, in October 2022. Bullock says they sold a million cans in the state in 2023. As popular as the California retailer has become, though, Minnesota’s hemp-derived beverage market has retained much of its craft-centric, local character. Innovation has expanded beyond breweries and cideries, too, as cannabis companies carve out their place. Shawn Weber, owner of Crested River Cannabis Company, felt that the early hemp seltzers tasted like they’d been rushed to market — so he developed an extra-sweet alternative to ensure that the cannabis users in his customer base had at least one drink that, in his words, didn’t “taste like complete shit.” He created an orange Fanta-like THC soda, with others to follow, and says he has had trouble keeping up with demand. Other competitors rolled out further non-seltzer offerings, like a “Blueberry Kush” cold brew from Gus Dean Coffee, and agua fresca from Aurora Cannabis, for example.

“We’ve definitely gotten away from, ‘Hey, I’m gonna carbonate some water, throw a couple flavors in there and add some THC,’” Weber says. “And that’s all the market was for the first few months or so.”

Todd Harris, CEO of beverage company Plift, sees the potential of the state’s THC boom to ripple across the country. Plift has national aspirations: Its beverages are already sold at retailers in almost 20 other states, and the pace of growth has been “frenetic,” Harris says. “Our goal has always been to be the Bud Light, the Coors Light, the Miller Light, of the THC beverage category.” Profit isn’t the only mission — Harris, whose family has been impacted by alcoholism, wants to create a sessionable alternative to alcohol, especially for communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization and are more likely to have an overconcentration of liquor stores in their neighborhoods.

Plift has national aspirations. Jon Hargett

THC drinks aren’t limited to taprooms and bars around the Cities, either — they’ve made their way onto restaurant menus. Many local spots serve canned hemp seltzers alongside their usual beer, wine, and cocktails, catering both to “Cali sober” customers and those who simply prefer hemp beverages over alcohol. One Minneapolis standout, Hi Flora, has dedicated its entire identity to THC, opening in summer of 2023 as a vegan, hemp-infused restaurant and temperance bar. Chef Heather Klein offers house-made THC tinctures on her menu, ranging from 5 to 50 milligram doses, which can be sprinkled via dropper bottle onto food or into cocktails. It’s been a wild ride, she says, to be among the states’ THC trailblazers. “It feels like there’s no playbook for this yet,” Klein says. “We’re inventing it as we go.”

Hi Flora’s servers carefully communicate the dosage of each tincture as customers order, Klein says, which has helped the restaurant successfully avoid any issues with guests consuming more than they’re comfortable with. She’s also outfitted the restaurant’s backroom with a chill-out couch for the (rare) occasions when guests get too high; or they can take a calming walk through the outdoor garden that borders the patio.

In the early days of the THC boom, legal guidelines were murky. The 2022 bill that had legalized hemp had few regulations, creating a “quasi-legal market” — a metaphorical, weed-fueled “Wild West.” It was unclear, for one, whether breweries could serve their THC beverages onsite, as opposed to selling six-packs. (Some, like Indeed, played it safe at first, only selling their hemp drinks to-go, according to a Vice report. Others, like Bauhaus, Wild Mind, and Eastlake Craft Brewery, let customers crack open cans.)

Sellers also hit legal snags. Bill Nosan is a buyer for south Minneapolis liquor store and cheese shop France 44, which began to sell THC drinks as it watched its competitors jump into the market. “We finally decided in August, ‘Well, screw it — if they’re doing it, we’re gonna do it,’” Nosan says. “Knowing it was kind of a gray area, and that we might get a slap on the wrist.” Eventually, that slap came: A state official visited France 44 in December 2022, Nosan says, demanding the shop sell THC beverages only in the cheese half of the establishment, and not in the liquor wing: It turned out the July 2022 bill had overlooked an antiquated law governing liquor stores. Many similar stores, chasing consumer demand, kept selling THC drinks anyway.

“It feels like there’s no playbook for this yet. We’re inventing it as we go.”

