Few events in the cannabis world carry the cultural weight of the Emerald Cup in the era of legal cannabis. L.A. Weekly headed north to find out what it takes to win the world championships of growing legal pot outside.
Make no mistake about it, describing the Emerald Cup as the Oscars of pot is not a stretch. The event is an economic force that draws thousands to wine country to see the fruits of the fall harvest. They arrive in droves because they know the best and brightest cultivators from around the state will be there trying to gain recognition for what they believe is their best work of the season. Past all the jars, dabs and spectacle, every grower and attendee is there to find out who grew the best outdoor marijuana in the world.
Over the last 15 years, the contest at the heart of the Emerald Cup has become the most respected in the world. Started in the hills of Mendocino County by outlaw grower Tim Blake, over the last decade its continued rise to prominence mirrored that of cannabis in general. As pot was normalized for the masses, so was the idea of who was actually growing the best. Blake assembled a small gathering of his fellow outlaws to grade a selection of the Emerald Triangle's finest cannabis during George W. Bush's first term in the White House in 2003 — definitely a time that was still the Dark Ages for pot.
Nikki Lastreto was one of the judges there all those years ago. Back then they started off with about 30 entries total. She continues to ride the wave as co–head judge and oversaw the contest in 2016, when it received a record 650 entries in just the flower category. While one might think the entry numbers began to dip this year because of regulation, it actually started last year when organizers decided to tweak the contest entry process.
"What was happening was people were putting in bags of little bud or something," Lastreto says, "because they would get a couple free tickets and it came out to practically a deal — 'Hey I can enter the cup and get free tickets, and it costs the same as buying tickets.'" The remedy proved to be bumping up the entry fee, which dropped the count in 2017 to about 400 entries. "Which is great, because it did weed out all the real crap."
This year the judges received 300 entries. They were divided into four categories, two for full sun and two for mixed-light growing styles, each separated by whether it was licensed or personal cultivation.
"It was nice to have fewer [entries], but it didn't really give us much more time," Lastreto says. That's because the final day of judging was pushed up nearly a week this year. This was meant to give everyone more time to prepare for this first legal edition of the Emerald Cup, as many of the once-outlaw judges are now industry players who needed to ready their own efforts for the weekend.
"So, in essence, we still had the same amount of time this year," Lastreto says. "There were a couple days we smoked 35 samples."
On top of the numerous personal hours judges spent whittling down the pack, they met on four separate occasions for at least six hours each. And they weren't the only ones doing it, as numerous other categories included CBD items, various types of hash, edibles and apothecary items.
As the judges entered the home stretch a week before the awards ceremony, hours from their final decision, L.A. Weekly was invited to observe the finals for a few categories.
We traveled north through the redwoods to Ukiah. There the solventless-hash judges began to congregate. The group had roughly 50 samples to review, and you can believe it takes a lot of commitment to score 50 dabs. With flowers, you can get a lot of understanding of a particular sample from just a few puffs and then put the joint out. When it comes to dabs of full-melt hash, you're all in from the first one.
Highlighting this, the two female judges on the panel took the crown as the only two fully prepared for final judging at the start of the afternoon. Many of the gentleman taking part were dotted around the property with their dab rigs trying to get final dabs in before commencing the group chat.
While flower judges can surely place a lot of aromas, there are still going to be variations of the same strain coming from different growers. With solventless hash, the field of expert producers is significantly smaller. This means the judges in many cases are capable of picking out flavors from their favorite producers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You wouldn't expect a Michelin three-star restaurant to have a whole new menu every year, either. This also makes new flavors stand out when they do pop up.
The tools used by the judges to sample the hash ranged from pieces of glass you could trade for a new Prius to the new high-tech Puffco Peak. While traditional analog options with some nice quartz are great, one judge noted the technology of the Peak allowed them to sample each entry under equal temperature conditions.
In the end, this group of judges would pick a Papaya from Frosty's as the winning entry.
After watching solventless judging, we continued up 101 to Laytonville, home to the Emerald Cup's birthplace at Area 101. By the time we got there, judging was well underway in the second of the day's four categories, personal full-sun grown. The three previous meetings to get to this point had lasted six hours each, and on this night they would go for nine hours in total.
"So we had a solid two weeks of judging where we're basically getting high from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed," Lastreto says. "It's great. I like to think we really are pros at this now; after 15 years I should hope so."
At modern Emerald Cup judging, anything without a solid terpene profile doesn't even get smoked, according to Lastreto. Not only do terpenes provide the flavor but their interaction with THC and other cannabinoids dictates the experience.
"It's got to have the good terpenes because we know that's what's going to give us a good smoke and a good high," Lastreto says.
One big win for the judges this year was the confirmation that all the entries from licensed producers tested clean according to SC Labs. It's important to remember the cup predates the lab testing industry by five years and didn't get on board with testing for another five years as the kinks got worked out. These days the jar doesn't even make it to the table if it doesn't test clean.
"That was a big step for us," Lastreto says. "As judges, for a lot of years, we'd been smoking contaminated entries."
In the past, entries had made it to the finals and even made the top 10, only to be disqualified once the report from the lab came back.
As for this year's batch of entries, Lastreto found the personal sun-grown category the most interesting. It featured the most variety. In the licensed divisions, she says, one could tell the strains were being grown for the marketplace. But as always, there were some amazing entries.
"The one that won, No. 45, won hands down. Every judge voted for it. We called it No. 45, you called it Ridge Line Farms' Green Lantern," Lastreto says. "The funny thing about it was, we usually have to work on that last one. So we smoke No. 1 a lot usually, trying to figure out what's going to win.
This time the judges hardly smoked the winner. By the time they had returned for the finals, everyone already had it highly rated.
"I wish I'd smoked some more of it. I kind of want to go back to that jar," Lastreto says, dead serious.
A longtime pot comedian and resident expert on Netflix's Cooking on High, Ngaio Bealum has served as an Emerald Cup judge and as the event's MC for years. He gave us a rundown on this year's entries and shared his joy as the final culmination of the collaborative effort from judges began at the awards ceremony Sunday night.
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"We don't know who won," Bealum says. "We just know the number, which has no correlation to anything else. So I'm just as excited as the people sitting around to see who won, to see what flavors won. And if I was right about something tasting like strawberries or cookies or Zkittlez and whatnot. It's one of my favorite times of year — Christmas, Kwanzaa, Emerald Cup."
Of the first batch of contestants in the age of legal cannabis, Bealum says, "We didn't have as many entries as we've had in years past, but we did have the personal-use entries, which I thought was great. All the little micro-farmers get to have a chance too and not have to go up against the giant commercial operations. I thought everything was good, but I've never really smoked bad weed at the Emerald Cup."
Bealum believes this year marked the rise of the fruit-gas strains, which have both sweet or citrus notes paired with a fuel smell. He says that in past years, the great entries had tended to be one or the other.
"People are mixing it up. I think it's having mixed effects, but I welcome seeing what happens further along," Bealum says.