CBD is losing what made it unique – just like specialty coffee

CBD is losing its edge, just like specialty coffee
  • Since its legalisation in 2018, the CBD market has experienced exponential growth – valued at almost $5.2 billion in 2021.
  • From their subversive beginnings, CBD and specialty coffee are now being marketed for mass-appeal
  • Both sectors will benefit from scale, but they must also stay true to their values

CBD’S TURBULENT history has given way to an extraordinary rise in popularity as it continues to captivate a global audience.

Discovered by chemist Roger Adams and a team of researchers in 1940, CBD is an isolated red oil – cannabidiol – found in wild hemp. It can provide a number of health benefits without the “high” associated with marijuana and other high-THC cannabis derivatives.

Throughout history, CBD has been pooled with the reputation of other psychoactive cannabis compounds and cannabinoids such as THC. While CBD has no psychoactive effects, it has been illegal in many countries for decades.

Only since the late 1970s have penalties for marijuana possession in the US and many other countries been relaxed. As the scientific world has slowly begun to understand the potential benefits of CBD, it has become accepted both in law and as a viable alternative to high-THC cannabis products.   

Having only been approved for legal sale in the US since 2018, the global CBD market was valued at approximately $5.2 billion USD in 2021 – and is expected to grow at least 16% annually until 2030.

Despite this success, the CBD industry – like specialty coffee – is at a crossroads. As its popularity grows and it is incorporated into many other products, CBD is now at risk of becoming mainstream and losing what made it unique – diminishing its status as a cool, countercultural product.

specialty coffee and CBD are both segments within a wider industry

Acceptance in mainstream society

Dr Bronwyn Blake is the Managing Director at Vasse Valley Hemp Farm. She believes that the history of CBD and its derivation from cannabis strengthened its status as a product of counterculture, and led to its popularity today. 

“Because CBD is a product of cannabis, it is naturally a bit naughty and cool,” she says. “The history of how cannabis was demonised by large companies and politicians who wanted to see the end of the hemp industry makes all cannabis products seem like a forbidden fruit.”

But hundreds of years before cannabis gained its reputation as being part of the counterculture, coffee was undergoing a comparable journey.

The history of coffee is one that is tied to fringe movements – from the banned coffeehouses of the Ottoman Empire to the ‘Penny Universities’ of England that housed intellectual debate and storytelling, and the patriotic act of drinking coffee following the Boston Tea Party

More recently, the specialty coffee sector has also had its fair share of revolutionary behaviour. The specialty and ‘third wave’ movements sought to herald a new interest in complexity, quality and experience – a rebellion against commodity standards and a “reply to bad coffee”.

Just as countercultures come packaged with a set of central tenets and cultural attitudes, it could be argued that – as they were gathering momentum – specialty coffee and CBD consumption functioned as subcultures with their own sets of unwritten rules.

While they are vastly different products with unique markets, preparation and consumption methods, the CBD industry has shared a similar growth trajectory and explosive boom as specialty coffee. It may now be encountering some of the same growing pains as a result, however.

It has taken a long time for specialty coffee to gather momentum. For example, the SCAA estimates that the specialty coffee market comprises just 37% volume share in the USA. However, the values of the specialty sector have rippled into the coffee industry as a whole, influencing consumption and innovation on a wider scale.

Similarly, some could argue that CBD products have transformed the modern perception of cannabis. Its marketability as a healthy and homoeopathic product has transformed its reputation from illicit to a product with numerous health benefits, increasing its appeal to wider audiences.

“CBD is seen as a non-psychoactive and therefore safe product – unlike THC, it does not get the user stoned or high in any way,” explains Dr Blake. “If a CBD product does not contain any THC, then it is safe to drive while using it and drug tests are not an issue.

“Due to this, CBD is much more readily accepted by a population still struggling with the reputation of cannabis as a gateway drug.”

Despite their differences, specialty coffee and CBD have one thing in common: They are both segments within a wider industry that have a distinct set of values and intentions. Now both are becoming more established, can they hold on to their integrity?

specialty coffee and CBD now come in cans

Will CBD keep its edge? 

The success of CBD and specialty coffee has proven to be a double-edged sword for both sectors. Both have been so well-marketed that they have now lost some of their subversive qualities.

In the case of specialty coffee, the sector has gone a long way in sharing better quality coffee and improving sourcing practices. However, it could be argued that the adoption of “specialty-style” values by large chains has diluted what was once a powerful and important message – and a ground-breaking movement is now becoming increasingly commodified.

CBD may be suffering an even worse fate – having been adopted as a powerful marketing tool for a wider range of products such as moisturisers, ice cream and pet food.

Although the wider acceptance of CBD products may be causing it to lose its subversive nature, it doesn’t necessarily mean bad news for the industry.

“Anything that suddenly becomes widely accepted to the masses loses its edge – but this isn’t necessarily a negative thing,” Dr Blake explains.

“Because CBD, like coffee, has a functional effect on people’s wellbeing it is more likely to become a mainstay in society. It will become cheaper and more accessible to the masses but will more than likely continue to be a sought-after product because it has a positive effect on health and well-being.”

Ultimately, any countercultural product that gains popularity and enters the mainstream runs the risk of losing its credibility as something subversive and edgy. While some may mourn their loss in the counterculture, the integration of CBD and specialty coffee into the mainstream is a good thing for the masses – and a good thing for those who produce and sell them.