I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s walked into a local craft brewery and said, “I wish they had this type of establishment for weed.”
Despite concerns at a national level of a decline in craft beer sales, the craft scene in Worcester and the rest of the state seems to be chugging right along. Boston-based Harpoon Brewery — one of the larger craft brewers in the country — just opened a beer garden downtown, and if the crowds at local spots like Redemption Rock and Greater Good are any indication, business is still booming.
The craft cannabis scene in Massachusetts, on the other hand? You could argue it doesn’t exist (at least in the legal, regulated market).
In the end, it all comes down to definitions. While “craft beer” has a somewhat standardized definition, no such guidelines really exist for cannabis.
When the craft beer movement began to gain steam in the late ’90s, independent brewers began to realize their future relied on the term “craft” continuing to mean something to consumers. After all, if brewing behemoths like Miller-Coors and Anheuser-Busch started to slap the word “craft” on their bottles, the actual definition of the term would become so muddied that its meaning to consumers would evaporate.
So small breweries banded together, and using the Brewer’s Association — a trade group representing over 5,000 beer makers in the U.S. — came up with a simple but detailed definition of what a craft brewer actually was, mandating that they be independently owned, and that they produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer per year. The association’s website also points out that craft breweries “tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events” and that craft brewers “maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.”
Thanks to these efforts by independent breweries, the word “craft” still has meaning to consumers, and the craft brew industry has managed to carve out just over a quarter of the overall beer sales in the country.
Meanwhile, in the nascent cannabis industry, the exact situation that the Brewer’s Association was attempting to address — the appropriation of the word “craft” — is beginning to become a real issue. There are many large, national cannabis companies in Massachusetts that use the word “craft” to describe their top-tier products, despite the fact that nothing about their operations resemble a craft brewery.
Cannabis industry behemoth Cresco Labs — who is in the process of merging with fellow giant Columbia Care to form one of the largest cannabis companies in the world — goes as far as to describe their cultivations as “craft at scale,” which is somehow a three-word statement that manages to contradict itself.
To make matters a bit more confusing, the state actually has a cultivation license type with the word “craft” in its name. Despite being dubbed the Craft Marijuana Cooperative, this license type is allowed up to 100,000 square feet, which is the same amount of space that other cultivation businesses are allowed, and it’s not entirely clear what would make these business types craft-like, as there’s nothing in the regulations requiring a focus on quality over quality.
The intent of this license was to offer small-scale, local growers and traditional farmers a pathway to join forces and enter the legal industry with boutique product lines. In reality, things haven’t really played out that way; at the latest Cannabis Control Commission meeting, data was released revealing that there are only six pending applications for a Craft Marijuana Cooperative license, and that no applicants have become operational yet.
While there’s currently no craft cannabis being legally sold in Massachusetts by the state’s narrow definition, there are a handful of microbusinesses and other small, locally owned companies focused on producing handcrafted cannabis that is of craft-like quality. But without any sort of standardization of what craft cannabis actually is, it’s up to consumers to do the research to figure out whether the brand they are buying is truly aspiring to be craft, or if it is just a big company’s brand in disguise.
And even if someone was to start a successful craft-like cannabis business in Massachusetts, it would be lacking one key feature that powers many craft breweries: the taproom. While taprooms are key sources of revenue for most craft brewers, the cannabis equivalent remains a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, thanks to the state’s snail-paced roll-out of public consumption spaces.
It’s difficult for a cannabis company to become a tourist destination like Tree House Brewery or Harpoon’s Boston taproom when there’s nothing for people to do but leave after they’ve made their purchase.
So next time you find yourself at the local craft beer establishment, take a moment to appreciate the fact that small, independent producers banded together to carve out a space in the beer world for the little guy who cares more about product quality than maximizing revenue for shareholders. Because for the same thing to happen in the cannabis space, there’s a lot of work yet to do.