From Bevs to Bud: Nug's Ted Whitney on Craft Cannabis

Ted Whitney spent more than a decade working for some of the most recognizable U.S. craft breweries before he left the booze business behind for a career in cannabis.

Prior to joining California-based NUG last October, Whitney spent two years as the sales director for fast-growing Wyoming craft beer maker, Melvin Brewing. His resume also includes a three-year stint with San Francisco’s 21st Amendment, where he helped the company grow to become a top 50 U.S. craft beer producer, and seven years with Avery Brewing, where he expanded distribution of the Colorado-based brewery’s beer into 38 states.

So why would an accomplished beer industry professional who had spent 12 years mastering an industry ditch drinks for the budding cannabis sector?

“It was a compelling opportunity to create change – both socially and for a company – in an exciting industry,” Whitney said.

In a recent interview with THCnet, Whitney – who admitted that he never envisioned leaving the beer industry – talked about his first year in the cannabis industry, and explained what other beer and beverage professionals should know before entering the space.

The following exchange has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

THCnet: What led you to the marijuana industry?

Ted Whitney: I had a friend who was working in the edibles kitchen at NUG, and we became fast friends. I got really excited about the potential of the cannabis industry, and was reminded of what craft beer looked like 15 years ago. It was very compelling.

THCnet: As a beer professional, did you ever consider cannabis as a career path?

TW: I didn’t. I saw myself staying in beer for a long time, and this opportunity was a surprise. It was a compelling opportunity to create change – both socially and for a company – in an exciting industry.

THCnet: What skills that you acquired during your time in beer have carried over?

TW: All of the skills I used in beer have carried over. Being able to effectively communicate why your company exists, and develop a sales team that can perform, is important. A lot of the new skills I have learned have been around developing an understanding of the culture. It is a culture that developed as part of a black market, and bringing it into a tax-paying playing field is a challenge. We are trying to define best practices that work for everyone in the industry. We can create an environment for everyone to succeed if we do it intentionally and mindfully.

THCnet: And is that happening?

TW: I think it is starting to. There are a lot of players in the space right now that are in a race to the bottom and competing to see who can push out a cheaper ounce. But is a cheap ounce going to be the ultimate metric, or will it be craft cannabis? How do we create value for the consumer and how does it spread across the end set of products?

THCnet: What will separate those products?

TW: Intention with cultivation and development. There are some real artisanal producers, some insanely detailed growers and people who want to bring the full expression of the plant to consumers. And then there are some other factions developing that want to commodify this. I think we are starting to witness a “coming of age” of craft ethos in cannabis.

THCnet: For CPG professionals that might be less familiar with the ins and outs of cannabis, what factors impact the final price-to-consumer?

TW: The most forward one is going to the be the cannabinoid. What is the THC and CBD content? What is the terpene profile and how is it produced? Is it hand-pressed rosin that is coming out 6 grams at a time for 3 hours of labor, or is it produced off an ethanol system that will cost the producer 6 cents per gram? We all talk about THC, and we are familiar with that compound, but there are hundreds of compounds that are making us feel high and ones that can help regulate blood sugar, appetite and anxiety. It is pretty incredible what these symphonies of cannabinoids can do. Are we bringing them across as the full expression of the plant? We are just starting to wrap our heads around that.

THCnet: What’s the proxy in beer?

TW: It reminds me a lot of when sours were starting to gain traction. Brewers were going from traditional fermentation, to a process that people were just starting to wrap their heads around. We watched some people do it sort of by accident. There’s intentionality and unintentionality. There’s honoring tradition and science. In cannabis, there is a similar trend setting up. We have very complex issues, and we are producing better outcomes for the customer. In labs and in grows, we are working to better understand what it is that customers need to get from the flower.

THCnet: It sounds like you have a pretty decent grasp on all of the complexities. How long did it take you to get up to speed?

TW: I feel very lucky to have a background in molecular biology. Understanding chemistry has given me a huge leg up. And I am fortunate to work with an incredible team at NUG, but we are still drinking from a fire hose. We are reading everything we can get our hands on.

THCnet: You’re about one year in, so how much would you say you know now?

TW: Enough to understand how little I know, which is a good spot.

THCnet: For someone just getting into the space, how steep is the learning curve?

TW: I would expect a solid 3-6 months to wrap your head around the industry, and a lot of that is going to be trying to track down the information you need.

THCnet: How do you see the industry evolving over the next 12-24 months?

TW: We will see federal legalization, and states will struggle to implement laws that will monetize cannabis for the state’s benefit. How do we tax it and regulate it? How do we effectively address the challenges presented by the black market?

THCnet: How big of an opportunity is cannabis?

TW: There is nowhere better to get on the wave than at the very beginning. I think this will be a trillion-dollar opportunity. We are just starting to create an industry around delivering this to people in a more formal matter, and we are only starting to understand the formal benefits of the plant. Cannabis has a good shot at being every bit as common as alcohol or even sugar, and it will produce better outcomes for people.

Get to know NUG:

Founded in 2014, NUG is a seed to sale cannabis company operating one of the largest “Type 7” extraction labs in California. In addition to cultivation, extraction and distillation facilities, NUG also operates dispensaries that aim to improve the cannabis buying experience. It is also one of California’s largest wholesale cannabis distributors.