What will cannabis drinks’ labels say? Here’s why ‘barley soda’ is a possibility

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There’s nothing quite like a nice, cold, yeast-fermented, malt-flavoured beverage with hops on a hot summer day — said, perhaps, nobody ever.

But after Friday’s announcement by Health Canada about the final rules for edible (and drinkable) cannabis products, makers of THC-infused drinks may have to sell the public on the concept.

Federal regulations allow de-alcoholized wine and beer with THC added. But they will ban words related to alcoholic beverages, like “wine” and “beer” to market them.

That leaves Hill Street Beverage Co.’s Terry Donnelly in some doubt about what to print on a can of THC-infused beer.

“It’s a barley soda,” he says. “It’s an ‘infused hop water with barley.’ We’ve been joking around with ‘liquid fermented extract of cereal grains.’ That’s pretty catchy.”

THC beverages will have to be sold in completely opaque, child-proof containers with very plain labels. “You have to essentially mirror the packaging of dried flower,” Donnelly says. “The beverage has to essentially look like toilet bowl cleanser.”

Makers of this type of cannabis beverage add a small amount of water-soluble powdered THC to the liquid. Water-soluble THC is quickly absorbed in the body, giving the user quick feedback on the effect, much like alcohol. (Edibles, which use fat-soluble THC, can often take over an hour to have an effect.)

But as far as labelling the beverages is concerned, makers are caught in a trap. Any word they could use that a consumer might understand — Riesling, for example — is illegal. But using terms consumers don’t understand makes them harder to sell. 

“Wine” and “beer” aren’t allowed, and Donnelly says he’s been told that words like “lager” or “chardonnay” aren’t, either.

What that means, as Donnelly understands it, is that makers won’t be allowed to tell the consumer what grape variety a THC wine is made from.

Makers had been hoping for some loosening of the rules before the final version was published Friday, but now it’s clear that’s not going to happen.

Global News asked Health Canada about the reasoning behind banning terms like ‘chardonnay.’ They didn’t answer directly.

“The amended Cannabis Regulations prohibit representations that associate a cannabis product, its packaging, its labelling or its promotion with an alcoholic beverage, or with tobacco or vaping products,” spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau wrote in an e-mail.

“The prohibition is based on evidence demonstrating that combining cannabis with other substances can increase impairment or increase the risk of problematic use and associated harms. The Cannabis Act also prohibits any products, promotion, packaging or labeling that could be appealing to young people.”

Health Canada will not pre-approve a set of terms, Donnelly says.

“This is probably the single most frustrating part about dealing with Health Canada, is that they don’t tell you in advance where you could go wrong,” he explains.

“It literally leaves us guessing. We have created the names, we have invented new words to describe our beverages, and we hope that consumers will understand what they are.”