Oakland edibles startup and San Francisco micro-roaster brew cannabis industry’s first Intel Inside moment.
BY ED MURRIETA
To aficionados who enjoy a caffeine buzz with their marijuana buzz, coffee and cannabis go together like cream and sugar and Cheech and Chong rolled into one energy-inducing, mind-altering jolt.
After decades of counterculture popularity, the classic java-and-a-joint combo, aka the Hippie Highball, has been re-booted in the modern age of legal weed.
Cannabis-infused single-brew coffee pods entered California’s medical cannabis edibles marketplace in 2015 but require K-Cup-style brewing machines and remain a novelty.
The more accessible 2017 pairing combines three red-hot trends — cold-brewed coffee, artisan cannabis concentrate and low-dose edibles — into a singularly robust concept that boasts the added kick of being the first example of a mainstream company lending its brand to a cannabis product.
“We’re the first of its kind doing ingredient branding in the cannabis industry,” said Christopher Schroeder, founder of Somatik (pronounced so-mat-ik), a startup in the Gateway cannabis business incubator in Oakland. “As a startup, I think one of the things that’s interested people most is that I am partnered with a mainstream brand.”
That brand is San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, which began a decade ago as a Mission District pop-up that rode coffee’s third wave, maturing into an importer and micro-roaster of highly sought-after curated beans and operator of cafes steeped in industry accolades and coffee-nerd culture.
The co-branded cold brew is called Somatik Featuring Ritual Coffee, 8-ounce bottles of concentrated elixir extracted from Ritual’s beans and infused with 15 mg of THC, a low-dose beverage that can be drunk straight or diluted with milk or water. Another co-branded product, THC-infused chocolate-covered coffee beans, is in the works. Look for both only in medical cannabis dispensaries.
Cannabis industry observers and mainstream marketers said Somatik Featuring Ritual Coffee’s launch this week marks a new acceptance for a long-derided drug.
“As far as I know, this is the first instance of any edibles company partnering with a renowned coffee roaster or any other existing product like this,” said Debby Goldsberry, a veteran Bay Area cannabis activist and owner of Magnolia Wellness in Oakland, which will carry Somatik Featuring Ritual Coffee starting Jan. 21. “It’s definitely unique and absolutely unusual and something we can point to about the way the stigma around medical marijuana is changing.”
Bill Kerr founder of Vertical, a Sonoma marketing agency whose clients include organic snack-food companies, wineries and breweries found in Whole Foods and Costco, said a startup like Somatik leveraging an established brand like Ritual “builds a ton of credibility where you can inspire someone to pick up that bottle and try it the first time.”
“I think it’s really brilliant because it gives them a differentiation,” Kerr said. “Edibles up until now have been driven by, ‘Hey, there’s cannabis inside it.’ This absolutely makes sense. There are coffee connoisseurs like there are cannabis connoisseurs and they both really care about the sourcing and all the nuances.”
Of course, there’s risk.
“Forget about the fact that it’s cannabis,” Kerr said. “You have to deliver a quality product.”
This isn’t Ritual Coffee’s first ingredient branding deal. North Beach’s Gelateria Naia touts Ritual’s beans in its cold-pressed espresso gelato. Bi-Rite Creamery co-brands its made-in-San-Francisco-with-Ritual Coffee Toffee ice cream.
“It’s like other partnerships we have,” Ritual founder Eileen Rinaldi said. “We sell our coffee to other people who make other products with it. I rely on Bi-Rite to do it properly so the product has integrity and I can associate my name with it.”
Schroeder met Rinaldi at SF Made, a community of small manufacturers in San Francisco. He was working in marketing at Rickshaw Bagworks, which makes handbags and backpacks. He had no experience with beverages or cannabis before founding Somatik last year.
“The thing I love about Ritual is that they have a direct relationship with all of their farmers,” Schroeder said. “They can tell me where that bean came from, how high it was grown and why it tastes the way it tastes. I think it’s very exciting to bring that to the cannabis industry.”
Rinaldi said she had never heard of cannabis-infused coffee before Schroeder proposed their partnership.
“I was very skeptical that you could add cannabis into coffee without it being the dominant flavor,” Rinaldi said. “Chris has done an incredible job developing a product that tastes exactly the way I would want a cold brew served in our cafes to taste.”
Schroeder said he and Ritual’s staff tasted more than 40 cold brews before selecting beans grown in Gigante, in western Colombia, between 1,400 and 1,900 feet in elevation.
“We landed on a coffee that’s really smooth, has kind of a chocolatey flavor and has some top notes of citrus and currant,” Schroeder said.
As for the cannabis, Schroeder said he knows the California farmers who grow hybrid strains outdoors. Schroder said the cannabis is processed into pure THC oil via closed-loop C02 extraction and stripped of terpenes, the compounds in cannabis that influence flavors and aromas.
“The cannabis infusion doesn’t have much cannabis flavor,” Schroeder said, “but I wanted the subtle notes that are there to work with the coffee flavor.”
“It’s delicious,” Goldsberry said. “They didn’t just pick a Ritual coffee off the shelf. They really experimented with what would taste good with the infused marijuana.”
Green Gigante beans are roasted and ground at Ritual’s South of Market roastery and delivered to Somatik’s contract beverage manufacturer in the South Bay, where they are steeped for 12 hours in cold water to produce a rich, smooth concentrate, which is then strained and blended with THC oil and bottled.
Each $12 bottle contains 15 mg of THC, which equals one and a half standard “doses” of a low-dose edible or infused beverage. Schroeder said he sought a brew whose effects were balanced between mind and body. He said the name Somatik was inspired by somatikos, the Greek word for corporeally or physically.
“There’s no replacement for a joint and a cup of coffee,” Schroeder said. “But one of the cool things about a THC-infused beverage is that your body metabolizes it differently. It gives me a more balanced feel between my mind and my body so I don’t feel as ‘cerebral’ as when I smoke a joint. It’s functional. It does make me feel light and fun but also relaxed and very much in my body still.”
Schroeder’s business plan is grounded, too. For now, he said, he’s not thinking about Somatik Featuring Ritual Coffee being served recreationally in Ritual cafes.
“I’d really like to talk with Eileen about it in 2018 but for now I’m focused on the next 12 months and the dispensary model,” Schroeder said.
Said Rinaldi: “I believe we’ll see cannabis products more widely distributed in the next couple of years.”
WHAT: Somatik Featuring Ritual Coffee cannabis-infused cold-brewed coffee containing 15 mg of THC per 8-ounce bottle.
HOW MUCH: $12
WHERE: Available at Harvest on Geary and Harvest on Mission in San Francisco and Magnolia Wellness in Oakland.