Cooking up the future of edibles
By Jean Ko Din
A look inside the burgeoning food trend that will shape the cannabis industry
Canada’s food culture is about to change.
Cannabis 2.0 has opened the doors to a new wave of products that are expected to inject $2.7 billion into the Canadian market in the first year. According to Deloitte’s 2019 study, edibles and infused beverages are the top two product types that Canadians are most eager to try. Together, edibles ($1.6 billion) and infused beverages ($529 million) are said to account for $2.1 billion or almost 78 per cent of the total revenue.
Major brands from across the country have been gearing up for extracts legalization for years. Leading up to Oct. 17, 2019, cannabis brands were doubling down on research and development to be ready for their own infused products to launch in 2020.
Outside of the industry, major food brands, like Edible Arrangements, Molson Coors and Constellation Brands, were racing to partner with Canadian cannabis producers so that they could get their own piece of one of the fastest growing industries in the country.
With the diverse potential of this new range of product types, Grow Opportunity looks at the different ways the industry is leveraging Canada’s newest food trend.
The high life
Luxury cannabis bars and cafés are cropping up in trendy neighbourhoods all over the country, but byMinistry wants to make its name as Canada’s high-end cannabis lifestyle hub.
Last summer, Tokyo Smoke co-founder Lorne Gertner announced his plan to build a new kind of cannabis space on the same foundations as the original Tokyo Smoke café in downtown Toronto. The 8,000-square-foot future home of byMinstry on Adelaide Street will have three dedicated spaces for food, art and design.
The flagship location was slated to open in late 2019 but construction has forced the company to postpone its opening to Winter 2020. Still, buzz for this upcoming high-end, high-culture space continues after the announcement that top chef Ted Corrado will be joining its executive team.
Corrado is a former executive chef for the Drake Hotel, Drake Commissary and Drake Devonshire. Now as byMinistry’s culinary director, Corrado is in charge of building the “cannabistronomy” hub for the lounge. He will also be developing the brand’s new cannabis culinary school, Lab byMinistry.
The first of byMinistry’s culinary experiences include an Enlightened Dinner Club, which launched in February this year. These private dinner parties – which are only revealed to exclusive members of a mailing list – take place in trendy design studios across the city. These dinners, Corrado says, are aimed at educating guests about removing stigmas through design-forward experiences.
“Standing outside, smoking a joint isn’t where I’m at right now,” says Corrado. “I want a beautiful experience. I want to sit down and have a great meal. I want the perfect playlist and have a beautifully-designed space. That’s what I’m looking for my cannabis experience to be.”
Even before he was hired to be part of the byMinistry executive team, Corrado has curated many private cannabis dinners himself. In fact, cannabis-infused dinner parties aren’t new to fine-dining chefs. Many cannabis-trained chefs find that curating dinner experiences for an intimate crowd is a great opportunity to safely experiment with cannabis as a food ingredient.
“Beyond flavour profile, you’re looking at what effect the plant will have, as well,” says Corrado. “Depending on where a dish fits into the course of an evening, I’m looking to create that experience for the guest… sativas and hybrids to start off your evening and CBDs to end a menu or a meal.”
As infused food experiences start to become the “new normal” in the industry, Corrado says he is looking forward to more innovations in producers and extraction companies. As a chef, he said that having reliable infused pantry products, like flour, sugar, salt, butter and oil, will be a huge next step for the food industry.
“Chefs are creatures of habit. If we like something, we will go back to it over and over and over again,” he says. “I want to be able to buy that exact same strain and make sure that it breaks down in the same way, that the DNA of that strain is the same. I don’t think we’re there with cannabis right now. The strains are a bit all over the place.”
Cook it yourself
For those who cannot afford the $100 to $200 price tag of a private cannabis dinner, home cooks have been concocting their own infusion recipes through trial and error. The Cannabis Cooking Company is looking to alleviate that guesswork for people through its hands-on workshops.
Lead cannabis chef and instructor Don Gingrich has been cooking with cannabis for almost 30 years. As a cancer survivor at a young age, Gingrich turned to medicinal cannabis to alleviate the painful symptoms of his chemotherapy. He remembers his first edibles recipe, which was a brownie recipe he developed with some chopped up pieces of his homegrown plant.
“Back then, we didn’t decarboxylate or anything like that… We didn’t strain anything, it had stems and seeds and all sorts of stuff. It tasted like weed but it worked,” laughs Gingrich. “It was a lot of trial and error, but once we narrowed down on the math, my wife and I now make caramels and all sorts of stuff.”
Gingrich says in this new era of legalization, trial and error doesn’t have to be people’s starting point anymore. Every week, classes are led by trained chefs, cannabis sommeliers and experts to teach participants about the decarboxylation process of infusing CBD and THC into olive oil. They also learn micro-dosing their food with a controlled amount of THC to ensure a pleasant experience throughout the meal. Then, Gingrich leads the class through simple recipes that can incorporate the infused oil in a variety of dishes.
“For example, today we’re pairing the limonene in the plant and pairing it with the earthiness of mushrooms and adding some lemongrass, as well,” explains Gingrich as he furiously chops herbs to prep for the class’s potstickers recipe. “Sourcing our viable cannabis, I look for something that is stocked with a high amount of terpenes, high THC, you’re looking for organic, mould-free, fungus-free… no different from picking out produce, it’s the same thing.”
