Province Brands and Loyalist College are on-track to deliver an industry game changer – Cannabis Beer.
DOOMA WENDSCHUH IS A QUIRKY, HIGH ENERGY GUY. He’s also straight-laced and work-driven. In fact, Dooma isn’t even his real name, but a college nickname that he’s retained, partly for efficiency’s sake: “I never have to leave my last name when I’m making calls.” Dooma is the driving force behind a bold new idea that’s quickly becoming a reality: cannabis beer. If ever a notion deserved the term ‘pipe dream’, it was this one, but Dooma is a guy who makes things happen.
Province Brands, of which Dooma Wendschuh is CEO and cofounder, is on track to deliver the world’s first ever, legal cannabis-based beer – and they’re doing it with the help of Belleville’s Loyalist College. Earlier this year, Loyalist was awarded over $300,000 by the provincial government’s College Applied Research and Development Fund to partner with Toronto’s Province Brands to research and scale up the process of creating cannabis beer and to give student technicians the opportunity to work on real world, industry problems. Province Brands matched the hefty sum.
“So much of our product development is being done there. We wouldn’t be where we are without this partnership with Loyalist; it’s such a game changer,” says Dooma, who explains that the lab is particularly crucial for prototyping the beverage, making and testing beers much faster and at a much lower cost than the company would have been able to do without the partnership.
Loyalist’s Applied Research Centre for Natural Products and Cannabis, which opened earlier this year, is intended to facilitate partnerships between the college and industry businesses. Loyalist College has been researching natural products for the past twelve years – studying everything from neotropical vines from Costa Rica to shrimp waste from Northern Quebec. And it is the first – and currently only – college in Canada approved to study cannabis. Loyalist has been frank about the future employment opportunities in the cannabis industry. “At the college, we’re not focused on our own agenda, we’re focused on the direction of industry, and where they’re going,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Kari Kramp, who oversees the lab. “[Cannabis] has definitely been a sector, especially locally and regionally, that has experienced growth and where there is a lot of potential.”
And there’s no question that the legalization of cannabis heralds a cultural shift, one that’s happening in real time. This fall, Canadians will have the option of legally smoking marijuana or ingesting the psychoactive drug as an edible. “It’s the first recreational psychoactive drug to be legalized in our lifetime. Can we use the law to create a change for the betterment of humankind?” asks Dooma. He goes on to say that if marijuana beer was legal today, he’d have his product on the market, but until it’s legal, he’s taking the time to improve his beer.
Just how does cannabis beer differ from regular beer? Well, it’s gluten-and alcohol-free to start with. Cannabis beer promises a high that comes, and goes, as quickly as the effect of drinking an alcoholic beer. The high is the result of the cannabis, not the alcohol.
“We’re trying to disrupt the alcohol industry with this highly disruptive product. It’s about trying to approximate the enjoyable aspects of alcohol, with fewer of the drawbacks,” Dooma explains. “The work we’re doing at Loyalist is really exciting …the future of marijuana is not just about cultivation and extraction. There’s so much you can do with the plant. We found a way to grow the plant into a beer.”
A start-up veteran, Dooma made the pivot to the cannabis world without losing stride. His involvement in the industry doesn’t stem from an inherent interest in pot culture, but rather the novelty (and potential economic gain) of opening up a new market for the first time – a market that has the potential to take off like the dot-com boom of the late ’90s.
After college at Princeton, Dooma began his career in the movie production business in California. With one movie under his belt, he moved on to the world of video games, where he found success developing and launching the Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia franchises. At that point, Dooma began thinking longer term.
“I thought what we had done with Assassin’s Creed was pretty amazing, but 200 years from now are people going to remember it?”
In 2012, changes to marijuana laws in a few U.S. states opened up possibilities for a whole new industry. Seeing his chance at a legacy, Dooma gave up video games and moved to Colorado, where he co-founded a business selling vaporizer pens and researching cannabinoid isolation. Intrigued by the possibility of creating a product that had never been made before, Dooma came to Canada and launched Province Brands in 2016.
Unlike the activists and users who have operated in the marijuana grey market for years, Dooma is a newcomer to the scene, drawn to the idea of understanding the marijuana plant’s inherent complications and interested in solving some of the problems associated with alcohol use. “We wanted to create a product which has the benefits of alcohol and fewer of the drawbacks.”
It’s a strategy that is likely more comfortable for investors, too. Since launching in 2016, Province Brands’ cannabis beer project has gone from being a black sheep in the industry to a media darling and investment magnet (they’ve raised $12 million in less than two years). Of Province Brands’ 14 fulltime employees, three are based in Belleville at the lab at Loyalist, including two student technicians who graduated from Loyalist this spring. These students have been jointly hired by the college and Province Brands to continue their work in the lab full-time. That’s exactly the kind of outcome Loyalist hopes for.
“We want our students to go out as leaders. We want them to go to work with industry and make an impact, be critical thinkers, and be experienced with the most advanced instrumentation,” says Dr. Kramp, who sees those intentions being realized through the Province Brands partnership.
Though the team is growing, Dooma has his hands full, working to fund the research and launch the product. Gifted with the energy and enthusiasm of any entrepreneur worth this salt, he’s also frank about the frenetic pace and high stress of working in start-ups for nearly 20 years taking a toll. “My stress levels have been through the roof almost since graduating college. But on the other hand, this is what I love to do. It’s not easy, but if it was easy, I wouldn’t like it,” he admits.
Maybe a cold draught of cannabis beer is just what Dooma needs? “When we get this on the market, I will take some time to relax and to celebrate, because it’ll be something really worth celebrating,” he says. “And then I’ll get back to work.”