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A view of a recent production day for Choom, a new lemon-lime-flavored THC drink from Logan Square-based Hopewell Brewing. Choom will begin appearing at local retailers the week of Feb. 26.

A view of a recent production day for Choom, a new lemon-lime-flavored THC drink from Logan Square-based Hopewell Brewing. Choom will begin appearing at local retailers the week of Feb. 26.

Manuel Martinez

The new frontier for Chicago brewers? 'Mellow' weed drinks that don't resemble beer.

Last March, a few months after Minnesota legislators gave brewers the green light to begin making beverages with the active marijuana ingredient THC, a Chicago delegation went to the North Star State to investigate.

The team from Chicago’s Hopewell Brewing visited Fair State Brewing in Minneapolis, which early in the pandemic became America’s first unionized microbrewery. Fair State had released a THC seltzer called “Chill State” and had since built a side business packaging and distributing hemp-based concoctions for others. As its beer sales fell during the pandemic, Chill State offered Fair State a spark of growth.

The Chicago brewers naturally had lots of questions. And they were just as interested in how Twin Cities consumers were responding to cannabis-based beverages.

The answer, it turned out, was enthusiastically. The Chicago brewers found THC drinks everywhere — from the taproom at Fair State to their own hotel minibar.



Samantha Lee, co-owner of Hopewell Brewing

Samantha Lee, a co-owner of Hopewell Brewing, saw an opportunity for growth after observing the success of THC-infused beverages in Minneapolis.

“People were adopting it very quickly, and it felt very natural,” said Samantha Lee, Hopewell’s co-owner.

Now Logan Square-based Hopewell is following suit, releasing a lemon-lime-flavored THC drink called Choom this week. With Choom, Hopewell joins McKinley Park-based Marz on the vanguard of Chicago breweries venturing into the THC-infused beverage space.

For brewers, the adoption of a new non-beer product line is both a play for survival and a gamble. As craft beer sales level off, THC drinks are becoming an attractive alternative for brewers: After all, they’re trendy, easier to produce than beer and, with a different flavor than a lager or ale and a different buzz, appeal to a slightly different audience.

But brewing hemp-based THC beverages in Illinois also comes with plenty of unknowns and legal wrangling. There’s no state law comparable to the one in Minnesota, nor is there a clear standard for discerning when to cut off a THC-impaired consumer. In Illinois, as in Minnesota, Hopewell is legally prohibited both from pairing THC with beer and from making beverages that incorporate THC derived from marijuana. Instead, the brewer can only make a nonalcoholic drink with THC derived from hemp — a similar plant to marijuana with lower THC levels — that is regulated differently under federal law.

The distinction between hemp and marijuana gets a little weird because THC infusions are dosed. Basically, 10 milligrams is 10 milligrams, with similar potency, whether it comes from hemp or marijuana. It’s just that it takes about 60 times more hemp to extract the same amount of THC, according to Glenn McElfresh, co-owner of Perfectly Dosed, the Chicago-based company that provides the THC emulsions that Hopewell uses to create Choom.

For brewers like Hopewell, the foray into a new category generates a creative opportunity as well as an economic one.

Making Choom “is very much a departure” from Hopewell’s beer-creation process, says Stephen Bossu, another Hopewell cofounder. “With this [expertise], it’s like, ‘We can make anything under the sun.’ The starting point is broader.”



Choom

After Illinois craft beer sales likely declined in 2023, THC-infused beverages offer brewers a new growth opportunity.



A “nice little mellow shot”

THC beverages have been legal in Illinois since 2020, but the new brewery-created offerings are much lower octane than the versions sold in dispensaries. For example, Choom — which will be sold in the same mini-sized 8-ounce cans Hopewell uses for its Lil Buddy lager — contains 10 milligrams of THC, while Choom Lite contains three milligrams. (Marz’s THC bevs also contain 10 milligrams of the drug.) In contrast, for example, most of the THC-infused beverages at Dispensary33 in Andersonville contain 100 milligrams.

The THC in Choom is intended to land “like a nice little mellow shot” rather than a full-on high, according to Lee. The idea is to introduce THC to an audience that’s interested in a nonalcoholic buzz but wary of dispensary-level potency.

“THC beverages are brand new to a lot of people, so it’s exciting to be able to hopefully steward it and educate people and provide some credibility and trust in the space,” Lee says.

