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What to look for in cannabis

December 20, 2023

There’s a lot that goes into a good cannabis product, from growing strategies, curing and processing, to the packaging it comes in. And with so many opinions in the space, it can be hard to know exactly what separates a good product from a not so great one, objectively speaking. So at our last Smoke and Pancake event, I took it upon myself to chat with some of the other folks there and ask: what are your green flags when it comes to cannabis?  

The responses? Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were mostly the same. To help our discussion, we’ll be hearing from the folks at the event, including Chief Commercial Officer Walker, Horticulture’s Jorg and Tai, and a few members of the High Fidelity team. Since everyone mentioned similar things, I’ve broken the topics into categories. Each category is roughly listed in the same order as people prioritized (smell was always number one). That said, different folks obviously have different priorities, so while this may be a general ranking, it’s by no means definitive.  

A Note about Subjectivity

When discussing good cannabis with Jorg, I think he put it best when he said: “Quality is not subjective; what you like is. There’s a similar criteria [for what makes good cannabis] across the cannabis industry – an agreed upon set of metrics. They are that way because cannabis evolved in the marketplace. The amount of money you get is directly proportionate to those agreed upon quality metrics. It’s about the complete picture of everything.”  

Additionally, the kind of consumer you are can make a difference in what you prioritize in your cannabis. As Walker said: “Depending on what kind of consumer you are, these things matter differently. Appearance seems to matter less for more experienced people. Aroma is possibly the most important considering the strong connection between aroma and flavour, but sometimes good smelling weed still tastes like weed, so more seasoned connoisseurs often go off flavour. For casual consumers, experience is kind of everything – people care about the high and how they feel afterwards. Connoisseurs are like smoking lots, so the experience isn’t as meaningful because it’s not unique or special.”

Either way, assessing cannabis is a bit like assessing art: we can all have our opinions and like what we like, but at the end of the day, there are objective markers of what makes a good product. Whether or not you personally like something is a whole other matter, and can often depend on your own body chemistry or other important factors.  

Cannabis Contests

If we want to look at objective markers of quality, one place we may turn to is cannabis contests and the parameters they set for establishing what is or isn’t good cannabis. However, cannabis contests may not always be as objective as we would like to think they are. As Walker recounts:

“Most awards aren’t based on quality but more about the popular vote. This isn’t necessarily known by the consumers. The voting system can be exploited by companies wanting attention, revenue, or the marketing that winning can bring. This isn’t always the case, but it can happen. Generally, appearance, aroma, flavour, and experience are kind of the top four categories in contests.”

We’ll go into it a little bit more later on, but Walker and the team at Woody Nelson have been putting together their own 100 Point System, created to help determine the quality level of different cannabis products – one based both on objective markers of quality as well as a bit of subjectivity (how consumers choose to rank which qualities are more or less important). The goal is to create an accessible, easy-to-use resource for determining the objective quality of a product – one a little more detailed than our current grading systems.  

Smell

Just about everyone I spoke to listed smell as the first indicator of a good cannabis product. There seems to be a general consensus that smell is one of the most important factors when it comes to identifying a good cannabis product. This isn’t really a surprise though, considering the importance of terpenes. As Tai said:

“The nose knows what terpene profile will agree with someone. What the cannabis looks like is just a bonus. You gotta have some bag appeal, but it’s really all about the nose.”

Jorg also chimed in about smell, saying: “How much is the nose coming through – is it loud? Is it purely terpenes or is it grassy or green? The purity and intensity of nose indicates quality. The more the better.”

Aesthetics

While aesthetics weren’t necessarily recounted by anyone as the top priority when it comes to good cannabis, it was something mentioned by just about everyone. It was especially noted for its importance in the marketability and sales value of a product.  

According to Jorg, the aesthetics of cannabis can also indicate quality, or lack thereof: “The visual can help you identify things like defects, discolouration, potential mold, or if the plant was grown too close to lights, if it’s stretched or experiencing heat stress. All of that can be seen visually. You also want to look for positive attributes, like if the colour’s pure and a nice green or a similar hue. Lots of tricomes. However, aesthetics aren’t always indicative of how good cannabis is – it’s mostly just a market thing and not always connected to quality.”

When it comes to aesthetics, Tai recounted: “The market is still heavily driven by the visual, especially coming out of the black market.”

