4896 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
The last vestige of San Diego beer brand Helm’s Brewing Co. disappeared this spring, when its Ocean Beach taproom officially changed its affiliation to that of Two Roots Brewing Co. While the old Helm’s sign has been replaced, and its ship wheel logo likewise scrubbed from doors, walls, and tasting room trays, little else has really changed about the space. A note on the chalkboard menu behind the bar explains, “New owners bought Helm’s 2 yrs ago.” Below that, a more cryptic note adds, “No THC beer in here.”
That distinction matters because the namesake roots behind the Two Roots brand refer to hops and marijuana. This unique San Diego brewery touts its product as, “the world’s first cannabis infused, non-alcoholic beer.”
The late 2017 sale of Helm’s made little splash in the beer world. The Kearny Mesa brewery hadn’t been particularly large or successful, and its buyer wasn’t a big beer conglomerate looking to add craft cachet to its portfolio. Its buyer, a San Diego business named Cannabiniers, was focused on the legalization of recreational marijuana in California and other states. Within six months of buying Helm’s, Cannabiniers (whose name derives from a portmanteau of Cannabis and Pioneers) began selling de-alcoholized beer infused with THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in 10-ounce cans within the state of Nevada.
“Getting that to market involved the ability to brew actual beer, find a way to remove the alcohol from it, and add cannabis,” says Kevin Love, vice president of market activations for Cannabiniers. He adds, “We didn’t know any other way than owning a brewery to making it a reality.”
Immediately following the Helm’s sale, its Kearny Mesa brewery was permanently closed to the public while these processes were established. However, the OB taproom remained open, and continued pouring beers. In fact, it continued introducing new beers under the Helm’s name. Two Roots hired longtime Green Flash brewer Kevin Barnes to be the company’s brewmaster, and he quickly got to work revamping its beer lineup, both for THC infused beer, and traditionally brewed ales and lagers.
So why rebrand the Helm’s tasting room now? Because while Two Roots THC beer has been sold in Nevada since 2018, it only entered the California market in February. Recreational cannabis products are regulated differently from state to state, and THC infused products cannot pass between them. Two Roots sends nonalcoholic beer to Nevada, and THC is added there. Before introducing the Two Roots brand within California, Cannabiniers had to establish a vertical platform to add THC here, in a Sorrento area facility.
Two Roots waited until it could market both its THC and traditional beers simultaneously. “We wanted to make sure we had a comprehensive story to bring to the marketplace,” explains Love, “It’s all about positioning your product to the emerging market cannabis consumer.” Citing reports from cannabis market research firm BDS Analytics, he says 80-percent of cannabis users aren’t yet going to dispensaries, so creating brand awareness around the beer itself is expected to attract future cannabis customers as they discover cannabis alternatives to marijuana flower.
As opposed to other common edible products, such as THC infused gummy bears, the idea here is to introduce THC through a product people routinely consume. “How often do you eat gummy bears in your traditional life?” he asks rhetorically. “Versus people who drink beer almost every night? If you’re able to buy the traditional beer via tasting room or liquor store, now you’re learning about the brand.”
Most of the beers on the menu in the OB taproom have little to do with current THC offerings, though there are overlaps. For example, the hefeweizen inspired Tropical Infamy and Enough Said lager each are sold in dispensaries with THC added, and also served as traditional, unadulterated beers to taproom customers. However, others, such as the Time Bandit Belgian style brut IPA, align more closely with current San Diego beer trends.
Ironically, while its traditional beer is primarily only available within San Diego, Two Roots THC brews are more readily available in other cities: only three local dispensaries carry it, and it sells out fast. But overall, the brand is rapidly growing. Cannabiniers more than doubled capacity of the Helm’s brewhouse, so it now can produce 5000 barrels annually. But it contract brews at a larger regional brewery, where it could potentially produce another 50,000 barrels. It will ultimately distribute four versions of its beers: regular brew, alcohol-free, alcohol-free with THC added, and alcohol-free with added CBD, another cannabis ingredient trending as a calming dietary supplement.