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WNC Business

A 'budding' theme in craft beverages

May 18, 2024 10:46AM ● By Randee Brown

Offering products other than beer is an increasing trend in the craft beverage market, according to Moonwater Beverage’s Sales and Marketing Director Eli Cotellese. 

Cotellese’s grandfather was vacationing in Thailand and noticed a THC drink available for purchase. As someone who does not drink alcohol, he was excited to see a different option for enhancing relaxation and having a good time. Talking to his son and grandson upon his return to the US, the family conducted some market research to see if something similar was available here.

While there are many THC or CBD seltzers on the market, they found there was not anyone creating cannabis-enhanced drinks like lemonade or traditional cola. After reaching out to industry connections to formulate ideas, they determined the craft beverage market could benefit by the addition of these types of options.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 authorized the production of hemp, and legalized derivatives of hemp produced in a manner consistent with the farm bill. Cotellese and his family worked to create Moonwater THC Beverages, filling the market gap and creating THC beverages using legal cannabinoid concentrates as described in the 2018 farm bill.

“We want people to understand this is 100% legal, and that it’s okay to enjoy an alternative to alcohol that might still give you a buzz,” Cotellese said. “We’re also working to reduce the remaining stigma around cannabis being taboo or not allowed versus the fact that there’s no stigma when it comes to people constantly drinking alcohol.”

Because of the vibe that Asheville has, along with its many microbreweries and artistic talent, Cotellese said the area is a great place to begin a craft beverage company. The area has a culture that is supportive of business, and both residents and visitors are more likely to try a new product because it is the “craft beverage capital of America.” Being a very locally-focused community, Ashevillians in general enjoy trying new local products as they become available. 

“We are able to quickly get our product in a variety of storefronts from head shops to bars to restaurants,” Cotellese said. “There has been a bit of hesitancy from shops that are more health-focused, but we are planning to offer an organic soda line and perhaps add a tea and a coffee option at some point. Overall, Asheville has been a great home to grow our brand in.”

Moonwater’s THC beverages received positive feedback from many in the industry, becoming available at nearly 70 locations within about six months. While many locations are in Western North Carolina, these products are also shipped into places like Wilmington and Athens, GA, and their footprint is continuing to expand.

One difference between THC beverage production and craft breweries is the taproom portion of the business. Currently, these beverages are only available through registered retailers, and direct-to-consumer sales are not yet available. Cotellese has a vision of offering some sort of taproom in the future, one that would allow customers to visit, see the hemp plants, and enjoy a beverage on site.

“There are so many really cool breweries people can visit and hang out and enjoy with friends,” Cotellese said. “It’s my big dream to have a place like that someday.”

This type of craft beverage has hit the market in a timely manner within the industry, as Cotellese said there is positive feedback universally across the board. He sees no competition, only collaboration from all of those pioneering into this new space, and with so many people looking for beer alternatives or removing themselves from the alcohol scene altogether, his grandfather whispered into his dad’s ear at just the right time.

“A product like this is a great alternative for drinkers, as well for smokers who may want the buzz but with a breath of fresh air,” Cotellese said. “Even in our six months of having our products in the market, we’ve seen quite a lot of development with other companies producing delta-nine drinks as well as an increased curiosity from consumers. It seems there is a new theme coming to light."