The Cannabis Cooking Company sees its role mainly as an education space for people who are just learning about infused food, says Vanessa Labrecque, co-founder and chief operations officer. Hands-on workshops allow people to absorb all the information they learn that day and apply it into their real-life situations right away, she adds.
“When we started classes (in October 2018), we thought our demographic would’ve been younger people ranging 25 to 30 years old and actually, the people who have been coming to our classes are older people,” says Labrecque. “People who have been told their whole lives that cannabis is bad for them, but now they want to be educated because they want to see the health benefits that come with it.”
Labrecque says they have also been getting tourists, who are coming from as far away as Singapore, Israel and Brazil, to learn more about cannabis. Patty Clark, who is an owner of a bed and breakfast in Creemore, Ont., decided to take classes herself after learning more about Canada’s growing reputation as a cannabis experience destination.
“It’s all about experiential tourism now. People want to have experiences,” she says. “So, we’ve done well incorporating activities like mushroom foraging and cooking as part of their overnight stay… So this is going to be one that we’re introducing – the concept of cannabis and cooking. People can come and stay with us for the weekend, they can bring their own and indulge if they wish.”
Legacy brands say ‘No’
President and CEO of the Baking Association of Canada, Paul Hetherington, says the baking industry won’t be jumping on the infused foods trend any time soon.
“There was a lot of initial interest in the opportunity,” says Hetherington. “But once they start to drill into it and the requirements, at the federal level and the distribution limitations, a lot of companies decided to take a pass on it.”
The Baking Association conducted a survey early 2019 to see if companies saw opportunities in Canada’s cannabis industry. The response, according to Hetherington, was overwhelmingly skeptical.
There are niche bakeries, however, that are specializing specifically with infused baked goods and confectionary products. But largely, Hetherington says major baking companies are staying away from cannabis-infused foods.
To acquire a cannabis producer licence, a company is required to build a completely separate infrastructure to develop and then mass-produce its edibles products. Import and export of goods would also be difficult in the United States and in European countries.
“Some, for example, have expressed concerns around if they’re exporting to the U.S., would they have challenges with continued access, so it’s complicated,” says Hetherington. “A current bakery would be looking at this market and asking themselves, ‘Is the investment worthwhile?’ And right now, it’s not.”
There is no doubt in Dooma Wendschuh’s mind that cannabis beverages are the future of the market. Wendschuh is co-founder and chief executive of Province Brands of Canada, an Ontario-based brand that is hoping to develop the first cannabis crafted beer.
“It’s a crazy idea. We really shouldn’t have done it because it’s taken us down this rabbit hole,” Wendschuh laughs. “We’re not a typical marijuana company because our goal is not to make a good marijuana product. Rather, our goal is to create what we consider a first-ever, less-harmful alternative to alcohol.”
The idea for Province Brands started in September 2016. There was not yet any indication in the public space that cannabis would be legalized but Wendschuh and his co-founder Jennifer Dianne Thomas saw it as an eventuality.
The company has invested more than $10 million in direct research and development. Last October, the company announced it will be collaborating with Western University on a patented method of developing yeasts which can be used in crafting beers made from hemp and cannabis. The $45,000 grant was funded by the Ontario Center of Excellence and by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The company is using specialized equipment and technology to extract fermentable sugars during a patented milling process that Wendschuh said does not yet exist in typical breweries.
“Our process basically takes the waste material from the growers. We are looking for a supply of stalks, stems and roots,” he explains. “Certain strains wouldn’t be useful for us that are low in THC and CBD but it probably won’t meet the minimum threshold of phytocannabinoids that we would need.”
Wendschuh says the company also looks for ingredients that are under the limit in pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants.
Along with the research and development happening at Province Brands, Wendschuh says extensive product testing is valuable in order to prepare the company for a successful product launch in 2020.
Doubling down on the cannabis beverages market made the most sense to Wendschuh because year after year, edibles and beverages are the fastest growing product type in the U.S. market, and he sees no reason why Canada would not follow suit. He believes the main reason for this is because food is inherently a social activity without the health risks of smoking or vaping.
“Your friend won’t call you up to go to a bar and eat a plate of gummy bears. We’re used to drinking and so it makes a lot of sense,” says Wendschuh. “Now there’s a lot of reasons that hasn’t happened yet. There’s a lot of technological hurdles that has to be overcome to make really phenomenal edibles and beverages and those have not all been overcome yet.”
Lesson in edibles
No one has to tell Health Canada that extracts are a tricky thing to regulate on a commercial scale. Although the government agency has been criticized for its prudent regulations, one only has to look at cannabis markets, like Colorado, Oregon or Washington State, to understand the risk of relaxing rules too soon.
The first recreational dispensaries in Colorado went into business in 2014. There were almost no restrictions for edible products in the beginning. Many were packaged in clear bags, undistinguishable from other typical snack foods, with no standardized dose.
Many consumers didn’t know to pace themselves and in that first year, the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center received double the number of calls of young people 18 years and younger accidentally ingesting large amounts of THC. These incidents brought industry leaders and government officials together to develop appropriate policies.
In Colorado, edibles are a $170-million industry and have been growing 15 per cent faster than the overall cannabis market, even as dried flowers began to fall 62 per cent over the same amount of time.