Edibles manufacturers new and old are constantly looking for ways to get ahead in a competitive landscape that already features a wider range of product varieties than any other segment in the cannabis industry.
From brownies, cookies and chocolates to gummies, candies and fruit chews, everyone’s clamoring for a bigger piece of a market that BDSA projects to be worth $3.6 billion in 2021.
With five new states implementing adult-use or medical markets — and with such a wide array of products to choose from — manufacturers have an equally diverse number of ways to improve their operations, including making edibles taste better, sourcing superior equipment and keeping up with consumer trends.
Marijuana Venture spoke to several professionals in the edibles space to get their take on how to make better edibles.
Perfect the recipe
Like any confection or baked good, developing the perfect recipe is the first step to making a better-tasting edible.
But when it comes to cannabis-infused foods, the question is how to eliminate or mask the overpowering flavor of cannabis. At the end of the day, whether it’s a brownie, a cookie or a gummy, consumers want it to taste good.
“People say they would buy our cookies even if they didn’t have cannabis in them,” says Big Pete’s Treats CEO Pete Feurtado Jr. “That’s the biggest compliment we can hear.”
While many edibles manufacturers have turned to distillate to allow other ingredients to outshine the cannabis, others, like Feurtado, have simply refined their cannabutter production techniques into a science.
“People have been infusing cannabis and butter long before I was around,” says Feurtado, whose family-owned business in California is now in its 11th year of operation.
He says the key to making cannabutter taste good is going slow. By taking his time and keeping a careful eye on the temperature, he can produce a butter that almost completely masks any taste of cannabis and allows him to make the make “the best old-fashioned, grandma-style cookies” possible without altering traditional recipes.
“The key to a good tasting cannabutter is to not overcook it,” he says. “If you burn the butter it will have a bad aftertaste in the baked good or whatever product you’re making.”
But the recipe is about more than just flavor. It needs to be just right to have the texture that consumers like, as well as consistency from one batch to another. Gummies, for example, are one of the most popular forms of edibles, but they’re also “deceptively complicated” says Mike Hennesy, vice president of innovation at Colorado-based Wana Brands.
“They are sensitive to time, temperature, water pollution, really any small differences could lead to changes in your consistency,” he says. “One of the key things to making a gummy is getting the recipe down because it is not as simple as finding a recipe online and duplicating it.”
Kill the cannabis taste
In the early days of commercial cannabis, edibles manufacturers relied on ingredients like cannabutter to infuse their products with THC. Although the method still works for Big Pete’s Treats and other companies, many manufacturers were stifled by its limitations.
But in recent years, extraction technology has reached a point where the production of distillate has become commonplace, giving edibles manufacturers greater ability to manipulate the flavors.
“When I started, 80% of my time was spent hiding the flavor of weed in whatever edible I was working on,” says Derek Cummings, co-founder of Medically Correct, a Colorado-based edibles company that has been in business for more than a decade. “Now with distillate, whatever we want to make, you can basically sneak that cannabis in there. The sky is the limit.”
Cummings says distillate not only allows the company to create the most delicate tasting concoctions, but its purity also allows the company to avoid unwanted substances like chlorophyll, lipids and “all those plant materials that are going to make your edible taste like a plant.”
“We are able to make a white-chocolate base pistachio bar with really delicate nuances in the flavors from the salted pistachios to the very light mint in a white chocolate bar,” Cummings says. “I would have never dreamed of doing that, but now with distillate you wouldn’t even know that there’s any cannabis inside that bar.”
A decade ago, “going vegan” was viewed as more of a fringe lifestyle, but just as cannabis has become more mainstream, vegan diets have also gained more acceptance. At MariMed, a Massachusetts-based multistate operator, chief product officer Ryan Crandall says using vegan ingredients for the company’s all-natural, taffy-like fruit chews, Betty’s Eddies, has earned the company a cult following.
As a chef for more than 30 years and founder of Cosmo D’s Outrageous Edibles in Santa Cruz, David Brissenden has seen the draw of having vegan options.
“Our chocolate crumble is vegan and it’s our top seller,” Brissenden says “It’s a huge niche to be a part of and I didn’t want to miss out on it.”
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, High Five Edibles has also drawn its share of loyal customers by offering vegan options. The company’s chocolate bars and vegan fruit snacks are particularly popular because they’re all organic and not made with artificial dyes or corn syrup, CEO Brianna Oxhandler says.
Instead of using artificial dyes, Crandall says MariMed uses common fruits and vegetables to color its products.
“If we are trying to make something green, then we try using spinach,” Crandall says. “If we are trying to make something yellow, we use dehydrated corn and grind it and get it to the right consistency.”
Use simple ingredients
More and more consumers across the nation are demanding all-natural ingredients, and cannabis edibles manufacturers are following that trend and giving consumers what they want.
“We shifted all of our recipes from what used to be a high-fructose corn syrup recipe into a tapioca recipe,” Hennesy says. “With the right development you can end up with the same product but with an overall healthier and cleaner ingredient. We are not raising the price on this product at all.”
