This Saturday’s Emerald Cup is the first award event that uses SC Lab’s recently announced Cannabis Classification System, which uses chemical analysis to define 6 core terpene profiles that all cannabis strains fall into.
Alec Dixon, who co-founded SC Labs over ten years ago, helps us to better understand the new system, which is meant not just for Emerald Cup judges but for anyone who wants to better understand what characteristics are appreciated when it comes to high-quality, craft weed.
All About Terpenes
Unlike the plant’s cannabinoid molecules like THC and CBD, its smaller molecules called terpenes can quickly degrade from the time that the plant is cut down for drying. Yet it is these terpenes that provide many of the medicinal benefits of cannabis in combination with the cannabinoids, a process of co-mingling that is known as the entourage effect.
In other words, terpenes add to the effects and the experiences that the cannabis provides by interacting with the plant’s THC and CBD. But terpene content depends on how the plant was grown, harvested, and cured. Understanding these terpenes is how weed connoisseurs are learning to discuss what makes craft weed superior.
According to one of the founders of SC Labs, Alec Dixon, the scientific chemical analysis of these secondary molecules shows the beautiful variety that the plant encompasses, which includes the variety of its effects when consumed by humans. Chemical analysis can help connoisseurs and Emerald Cup judges to analyze specific elements that make that product ideal.
The Emerald Cup Classes
The Emerald Cup began almost twenty years ago in Northern California and was meant to award the very best craft cannabis grown by farmers in the Emerald Triangle. Prior to testing for THC and CBD, cannabis farmers judged based on the look, feel, smell, and experience of well grown and well cured cannabis. Over time, the Emerald Cup developed categories and standards to fairly evaluate a variety of cannabis buds and concentrates that were entered into the contest.
SC Labs began about ten years ago and quickly formed a network with California growers. SC Labs has tested hundreds of thousands of bud strains and has applied data analysis to help group the chemicals present in cannabis into broad categories.
These categories were not driven by the percentage of THC or CBD contained, but rather sorted themselves out based on clusters of terpenes.
The result of years of testing and analysis was a set of six classes, each of which can be considered a terpene profile. Nearly all cannabis will conform to one of these classes. In cases where they do not, in that they have a unique terpene profile that isn’t able to be classified, they will be considered an “Exotic,” which may spawn a class of its own.
These classes were developed with the Emerald Cup in mind, and the Emerald Cup used this classification system to judge this year’s entries.
Interview with Alec Dixon
Visit Hollyweed discussed the new classification system with SC Labs Alec Dixon in anticipation of the upcoming Emerald Cup Awards that will utilize it.
What we learned is that better understanding terpene profiles will help keep the genetics throughout California diversified, and will help save the small craft farmers who are under threat of disappearance in an over-regulated competitive industry.
How long have you been doing this analysis?
We used to work with a hydroponic store in the Santa Cruz area, that served specialty garden supply stores.
We started doing terpene analysis back in 2013. And since testing for terpenes, we’ve done over a quarter million terpene tests on cannabis and hemp, primarily in California.
What drives you?
Much of our work is really focused on the soul of this plant and trying to help elucidate the understanding of what makes it so special in a lot of ways. Analytical chemistry applied to cannabis really has shown over the last decade to help provide a language of meaning to understand how to interpret this plant and all the great gifts it offers.
How did you come up with this system?
A few years ago, we started working with some data scientists to help us cluster the data to see how it all sorted out. It’s been helping to validate a couple of other approaches towards understanding how cannabis sorts out by terpene content.
Our work really helped to validate the work of this group Napro Research [who developeed PhytoFacts] as well as the work of Leafly, who took their own crack at sorting their national data around terpenes. And they are trying to help build a more terpene forward approach towards understanding the plant.
How do you determine a strain’s terpene profile?
We found that cannabis expresses 5 to 9 primary and secondary terpenes.
We looked at hundreds of thousands of samples with all these different names, and what we saw is everything sorts out really into about 1 of 6 primary buckets or smell groups by the combination of its top terpenes.
Looking at the secondary and tertiary terpene content, things further separate into groups. So, it was really across everything we’ve ever tested.
We’ve identified that there are about 12 to 14 archetypal profiles that really define cannabis and using the primary constituents in these profiles we found that everything sorts into these 6 primary smell groups.
You’ve mentioned that testing for THC content has had a negative impact on the industry. Why is that a problem?
It’s blurred the lines and almost destroyed the ability for craft to even exist, because it’s getting devalued so rapidly by just the focus on THC.
We’re trying to help redefine the narrative around what distinguishes cannabis, as well as around understanding of how much terpenes play a role and what a judge picks.
We’re really hoping to empower a better way and inspire hope for the future.
We’re used to describing strains as more energizing (sativa) or more relaxing (indica), but you’re saying that there’s more to it than that.
Yes, indica, sativa and hybrid–these are colloquial, antiquated terms that don’t connect to effect.
Instead, we want to pay respect to the range and diversity that this plant offers, and to show that you can train your olfactory sense and appreciation of smell to better understand certain things about the plant.
We’re really hoping that what we’re expressing can be the future of what a dispensary shelf looks like, where everything’s sorted by the terpene content.
We’re trying to help bring back diversity and respect for the range of what’s possible. And we are trying to help empower the consumer experience in a way to train yourself to know the plant, to smell, because flavor and aroma relates to effect.
You’ve done something interesting with the Exotic category.
