By Jessica Yun
Non-alcoholic beer company Heaps Normal’s chief executive Andy Miller is based in Bangkok, Thailand. When he steps onto the street, he’s often greeted with a strong whiff of weed.
“It’s everywhere, it’s almost on every corner. There [are] wine shops that are now wine and weed shops. It’s in local live music venues,” Miller said.
That’s not unusual, since Thailand legalised marijuana almost exactly a year ago. The more curious observation he’s made is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong drinking culture among the younger locals.
Heaps Normal co-founder Andy Miller wants to talk about CBD.
“I don’t know if that’s because they are using cannabis or if it’s just that they just don’t drink, but it’s been really interesting to see young Thai musicians and the lack of alcohol in some of these environments.”
Perhaps drawing inspiration from the city he currently calls home, the chief of the popular Australian alcohol-free beer brand is now eyeing the lucrative opportunity that the cannabis industry represents. Specifically, he is considering the growth trajectory of cannabidiol (CBD) – poised to become a US$12.9 billion global industry – and how Heaps Normal can participate.
“The conversation about the role for non-alcoholic beverages has been had,” he said. “We want to push that conversation further. We want to have the conversation about why alcohol is the only socially acceptable drug in Australia.
“From an economic point of view, and from a growth and industry and a business point of view, it’s a huge market Heaps Normal and Australia in general is missing out on at the moment because we haven’t really got a clear pathway for legalising cannabis and cannabis products.”
Miller says he isn’t encouraging drug use or its legalisation without the appropriate regulatory requirements. But he points to the growing body of research that CBD oil and CBD products, which don’t contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – the psychoactive component that gets you high – have something to offer. Since 2015, CBD has been approved as a prescription medicine for those wanting help with chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia.
According to Miller, the wellness benefits of CBD are in line with what Heaps Normal is trying to achieve.
“We want to think about Heaps Normal as a blank canvas, we want to see Heaps Normal not as this option driven by sobriety.
“It’s an option that really genuinely drives inclusive social experimentation, or different ways of relaxing and socialising together that don’t necessarily have to be alcohol.”
Miller believes the non-alcoholic beer company can advocate “without conflict” for alternatives to alcohol and what some substances have to offer if presented and used in the right way. Social conditioning and stigmas are things that can change, he added – just look at the growing acceptance of non-alcoholic products.
Heaps Normal is watching the growth of the CBD industry carefully.
“Why do we have these social norms and these rituals and expectations, and what’s actually driving them?”
“We would certainly be interested in the future in developing products with some of these substances, given the wellness and wellbeing benefits associated with them.”
While Australia has been inching closer to formally decriminalising cannabis, the reality is still a fair way off. The Legalise Cannabis party introduced draft bills last month in Victoria, NSW and Western Australia’s state parliaments on the same day. Cannabis has been legal for medical use since 2016, with a spate of online clinics making it easy to obtain a prescription. The demand is certainly there: medicinal cannabis use is booming and has surpassed 1 million prescriptions.
Manufacturers both domestically and abroad are eyeing our market closely. British cannabis products maker Dragonfly Biosciences recently signalled another attempt to list on the Australian stock exchange, which already lists roughly 20 cannabis companies.
Meanwhile, Miller said his team is continuing to push the boundaries of how non-alcoholic beer can be positioned in the market. Heaps Normal recently released a coffee stout, an alcohol-free dark beer brewed with Newcastle’s Floozy Coffee, aimed at blurring the lines between a morning coffee and happy hour.
“It challenges the assumption that beer is not for breakfast,” he said. “If you take the alcohol out, then there’s a whole kind of different way of looking at it as a beverage and all the occasions that it’s associated with.”
Closer to home, Miller is keen to show off the brand’s growth. Despite cost of living pressures, the company has seen revenue grow by 50 per cent in the past 12 months; Heaps Normal now accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all growth in the non-alcoholic beer category. Consumption of alcohol-free products has more than doubled during the pandemic, from 15 per cent in 2020 to 32 per cent in 2022.
But the beer brand, while valued at $63 million, is yet to turn a profit. “We’re really close to profitability. We’re anticipating being profitable in the next six months,” Miller said.
And in the chief executive’s new home city, there’s still a bit of work to do. The Thai brewing industry has been historically dominated by two major producers, Boon Rawd Brewery and Thai Beverages, with craft brewing regulation only loosening within the last 12 months.
“It’s still very early days in Thailand for the non-alcoholic beer market. It’s similar to what we saw in Australia a few years ago, where there’s a growing consumer demand, but there aren’t many options for non-alcoholic beer here at the moment.”
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