Cannabis Science 101
*Written in Partnership with Mark Lewis, Napro Research and Alec Dixon, SC Labs*
Indica, sativa, and hybrid are the colloquialisms that have dominated cannabis culture and the corresponding marketplace since the beginning. While recent literature has proven that this archaic vernacular has little validity, the continued use of this vocabulary has only hindered the education and progress of the cannabis industry at large. Contrarily, there is a novel way to sort and categorize cannabis products that can be used to educate consumers, pave the way for meaningful cannabis competitions, and a way that can survive, evolve, and thrive through the test of time.
Our goal is to revolutionize the cannabis industry and change the way people shop for cannabis products. Napro Research and SC Labs have been partners for a decade now in trying to dive deeper into the compounds of cannabis and the nuances of each cultivar. And over time, we’ve realized just how off base the industry is in defining cannabis classes. So what better way to help educate the public than through the high profile industry awards, The Emerald Cup. Working together, we created a new cannabis classification system for the 2022 awards that promises to bridge the disconnect between culture, science, and traditional organoleptic industries. It is based on the terpene fingerprints within each cultivar that are uncovered through lab testing and mapped using PhytoFacts®, a data visualization tool. Here’s how it works.
PhytoPrint® is a design element found within a PhytoFacts report that represents a color encoded fingerprint of the primary constituents of the essential oils. There are three bars located at the top of these reports that represent the colors for the top three terpenoids in the cannabis product. These color patterns are indicative of the aroma and smell and can be used to help eliminate the ‘name game’ by conditioning the market to recognize aromas with color patterns. For example, a red bar at the top would indicate the essential oil is terpinolene dominant, and a yellow bar would indicate the essential oil is limonene dominant, and so forth. Thus, you can sort cannabis products by color pattern recognition instead of colorful, yet meaningless, common names.
The resulting color patterns that emerge contribute to determining which flavor class the cannabis products get sorted into, and it also serves as the basis for the Emerald Cup’s new classification system. The colors at the top of each report are intuitive and describe the essential oils in such a way that resonates with cannabis culture. These dominant terpenoids that are represented by colored bars have been shown to exhibit mood enhancing characteristics. For example, most household cleansers are lemon scented because limonene has been shown to relieve some symptoms of depression. Thus, the colored bars are intuitive in two ways: Lemons are yellow (yellow is a warm tone), and limonene is uplifting. When a report contains mostly warm toned color bars, the result is a more sativa-like or energizing terpene entourage. Whereas, a PhytoFacts with mostly cool toned color bars results in a more indica-like or a more relaxing terpene entourage.
The PhytoFacts report format highlights the major constituents in the essential oils present in cannabis flowers. The colorful interface allows consumers to quickly visualize the aroma of cannabis flowers and products. These intuitive reports have led to the creation of a common language to communicate to consumers about terpene effects, invention of new and exciting dispensary menus, as well as set a new standard for conducting cannabis competitions.
Cannabis should follow the competition models of other consumables
Competitions are held all around the world to discover the best beers, wines, and even barbeque. In each of these competitive arts, the respective markets have matured into an agreed upon categorization by which the competitions and store shelves are divided. In all cases, the categories make sense to the artist, as well as the consumer. For example, beer competitions are divided into different categories based on the flavor and ingredients of the beer (i.e., ale, lager, pilsner, IPA, porter, etc.). Wines take a slightly different approach that is more focused on grape vine genetics, color, and flavor (red, white, dessert, sparkling, etc.). It is time for cannabis to follow suit and evolve out of the dark ages of indica, sativa, and hybrid.
Most of the industry, including many top brands, agree: It is nonsensical to base purchase decisions solely on the content of THC, the primarily intoxicating molecule of cannabis. What if the weed is brown and harsh, but has high THC content? Judges of beer and wine competitions evaluate much more than just alcohol content to define what makes the best beer or wine. Consumers and judges alike observe qualities like color, smell, flavor, and taste above alcohol content to decide the best. If this was not reality, Everclear would win every competition and be the only alcohol sold in stores. Similarly, judges don’t define the best barbeque as the rack of ribs with the most sauce! That would be ridiculous. Instead, most competitions designate the best as something that has the highest quality, best aroma, and provides overall best experience.
It is important to note that flavor and aroma are very subjective, but are critical in defining the best of any organoleptic experience, hence, the central role both flavor and aroma play in determining the best cannabis products. Currently, there are very few categories to sort cannabis for competitions. Cannabis is usually categorized by the environment the cannabis was cultivated in (indoor, outdoor, greenhouse, etc.) or by whether or not the flower contains CBD. Neither of these methodologies address flavor and aroma, and are therefore not useful in determining the best overall experience. More importantly, different people prefer different flavors and aromas, so there is no determination of what is truly the best in each flavor and aroma category. Instead, you get a democratic election of what the ‘best’ flavor of the day is based solely on the taste preferences of the majority of judges.
The reason there are so many styles of beer and wine is because flavor and aroma are subjective and different people have different taste preferences. In fact, approximately 25% of the population cannot detect certain bitter compounds. The lack of a specific gene (T2R38) impacts how dark chocolate, hoppy beers, and wines taste. Olfactory senses are equally subjective and work synergistically with taste buds to define the overall organoleptic experience. Thus, cannabis competitions must be categorized by flavors and aromas, and judges must be divided into groups to judge the flavors and aromas they prefer. This is the way forward.
Again, flavor, aroma, and experience are all very subjective criteria for a judge to characterize, and a judge’s personal preference can bias a competition. Let’s suppose that all the judges prefer gassy OG’s and don’t like fruity cultivars. The result is going to be an OG wins the competition when in reality those two flavor classes (OG vs. Fruity) should be placed into separate competitions with separate judges. The judges who prefer gassy should rate the gassy, and the judges who prefer fruity should rate the fruity.
Science and breeding need to be part of the cannabis brand conversation
The aroma of cannabis flowers is driven by essential oils that are comprised largely of mono- and sesqui-terpenes, flavonoids and low molecular weight volatile compounds (alcohols, esters,
thiols, etc.). The primary terpene content in the essential oil is a very defining characteristic that can be leveraged to design a classification system for cannabis products. While we won’t dive into the depths of cannabis essential oil composition here, it should be known that 99% of cultivated cannabis consists of only about six significantly different terpene profiles. These six terpene classes represent the initial classification system. As time passes and cannabis breeders work their magic, new classes will be added based on breeders’ abilities to create novel combinations of aromas and flavors.
Hi-res images of free-use infographics of the Emerald Cup Cannabis Classification Based on PhytoFacts powered by SC Labs can be found HERE.
The classification system will evolve with the market. As more and more subtle differences define a class, more and more classes will emerge. This is no different than beer or wine. In fact, the parallels are astounding. As our understanding of cannabis essential oil grows, so will our ability to sort and organize new flavor and aroma categories. Today, the different classes are based on how cannabis plants have been naturally bred without using sophisticated breeding techniques like chemical or biological markers. Thus, there isn’t a lot of novelty in the market. The five main classes that are based on their main terpene combinations are just the beginning. At some point, the subtle differences within a class will require the class to split into two classes, or when a specific aroma is defined by the presence or absence of a particular aromatic compound, and then separates into a new class. Another scenario is every year that a new exotic is deemed a winner, the result will be the birth of a brand new class for the following year’s competition. The point is that the classification system was designed to ebb and flow with the market and that this is only the beginning.
As a brand, think of the power in producing your own, truly unique, flavors and experiences. Next year’s exotics exist today, but the value of those products will grow exponentially in an educated marketplace with the ability to define novel flavors and experiences because of this new system of categorizing cannabis products.