The Smoke

Although not mentioned by everyone I spoke to, the experience of the smoke was described as one of the later indicators of a good cannabis product. According to Jorg:  

“Bulk cannabis has to have higher moisture so it’s not damaged in shipping. So at consumption point it breaks up easy in a grinder, the nose comes through, and it’s easy to roll up. It has to stick together enough that the joint will hold its structure, but not too wet that it won’t burn properly. Generally, this is between 10-12% moisture content. When you smoke it, you’re looking for clean ash. It should burn cleanly. If the smoke keeps going out and you have to keep lighting your joint, it’s indicative of a bad cure. Smoking should feel good and not harsh. Lastly, does the flavour come through? If you can’t taste the smoke it’s not as good. The cure and genetic have to be on point in order to maintain those secondary metabolites. They’re either there or they’re not.”

The High

Again, the effects of the high wasn’t something that came up super frequently when I was talking to people. It was almost discussed as an added bonus to the experience instead of a priority. Going back to what Walker touched on earlier in the post, this maybe makes sense since most of the people in the room at the time were seasoned smokers. For a more inexperienced cannabis user such as myself, personally, I’d probably rank the high a lot more important than something like aesthetics.  

When it comes to the high, this is what Jorg had to say: “And then there’s the high, but that’s very subjective. However, there are also certain cultivars, terpene profiles, THC content that create a universal reaction of ‘I love the way this makes me high.’ The high becomes really clear, in terms of the effect. So for a seasoned smoker, there’s a quality to the high that can be refined. There are highs that people tend to, in general, return to again and again.”

Quality, Labelling, and Transparency

There were only a few people who spoke about product transparency as an indicator of a good product, and it’s no surprise that the comments came from some members of Woody Nelson’s QA team. Talking about labelling, transparency, and adherence to health codes is a much larger conversation, so for now, we’ll keep it to the comments that were made at the event:

“Quality of production is vital; how safe it is. Environmental factors are important, as well as ensuring there are no contaminants. It has to be tested and held to a high quality standard. It’s important that consumers are getting what’s advertised. The labelling has to be accurate and truthful. This requires consistent testing. It also requires passion. There are lots of people in cannabis for the investment or money, not for the consumers.”

It was also noted by someone in the room that: “lot of people claim that they like ‘shitty’ weed, but what they mean is that they like weak weed. What they want is consistency with products.”  

Seeds and Genetics

Again, this is possibly something the average consumer overlooks when it comes to choosing a product, but as we’ve discussed in our biomimetic posts, good cannabis starts with the seeds. One attendee at the event was a seed producer, who spends a lot of time mixing and trying new genetics. This is what he had to say on the matter:

“Cannabis criteria can bring history and years of experience to every new variety. So you’re using what you know about cannabis to create something new. It’s kind of an art.”

Tai said something similar: “With genetics, you have some really new and unique crosses. It’s interesting to see what’s being created. What we’re seeing today has, in some cases, taken decades to get to.”  

100 Points System

We’ll most likely discuss this further in a later post, especially once the 100 Points System is released. That said, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Walker, the person who developed it, about his process and thoughts when it came to creating this system.  

The goal is to create an accessible formula, of sorts, that can grade any given cannabis product on its level of quality. It’s based on several categories (smell, experience, growing, aesthetics, etc.), with each category being further broken down into smaller parts. After asking a variety of folks to rank how important each of these categories were to them, Walker was able to create a system where each category has a different ‘weight’ to it. Aesthetics, for example, has less of an importance than smell does, so it makes up less of the final score. The plan is to update the list every year in order to stay up to date with marketing and industry trends and our growing scientific knowledges.

Here’s what Walker had to say about it:

“We wanted to have a system that wasn’t just based on subjective parameters, but objective ones. It also needed to cover the whole process from seed to sale. Theoretically, with the system we created, if you only filled out a single section (like experience, for example), you could still determine if it was high quality cannabis.  

Each category carries different weight when it comes to the grade given any particular product, and all of this was determined through crowdsourcing. Averaging of a lot of opinions created a well-balanced metric for how important each of these categories are. It’s kind of like counting jellybeans. A single guess isn’t usually very accurate, but if you take everyone’s guesses and average them out, you get pretty close to the right amount of jellybeans in the jar. We’re better equipped when we all work together.

We’re still working on the next versions of the 100 Point System. It would have to be updated every year as our understanding of quality and cannabis develops, and the things we enjoy develop.”

TL;DR

While folks tend to rank cannabis properties with different priorities, in general, there seems to be a bit of a consensus on what makes good cannabis – objectively speaking. You have the nose, the genetics, how the cannabis was grown, moisture content, the cure, aesthetics, trimming, colour, texture, the smoke, and finally, the experience of the high. A lot goes into good cannabis, and as the industry develops, hopefully we’ll see a more developed system for assessing a good product in the future.  

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