It’s funny, all the people want is what the market calls exotics, which are like purple and Ice Cream Cake. But that’s not exotic at all. Now that’s 65% of the cannabis in the market that’s being grown. So, it’s created a homogenization of strains on the market.
We’re trying to help redefine and take the word back of what exotic means. Everybody talks about exotic to describe these certain profiles, but those profiles are actually the most played out and overgrown in the market. So, that doesn’t really work for any more than desserts, which was 54% to 65% of the cannabis grown last year. That’s not exotic.
Each year whenever there’s the awarding of an exotic winner, that’s going to announce a new category for the following year’s competition. Because once it’s announced and goes to this consciousness, surface of breeder cultivation community, and the rarity is honored, you’ll see people start to breed in with those profiles and bring out more and more of those genetics.
This approach to judging plants helps to really remove this regional terpene bias, or terpene discrimination that happens from judge’s personal preferences around what is the hot strain of the day. And it helps again, just pay respect and homage to the range of what’s possible.
Why is terpene content important for the small farmers you are supporting?
Understanding terpenes is what’s going to empower the craft market with the tools of how to survive through the future, while big business is trying to come in.
I think, terpene content really helps to level the playing field. Not right this moment, because the market can’t even understand how terpene content has a role in distinguishing quality.
But just to give you an interesting little statistic: across a quarter million tests that we ran on terpene content, the average across everything we’ve ever tested is about 1.4% in dried flower. So, 1.4% dried flower, that’s the average of across everything we’ve ever tested, versus the potential. Whenever it’s done most optimally and with preservation in mind, terpene content can be anywhere from 3 to 5 and a half percent of dried flower.
So, in flower you can have up to 20 to 30 plus percent cannabinoid content followed by the secondary metabolites produced by the plant. As it is any essential oil. So, you could have up to 20% to 30% cannabinoids. You could have up to 5.5 percent terpenes. And then there’s all these other trace compounds that exists further.
How does this relate to the distribution of weed today?
The optimal harvesting, cure, and packaging will affect the final product’s terpene content.
Was it harvested in a refrigerated condition where you can do a long, slow, dried period, like a low temperature and slow process to cure and dry?
And not only curing, but we noticed that 60 to 80% of terpene content is lost through the supply chain.
I think in the future, consumers will be outraged by how little terpene content is in the top shelf product, and they’re buying.
Currently, you’re saying, some dispensary weed has very little terpenes at all?
It doesn’t matter what terpenes were in there. There’s no more entourage effect. All the terpenes are gone. The soul of the plant is gone. So that strain is going to be very just THC driven. That’s essentially like smoking distillate without terpene content.
So in the future, in my opinion, when the cannabinoid:terpene ratio is that far apart, because the terpenes have volatilized and gone away, there’s no more value for that to be represented as a flower or to be turned into an artisan extract.
That’s compared to a craft process of cultivating the plant?
So, you got a strain that’s 15% THC, but it was harvested in the middle of the night. It was dried, cured, and preserved under 65-degree temperatures. It had a continuous cold supply chain from the time it was picked up, transported, sitting at a distributor in a temperature-controlled vault, tested, and then delivered to a dispensary, it can have 5% terpene content in the dried flower. So, 15% cannabinoids, 5% terpenes, that’s a 3 to 1 cannabinoid ratio. So, the influence and presence of the entourage effect (and aroma/flavor) is going to be substantial.
But whenever the terpene content’s gone away, and the ratio starts to go far out from each other, that’s when you lose the soul. You lose whatever entourage factor might have been there. And again, you just get to a very bland THC effect, which is even racy for people.
What do you want people to get from this classification system?
Through this system that we’re launching, we’re really trying to help redefine the conversation around what really distinguishes quality from the highest level of judge in the Emerald Cup, which is the most sophisticated stoner, what is it that a judge picks as a winner. I think the microcosm, the Emerald Cup, speaks for the macrocosm of the future dispensary market. We want to help empower the market towards a more diversified way to appreciate the plant.
Most people buy whatever is popular at the dispensary. Do you think this could help empower consumers to choose better weed?
We’re trying to help get past suggestive selling. That this is what’s popular, and so that’s what you should smoke. We want to diversify, to represent all that this plant offers. And then, guide people towards the nose. What are you looking forward to? What type of effect?
You’re looking for something more energizing, cerebral; or something more comforting, calming. For comforting and calming, well, these are the beta caryophyllene strains, like desserts, cookies, stuff like that. Are uou looking for calm? We have tropical floral. There’s green crack, dream queen, super skunk, the pines, and pineapple. And so being able to help empower people’s nose. Because the nose knows.
If we can get out of the way of pushing and suggestive selling could help people have epiphanies to find the right strain that they’re looking for by empowering their sense of smell.
The problem with cannabis going mainstream and industrial is that we could lose these craft growing techniques and genetics, right?
We’re trying to do all we can to prevent the homogenization of cannabis into this dessert terpene profile. If the hype strains just determine what’s grown, it’s a course for cannabis being coming completely homogenizing and losing the biological diversity that makes this plant great. So, what we’re trying to do is the opposite of that. We’re trying to honor the range of what’s possible. Every year, expand it as new unique attributes are identified. And the new classes are formed as a result.
Do you think this will help the small farmer to survive?
Your craft cannabis and biomass corporate cannabis are competing in the same space. And we’re at a collision course and extinction level event, if we can’t help prop up the craft. And craft could be lost in this process. So, we just really see this as the way forward to help empower a community with tools to help identify what craft even means, and to be able to help craft farmers get the true value of what they deserve in a time where they’re just again, on the verge of extinction.