The brewmaster best-known as the inventor of Blue Moon has tapped what he thinks could be another breakthrough brand in Ceria, a line of beers that replaces alcohol with cannabis. But because its key ingredient remains federally illegal—and in states where cannabis products are sold, subject to advertising restrictions—Ceria is also proving an especially tricky invention to market. That's according to Keith Villa, who founded Ceria shortly after retiring from Blue Moon parent Molson Coors, for whom he served as a master brewer for 32 years.
How Blue Moon beer founder is marketing new cannabis beverage—including a subversive Spotify playlist
Ceria’s products include a line of alcohol-free but THC-infused Belgian White and IPA-style craft beers—and separate products based on the same recipes, only without any THC. The cannabis varieties place Ceria at the intersection of a consumer trend Villa calls “Cali-curious.” It refers to consumers pursuing their high not from alcohol but from cannabis-infused foods and beverages, which, for now, are limited to states where they are legal, including California. The non-THC versions are aimed at the “Sober-curious,” a more widespread way of life that embraces the age-old social value of adult beverages—only without the hangovers and public health crises that have long overhung them.
“In both trends we’re seeing a drop in alcohol consumption,” Villa said, and that clicks in with a still-bigger trend among young people to reject or reinterpret the conventions of the world they have grown up in, in this case, how they view drinking.
These big and complex ideas are all brewed into new packaging and marketing for the brand from creative agency Mother centered around the notion of “Crafty”—a nod to its founder’s craft beer heritage but also to its ingenuity. Not coincidentally, crafty is also an apt description of a novel solution to its central marketing challenge.
While Ceria remains heavily regulated, “playlists don’t have to be federally approved,” said Joe Staples, partner and chief creative officer of Mother.
And that’s how an alcohol-free, THC-infused, future-focused start-up beer brand founded by a craft-beer legend came to cheekily conceal an advertising message inside a Spotify playlist. Beginning today, the brand is inviting consumers to essentially listen to it what cannot say.
The playlist above is where consumers responding to an out-of-home ad campaign in the California market will arrive after scanning the QR code accompanying a tagline reading “Legally This Ad Can’t Say Much. But This Playlist Can.”
Still confused? Don’t just play it—read the song titles, sequentially.
That message—which plugs "an alcohol-free beer for people who love getting high"—might be hard to put on a billboard because it would appear to test California's commercial cannabis regulations, specifically, article 15040.1 which states in part: "Distributor and retailer licensees shall not sell or transport cannabis goods that are labeled as beer, wine, liquor, spirits, or any other term that may create a misleading impression that the product is an alcoholic beverage as defined in division 9 of the Business and Professions Code."
While cleverly subverting restrictions that, for now, might hold back Ceria’s ability to promote itself—and nestling itself within a medium already popular with its desired consumers—the gamified playlist strikes at what Staples has identified as yet another “crafty” marketing tactic he calls “viral 2.0.”
“It’s not viral in the traditional sense, because people are aware that they can help with the subterfuge,” he explains. “They are aware that we are aware, which I think is a more respectful way to make a viral campaign.”
Although its executives declined to share financial details, Mother is a “significant” stakeholder in Ceria—with representation on its board. This “seat at the table,” in Staples’ estimation, brings it critical expertise and skin in the game as it sets out to market such a difficult-to-market thing. The playlist, he said, demonstrates how Mother is not simply finding creative ways to deliver a message, but what that message ought to say, highlighted by John Legend song title that ends it, “Let’s Get Lifted.”
“The missing piece Ceria needed was how to jettison the ‘Cheech-and-Chong’ stoner history, and how to establish a new place in people’s brains for weed and its derivatives,” Staples said. “How we think about that is very important.”
Mother is fresh off other work on the brand, which is debuting a new look and new packaging that accompanies its first step out of “beta mode” and is inspired by Villa's vision.
Another ‘Blue Moon’?
Villa is no bearded twentysomething Gen Z idealist, but rather, a big-beer industry veteran with impressive credentials. His invention of Blue Moon for the company then known as Coors Brewing in 1995 not only helped to propel the nascent craft-beer movement but disabused the notion that big brewers couldn’t participate in the trend. Within the beer world, Villa is known also as an author (“Brewing with Cannabis”), a founder (the Sandlot microbrewery at Denver’s Coors Field where Blue Moon was developed), and possessor of a very rare distinction among U.S. brewers—he holds a Ph.D. in brewing from the renowned University of Brussels, which he pursued after a molecular biology degree.
Villa co-founded Ceria in Arvada, Colorado with his wife, Jodi, and daughter Catherine. (The family separately runs Donavan Brewing Co., a high-end boutique brewery making small batches of craft beers—the kind with alcohol—currently available in select bars and restaurants around greater Denver.)
The name Ceria is at once a tribute to the Roman Goddess of harvest, Ceres, and an acronym of the campus where Villa earned his brewing degree, C.E.R.I.A (Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherches des Industries Alimentaires et Chimiques in French; or the center for teaching and research in the food industries, which includes a brewing school, a chocolate-making school, and the University’s culinary and hospitality schools.)