But full marijuana legalization was on the horizon, championed by the Minnesota’s legislature’s hard-won Democratic trifecta. Early on, some brewers were worried that it might spell disaster. The flood of hastily made THC drinks hitting store shelves with little-to-no oversight felt precarious, like it might be a fluke. Surely, once further legalization arrived, these new beverages would be regulated into oblivion. “A general vibe all across the board was that full legalization would happen in 2023,” says Bob Galligan, director of government and industry relations for the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. “Once there was finally an appetite in the House, Senate and Governor’s office, it was written in the stars that this was going to be the year.”

Legalization came in August 2023: Minnesota authorized the use and possession of marijuana (legal retail sales are expected to begin in 2025), created an entire state agency devoted to weed; and expunged marijuana-related misdemeanor charges (felonies are being evaluated case-by-case). The new legislation didn’t torpedo the hemp-derived beverage market, as some had predicted; THC food and drink businesses were allowed to keep operating as long as they registered with the Minnesota Department of Health. Since then, THC beverage sales have continued to boom as major retailers like Cub Foods and Total Wine rush to stock them, in part, as Axios has reported, to shore up their customer base before competing dispensaries begin to be licensed in 2025. The entire previous year had served as one long, slow-burning fuse; now the dynamite could ignite.

The THC takeover has coincided with a number of major brewery and taproom closures in the Twin Cities — craft beer has struggled nationally since the onset of the pandemic. While some might have speculated that hemp-derived beverages would siphon away sales from the craft beer scene, in reality, Galligan says, the THC market has helped elevate the local beer industry — he claims he can “count on more than two hands” the number of breweries these beverages have actually prevented from closing.

Aurora Cannabis’s agua fresca THC beverage. Aurora Cannabis

“As brewers, we’re constantly looking at data and we know there’s a trend, especially among younger consumers, of not drinking as much or even just not drinking alcohol,” he says. “These THC beverages have definitely brought in a different kind of consumer in a big way.” This was especially clear during “Dry January” of this year — Jason Dayton, of Minneapolis Cider Company, noticed that a whopping 25 percent of taproom sales came from THC beverages. And though some restaurant and bar owners are contending with insurance price hikes, hemp beverages are still omnipresent on menus across the Cities.

Despite how well the THC market has been performing under the current regulation, some brewers, like Galligan, are hoping for changes in the upcoming legislative session. “We actually want more restrictions,” Galligan says. “We’re used to pretty heavy regulations as brewers, so we want to make sure that what we’re serving with these THC beverages is safe and reliable for consumers, and that every batch is tested.”

If there’s one regulation he’s hoping to ease, it’s the “five-hour rule,” currently scheduled to go into effect in spring 2025. This rule is meant to curb so-called “crossfading” by preventing bartenders from serving THC to anyone who has consumed alcohol in the previous five hours. It’s been unpopular among brewers, Galligan says, because short of requiring a breathalyzer before ordering a THC drink, it’s pretty much unenforceable. Also, he says, it hasn’t yet proved necessary — the Brewer’s Guild hasn’t seen reports of skyrocketing traffic accident rates. THC-related traffic safety data has thus far proved hard to measure, though the state recently launched a roadside testing project. A bill was recently proposed to amend the five-hour rule, and allow customers to be served unless they’re “obviously impaired.”

For the moment, Minnesota remains poised on the cutting edge of the THC beverage boom, having capitalized on cannabis’s cultural evolution into the mainstream. As bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities have expanded their menus to meet surging demand, shifts are happening in other states, too: Las Vegas’s Dazed Consumption Lounge, opened just a few weeks ago, offers mocktails that can be infused with THC; cannabis-infused dining is germinating in Illinois and Wisconsin; and hemp seltzers are making their mark on the south, popping up at bars in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. It remains to be seen if any will replicate Minnesota’s success — until then, the North Star State’s effervescent hemp drinks will continue to taste like the future.

Additional reporting by Justine Jones.

Additional photo illustration credits: THC beverage can images by Indeed Brewing Co., Fair State Brewing Cooperative, and Bent Paddle Brewing Company, from left to right

“]] A careful alchemy of local innovation, freewheeling legislation, and rapidly shifting consumer trends has brought Minnesota to the forefront of the cannabis-infused beverage market.  Read More