Hopewell and Marz are early to Illinois’ THC party, but hardly the only interested breweries. In January, more than 200 breweries — that’s a little more than half the breweries across the state — attended a THC informational meeting at Hailstorm Brewing in Tinley Park that was sponsored by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.



The canning and production process unfolds over several hours at Hopewell on a February morning.

The canning and production process unfolds over several hours at Hopewell on a February morning.

Manuel Martinez

Why the appeal? For one thing, after a decade of strong, consistent growth, Illinois craft beer sales likely declined in 2023, according to Ray Stout, executive director of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. (Final numbers for 2023 aren’t yet available, but Stout’s analysis aligns with the national trend, according to the Brewers Association trade group. The fallout locally includes the closing of Avondale-based Metropolitan Brewing.) THC-infused beverages offer brewers a way to jump on a new trend: Cannabis beverages are expected to jump from $1 billion in global sales to nearly $4 billion by 2030, according to financial analysis firm Research and Markets.

There’s no guarantee THC drinks can reverse the fortunes of overextended craft breweries. Fair State, for example, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month. CEO Evan Sallee told the Twin Cities publication Racket that even with Chill State driving some growth, it wasn’t enough to cover the company’s lingering pandemic liabilities. (Fair State plans to remain open.)

Still, Illinois breweries are keen to experiment with a popular new product that fits within their ethos.

“A lot of [Illinois breweries] see this as an opportunity to create a beverage that is an alternative to alcohol yet fits in their bailiwick,” Stout said.

Another advantage is that THC beverages are easy to produce relative to beer. Hopewell spent nearly a year tinkering with Choom’s salinity, texture and lemon-lime flavor, but now that it’s dialed in, the company is able to make it in large quantities without tying up the giant tanks and fermentation equipment that occupy most of Hopewell’s cramped brewhouse.

Then there’s the cool factor. For Hopewell, the linchpin to Choom’s development wasn’t primarily economic (sales were up last year) or logistical but the fact that Hopewell’s staff got behind the idea of producing a THC drink.

“We have not been the craft brewery that is quickest to hop on to something that’s extremely trendy or setting social media on fire,” Lee said. “This definitely feels like a first in some ways that we’re so early on something that we think will be big.”



The manufacturing process of Choom

The goal of Hopewell’s Choom is to appeal to the weed curious rather than lean too far toward traditional marijuana culture.

Slang for smoking marijuana

Without state-level laws regulating hemp-derived THC drinks, businesses like Hopewell are taking a risk, betting that politically progressive Illinois will follow in Minnesota’s footsteps. It’s a reasonable calculation. Still, McElfresh, who formerly led compliance efforts for a Colorado-based cannabis company, says “regulatory certainty is my safety blanket” — and right now, Illinois companies don’t have it.

Also, without a state law on the books, Hopewell will pay sales tax on Choom, but is left to guess at the additional tariff that the state will likely place on THC. Hopewell, which is planning to charge $5 for the 10 milligram version of Choom and a bit less for its “Lite” sibling, set its prices anticipating something similar to Minnesota’s 10% cannabis tax.

For brewers of course, the fun part is creating a drink that tastes great — and doing so outside the comfortable boundaries of the beer-making process. Hopewell, for example, discovered that the Lake Michigan-derived Chicago water that’s generally an asset to city breweries was too clean for the THC drink. The team is now treating the water so it has more of a mineral character.

I recently tasted an uncarbonated test batch of Choom Lite and felt no effect from the THC; the flavor profile was somewhere between Gatorade and a Margarita. The word “Choom” is slang for smoking marijuana: A biography of former President Barack Obama by journalist David Maraniss says he was part of a group of friends called The Choom Gang in his youth.

Hopewell wants its beverage to draw in the THC curious rather than lean too far toward traditional marijuana culture. Whereas Fair State said it aimed specifically for “weed flavors” in the press release announcing Chill State, Lee said Hopewell wants something different.

“The goal for this one is to have it feel refreshing — and not like bongwater,” she says.

Choom will hit shelves at Chicago-area liquor stores including Beermiscuous, Bitter Pops and Dill Pickle Food Co-Op on Feb. 26, with a release party at Hopewell’s taproom (2760 N. Milwaukee Ave.) from 4:20 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 29.

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