Using Organic, all-natural ingredients has been the mantra for High Five Edibles since the company was founded in 2016 with the goal of making “something better than just candy with cannabis oil in it.”
With so many cannabis consumers using edibles to treat an illness, avoiding artificial ingredients is just one small step toward making healthier products.
“To me it just makes sense to use less sugar and use as many Organic flavors, Organic dyes and Organic chocolate as possible because the end product is just so much better,” Oxhandler says.
Modernize the kitchen
Just as the ingredients in edibles have taken a massive leap forward, so have the kitchens in which the country’s top brands are creating their goods. Gone are the repurposed home ovens and stove tops, replaced by the modern conveniences of international candy makers and chefs.
Medically Correct, for example, made a substantial investment in equipment from an Italian chocolate manufacturer during the past year, giving the company the ability to make up to 25 different chocolate confections.
“When we started 12 years ago, I was making eight bars at a time,” Cummings says. “Now, we’ve got suppliers from the best candy companies in the country, we’ve got delicious fillings and we are making some of our fillings from scratch. Then we run it through this equipment, and we have to fine-tune about 25-30 different settings, but it allows us to be a push-button operation.”
The new equipment takes a huge part of the labor out of the equation for Medically Correct and allows the staff to focus on quality control and dreaming up new recipes.
Work with a flavor house
Sometimes a strawberry is just a strawberry. But when it comes to making candies and edibles, it could be a light strawberry, a juicy strawberry or one of dozens and dozens of other strawberry flavors.
Hennesy recommends working with a “flavor house” to tap into the wide range of options for their confections.
“When you work with a flavor house you can really identify the different compounds found in a strawberry to elicit different kinds of tastes,” Hennesy says.
One such flavor producer is Flavor Dynamics, which was founded in 1998 and has gotten so many inquiries from cannabis companies that it established a section on its website for edibles manufacturers to get acquainted with some of the test flavors developed for tinctures, gummies and beverages.
Dawn Riviere, the company’s West Coast technical sales manager, says flavor houses will work with edibles manufacturers to find the right balance for a new recipe or a better formulation for an existing one. Riviere says that no matter what the challenge is, there’s a good chance Flavor Dynamics already has an answer.
“We have thousands of flavors in our system,” Riviere says. “I can’t even put a number to it. It’s endless.”
Offer something different
Part of being successful in the edibles sector is being innovative and chasing down the latest flavor trends. With competition in the cannabis space on the rise, it’s likely that more and more manufacturers will turn to unique flavors to catch the attention of consumers.
Hennesy calls it “going beyond the lemon and the grape.” It’s about “more dimensionality with multiple notes,” he says.
“A good example would be a strawberry margarita flavor,” he says, “which is really combining the strawberry with the tart lime in a margarita and even adding a hint of salt that makes it a much more exciting flavor.”
In her quest to source better ingredients, Oxhandler keeps finding new, interesting flavors for future High Five products. In addition to the company’s key-lime, blood-orange and acai gummies, Brianna has also started using ingredients like ceremonial matcha and ruby chocolate.
“There are only three different countries in the world that have this chocolate,” she says. “It’s naturally pink and it tastes fruity but there’s no color added and no flavors added. It has a fruity aftertaste that when you eat it, it tastes one way and then it reaches other parts of your tongue and it has a completely different flavor.”
Riviere says Flavor Dynamics keeps its customers in the know by subscribing to several trend-forecasting resources and by attending trade shows in the food industry. Floral flavors, for example, have come into vogue recently.
“Last year, I had a rose lemonade at an event that was so wonderful I said, ‘holy hell, I have to find this product,’” Riviere says. “People are always looking for what’s next. Sometimes what’s old is new and there are nostalgia flavors. It could be something that was really popular in the ‘60s that isn’t available anymore or something that has stood the test of time but never in a specific medium.”
Brissenden says he is sitting on several savory recipes for infused products like barbecue sauce, hot sauce, olive oil, pesto and balsamic vinaigrette. He anticipates the demand for savory products to increase considerably once the market matures and as cafes and non-cannabis retailers can sell infused foods.
Look beyond cannabis
One byproduct of legalization has been the eventual acceptance from distributors, equipment manufacturers and flavor houses that operate in the mainstream food and beverage industry.
“There was a time when candy producers wouldn’t talk to us,” Cummings says. “There was a time when the biggest mold supplier in the country pulled our account because they found out we were a cannabis company.”
But those days are steadily changing, and cannabis companies are now able to take advantage of many of the same equipment suppliers and ancillary services that their non-cannabis counterparts use.
By working with longstanding businesses in the food and beverage industry, edibles manufacturers gain access to the latest technology and innovations that are driving sales for a wide variety of businesses that target an equally diverse range of consumer interests — from impulse snack buys at gas station chains to the latest gastronomic concoctions at high-end restaurants.
“Now, we’ve come full circle to where companies are not only reaching out to cannabis companies, but the companies that told us ‘no’ years ago are coming back begging for the business because they missed the boat,” Cummings says.