Mother’s approach to design on Ceria’s cans highlights a figure of Ceres in profile amid symbols—a drop of water, a hop, and in the case of its THC beers, a marijuana leaf—on “earthy purple, blue and green tones that are classically inspired, yet have a modern and abstract feel for a universal appeal,” according to a press release.
The design—and description on the can’s “romance panel”—is an especially important marketing element for the THC-infused beers, Villa explained, in order to address laws in California that prohibit the brand from explicitly calling out a beer style, limiting brands instead to call their liquid nothing more suggestive than a “non-alcohol malt beverage.”
“We hope through that romance panel people can decipher what style of beer it is,” said Villa, who notes that in Colorado, where Ceria is also available, state laws allow the company to call its Grainwave and Indiewave varieties what they are what meant to be—non-alcoholic versions of Belgian White and IPA beers, respectively.
In creating the recipes, Villa said he took guidance from consumer understanding of the alcohol-based beer styles they resemble.
Grainwave, for example, not only looks, smells and tastes like a Belgian White, but acts like it in terms of its respective stimulant effect: It has 5 milligrams of THC that would more or less match the buzz of a can of a 5.4% alcohol-by-volume Belgian White. “Most people can have a bottle or can of Blue Moon, and it’ll take the edge off, but they won’t be falling-down drunk,” Villa said. “So what we tried to do with Ceria is five milligrams [of THC], which, for most people, will give you a relaxed feeling without getting stoned or super high.”
Indiewave aligns with the heavier punch of a craft IPA, with 10 milligrams of THC, and balances the “anxiety” that dose might bring with it by adding 10 milligrams of CBD, or the non-psychotropic element of marijuana, Villa said.
The goal of Ceria, Villa said, “was to bring cannabis to the masses in a socially acceptable format—meaning beer.” Its “Crafty” marketing message is a solution to the brand’s legal challenges but also tells consumers “These products are nothing to be afraid of,” he added.
Through born as brews meant to stimulate, Villa says reaction from early enthusiasts of a product beta-launched in the pandemic—first responders, truck drivers and military—indicated they liked the product, but worried they couldn’t use it due to their drug-testing in their respective professions. “They asked if we could make it without the infusion.” Villa said, “which was easy, because that’s our first step,” meaning only after the beer is brewed, are its psychotropic infusions added.
It was this insight that inspired a launch of a separate NA line of Ceria beer.
It proved to be fortuitous feedback, helping the brand tap a “sober-curious” market that Villa estimates may currently be less than a half-percent of the entire beer market but he envisions could one day by 10%, “because we feel there are customers that have never experienced great-tasting, craft, NA beer.” This version can also help establish equity in the Ceria brand that one day could be valuable if the unpredictable march of state—or ideally, for Ceria—federal approval comes to pass and consumers find stimulant versions of the brand in their market. Federal approval, Villa said, could also do away with the mess of patchwork regulation that make the emerging cannibis-product market complicated for reasons that go beyond marketing. Consumers, for example, cannot use credit cards to purchase such products today.
With a “craft” backstory and positioning, Ceria’s NA beers sell at a comparable price to craft beer (suggested retail price for a six-pack is $9.99, vs. $8 a can for the THC-infused) and have already found considerable distribution in retail stores like Total Wine and More, Target, H-E-B and the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant chain.
Non-alcohol beers, Villa said, are also more versatile than their forbears from an occasion standpoint; where brands like Athletic Brewing or Michelob Ultra have been effective positioning themselves as complements for active consumer lifestyles, they’re unlikely to be consumed before exercise, as Villa maintains some Ceria users do. “We feel like we can right there with energy drinks and recovery beverages,” in marketing to active consumers.
Still, it’s the traditional beer occasions—parties and nightlife—where its biggest opportunities lie, and this is driven by young consumers, many of which are approaching conventions with new concerns for the environment and health that previous generations had not, Villa noted.
“A lot of people are trying to see what it’s like to wake up without a hangover; what is like to go your with friends on a Friday night with a clear mind, instead of being buzzed all weekend,” he said.
This is a trend bigger than Ceria. At the BevNet conference earlier this month in New York, coolers full of new brands of canned “mocktails” and other drinks inspired by traditional adult beverages were on display. A panel discussion on the topic featured remarks from a founder of a new trade organization—the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association—developed to promote the emerging industry and its entrepreneurial members.
The non-alcoholic beer industry is projected to grow over 8% annually and the Cannabis beverage market is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, according to reports cited by Ceria in a release. Other brands marketing cannabis beverage varieties include Jones Soda and Hi-Fi Hops, a cannabis-infused sparkling released in 2018 by the craft beer brand Lagunitas, a division of Heineken.
“For the longest time, NA beer was O'Doul’s and other brands for the big brewers that were offered more or less as a corporate responsibility play, and in my opinion, flavor was secondary,” Villa said. “So what you had was recovered alcoholics and pregnant women. But now, there’s an onslaught of really delicious, non-alcoholic brews out there.”
As to the Ceria brand and its stake in two promising trends, Villa likens its current opportunity to that which Blue Moon approached at its birth. “We feel like we’re in the right place at the right time.”