Pictured above: Michelle Sundquist. Photo courtesy of Sundquist.
Written by Seth King
After two decades of developing customer favorites like Nitro Cold Brew for Starbucks, the caffeine buzz had worn off for food and beverage scientist, Michelle Sundquist. So, Sundquist made tracks to SōRSE Technology, the Seattle-based food, beverage, and product development company that creates and licenses emulsions for the cannabis industry where she has flourished in the role of director of product development.
Sundquist’s first task? Developing cannabis-infused beverages, spearheading the debut of their Happy Apple cider, an odorless and tasteless THC beverage that packed a punch at either 10mg or 50mg doses. The launch was an immediate success. Within one year, Happy Apple had become the number one selling cannabis-infused drink in Washington state.
With a win under her belt, Sundquist and her team focused on perfecting their emulsion. Unlike other cannabis-infused emulsions, the team diffused the cannabis oil throughout the entire beverage—rather than sinking to the bottom or top of the bottle, or sticking to the sides of the can liner —a flaw known in the industry as scalping. Most importantly, the emulsion could be added to any drink, not just cider, which led Sundquist to turn her attention towards developing the “Reeb” (beer spelled backward), Washington state’s first THC-infused non-alcoholic product with an authentic beer-flavored taste.
Reeb was developed as a light 5mg hoppy beverage meant to be sipped casually. But as it became more popular, their 100mg bottle sold out throughout the state. Unlike competitors, Reeb is not a cannabis beer masquerading as an alcoholic one. It is made using all the ingredients one would use to make beer: barley, wheat, and hops.
The process of creating Reeb begins with these ingredients being added to warm water. Then, in compliance with the Liquor Cannabis Board (LCB) regulations, removed right before the fermentation can take place.
“When we developed the Reeb, we worked with a local brewer to make the mash,” says Sundquist. “Then based on what the LCB would allow, we could put the ingredients together but first we had to prove to them that the products couldn’t ferment.”
To ensure the LCB can sleep at night, preservatives are then added to the “mash” which is the final step to ensure the drink doesn’t brew before the cannabis emulsion is added. In case consumers need another warning, it’s also labeled as a “barley soda.”
Since their “beer” contains cannabis products, Washington’s laws can make innovation difficult. For now, California might be more open to experimenting with alcoholic beverage content. With the LCB constantly changing their regulation, Sundquist and her team decided to discontinue their THC-infused “beer” six months ago, and instead, focus on reformulating it while waiting on the state’s next moves.
“There aren’t a lot of processing methods approved in the state,” Sundquist said. “At some point, you will have ingredients you won’t consider changing and then you need to build your processing method around preserving those ingredients and their integrity.”
She is hoping to work with the LTB in the coming months to create a “near-beer” product, term to describe malt beverages containing little or no alcohol (less than 0.5% ABV). This would allow the new and improved Reeb to go through an uninterrupted brewing process. Then, once the beverage is ready, the alcohol would then be burned off before Reebis bottled.
“This would create more of an expected beer experience. But right now, we can’t do that and it’s not an available option,” said Sundquist. She has other ideas too if that one doesn’t work.
“I’m considering not using as many beer ingredients in the beverage. Of course we would want to make sure there are enough [ingredients] to add body, but we would want to take the rest and top note it with flavors you would find in beer or adding beer malt to give it more flavor,” Sundquist said.