Keef Cola: The Brothers Behind Colorado’s Favorite Cannabis Root Beer
When the three Knutson brothers lost their construction business in the 2008 recession, they never imagined that their misfortune would lead them to create one of the largest edibles companies in Colorado. As third-generation Boulder residents, the three applied for one of the first ten marijuana business licenses in the city. With it, they opened a dispensary, but realized after just a few months of selling marijuana products from other brands that there was a gap in the edibles marketplace that they wanted to fill: cannabis-infused beverages. Culturally, drinking and smoking are the most popular social activities for adults, and though many companies were chasing the smoking space, the drinking space was virtually untapped. So, in 2010, the Knutson trio left their dispensary to create Keef Cola, a line of carbonated cannabis beverages. Now, over five years later, the brothers operate four businesses with about 40 employees.
Erik Knutson, CEO of Keef Cola, told me that the company’s growth can be attributed to its focused approach. While many brands in the edibles market built out many product lines of brownies, cookies, and the like, Keef Cola spent four years refining the recipe and technology behind their beverages alone. In fact, in 2012, they developed their own CO2 extraction technology for producing high quality concentrates. Kelly Knutson, Erik’s brother and co-founder of Keef Cola, founded Isolate Extractions, which is one of the only four companies in the country that manufactures CO2 extraction equipment for sale in Colorado and other states where marijuana is legal.
Another differentiator for Keef Cola is their target market. According to social media, over 50% of their fan base is 35 years or older. Knutson explained, “some people look at the cannabis industry as a brand new industry – but it’s one of the oldest industries in the United States.” With bright colors and psychedelic artwork, the company’s branded bottles are reminiscent of the cannabis culture pre-legalization and are geared toward the generations of people who have been a part of the movement for decades. According to Knutson, a Keef Cola customer “will appreciate the art, branding and quality of the product itself”.
Knutson said his personal favorite Keef Cola drink, the Bubba Kush Root Beer, is also the most popular among customers. It was selected as Denver’s High Times Cannabis Cup winner for Best Edible in 2015. In addition to its popular sodas, the brand also offers Boosts, which are vitamin-infused cannabis shots, and Oil Stix, produced through their CO2 extraction methods. Recently, the brand rolled out a new line of 4 oz drinks called VitaCanna, which have varying levels of THC and CBD, and infused with Vitamin C, B3, B6, and B12.
Now, Keef Cola is expanding its product lines beyond the state’s borders by partnering with licensees in other states. In the next few months, its products will be available in California and Oregon, and will also come to Nevada, Arizona and Washington later this year. Knutson said that the rapid expansion of the industry that has led to Keef Cola’s growth as a national brand has been a pleasant surprise. Knutson explained, “if you told me that in 2016 we’d have a billion dollar recreational market in Colorado, I would have told you you were insane.”
As a co-founder of one of Colorado’s oldest edibles brands, Knutson is giving back through activism on behalf of businesses in the space. Keef Cola itself was shut down and forced to move four times because of constantly changing laws. While Knutson says that the laws have stabilized thanks in part to state regulators, he founded the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH) to promote the expansion of the legal marketplace for cannabis and hemp, especially in other states. “We are very fortunate in Colorado to have both medical and adult use rules covered and protected by state amendment and constitution – definitely gives us a strong backing to have that state support,” he said. “Other states don’t have that.”