Over the last few months, we’ve been catching up with popular cannabis breeder Mario “Mr. Sherbinski” Guzman, as he works to find his next family jewels.
Eight years after originally storming the market, and winning strain of the year twice, Gelato still dominates when it comes to the commercially viable terps in the burgeoning legal industry. A big part of our chats would revolve around this double-edged sword, where exclusivity has moved on to popularity.
The genetic lines of Guzman and his former collaboration partner Cookies’ founder Jigga are obviously proven, but the opposite of exclusive. Nevertheless, when he does find his next hitter, many producers will be well-positioned to jump on the bandwagon, since they’ve been running his genetics for years.
Two months ago, we joined Sherbinski for a show-and-tell preview party for his most recent pheno hunt in L.A. Since his adventures over the years have crossed over music, art, dessert, and cannabis, so would the guest list.
Most notable in attendance was Addison DeMoura. Back when the original Gelato hunt happened, the Steep Hill Labs co-founder provided the science used in the selection process. While Guzman was obviously on the hunt for new flavors, having DeMoura there to help kick things off was kind of an homage to the moves that helped put Sherbinski on the map in the first place, and maybe even a signal of intent.
On the table that day were the best renditions of his most famed Gelato cuts, Acai and Bacio. Bacio also is famous under its original number from the pheno hunt, Gelato #41. But as Sherbinski noted over the years, he never was into calling the strains by number. That idea comes from the same vein as one that you wouldn’t number your kids.
But after a quick trip down memory lane via the table, it was on to a walk through the rooms. There, Sherbinski would show off the new efforts hoping one of these seeds being run for the first time would be the one he’s looking for, or a few of them, if things went really well.
Sherbinski’s New Heat
During our farm tour, we weren’t able to chat too much, as Sherbinski talked terps with the people that had come out to support him. A couple of months later we’d link back up, the strains we’d looked at now finished a month post-harvest. Many think cannabis reaches its peak at the 25-60 day mark in that golden zone after the curing is mostly done and before the terpenes start to degrade. The selections Guzman put down to show us the crop we visited in its final form were exceptional.
But the conversation would start with the pandemic like so many do. Guzman noted his wasn’t easy, but he’s coming out now at the end stronger, as he recommended I try the Sherbert x Bacio pairing first. He called it one of his favorites from the pack.
But he’s already hunted a legend. What were the main boxes he was trying to check this time in hopes of living up to the hype and bar he’s previously set for himself?
Guzman told L.A. Weekly it was more about bringing other flavors he preferred into the mix than any hypothetical accolades. “I chose strains that I liked, you know Slurricane, King Louie, Candyland and some others,” Guzman said.
King Louis was probably one of the premier OG Kush phenos that has other pine and lemon notes complementing the fuel. Guzman chose it as his OG pick to work into the Gelato like in an excellent pairing with Bacio he has named 41 Kings.
Picking King Louis for Breeding
We asked Guzman why he went in the King Louis direction as opposed to other local favorite OG cuts like the TK? Sherbinski was quick to offer the rebuttal that he did pair the Bacio with the TK, but he wasn’t able to find any keepers on the first pass after cracking the seeds. He said the 41 Kings he ended up going with had more fuel notes than any of the TK phenos.
“The TK structure-wise and the flavor were good,” Guzman said. “It just didn’t have the power of the Louie phenos that we took. It’s going to give people that are King Louie fans what they like about it. And I just think that side by side with the TK, the TK just wasn’t holding up. We didn’t even pick one pheno of the TK.” One issue was those TK crosses ended up tasting a bit more hazy or like Jack Herer, while King Louis is certainly a familiar flavor, too, it just paired better with the Gelato.
Few Will Make It
But even with the success so far on the new projects, it’s going to be very difficult to break into Guzman’s small stable of strains. While some bigger entities are running 30 flavors at a time, Guzman has always only worked a handful of flavors at any time.
“We only pop 20 seeds, 30 seeds each,” Guzman said. “If we didn’t really see anything standing out then…it was just we have so much new stuff coming and then even like to bring in two or three strains into the fold and then start producing that. We don’t really want to do more than three or four at a time.”
Even then he’s backed up on genetics to run at production levels and seeds to pop at some point, in his now constant search for heat in L.A. On his current pheno hunts Guzman has worked with Higher Function and Culture Cannabis.
“You really got to get down to what we feel is exceptional in terms of the structure, the flavor, the breakdown, everything, every aspect of it, and we shared it with a ton of people and gave it out,” Guzman said.
The room Guzman hunted in has space for 160 plants per pheno hunt. This time he was able to get 120 in of his seeds while his partners on the hunt used the rest of the space for another project. Across the six strains in this run, Guzman said the 20 versions of each were enough to see what really had it going on.
One funny thing Guzman noticed was how different the phenotypes his partners picked were from his selections. He argued a lot of what they picked was based on yields and different things that he wasn’t picking for.
“But I picked a few extras just in case that were close,” he said.
He’ll have to run them again indoors in whole rows and see which ones are yielding better. The first run you’re running one, two, three plants and when you really take the pheno hunt to the next stage, you can start the tweaking to get a plant to reach its full potential. Guzman argued that’s when you find out how much they can push her or how little we can push it. That’s key to dialing it.
Pheno Hunting in The Modern Era
We asked Guzman how it feels to hunt winners in this new era compared to when he first hunted the Gelatos. He quickly noted back in the day people weren’t really hunting like that, but there were less hoops and hurdles to deal with, too.
“Then there wasn’t like now, a bunch of crews that like, do it,” Guzman said. “Even like novice people are. I could name-drop a bunch of people that I respect because they just do the work; it’s awesome.”
Guzman continued that back in the day he felt like it was about seizing the opportunity to grow good flowers. But things kept changing as his efforts continued to cut an ever-growing chunk of the market for Gelato Terps. He figured once you get things good, it would take years to build whatever is next. Now he’s nearing the end of that development.
“I don’t believe in just making new stuff all the time and just watering everything down because there’s not that much variation in the strain. You know, if I gave you a bunch of stuff, you smoke it all, you would already know just from your palette, like oh, this is kind of like that. And then maybe one out of 10 you’re like ooh, that’s different.”
One of the main distinctions of Guzman’s work is that he doesn’t necessarily believe he’s hunting for the masses. He’s hunting for the tastemakers. The sophisticated palates can appreciate what he was trying to do. In the end, the wider masses follow those tastemakers to the promised land much of the time.
If it ends up tasting like Zkittlez, Zoap, or some other line that people have put a lot of work into, Guzman immediately crosses it off the list. But one thing different from those strains is the availability of his previous work. Does that make it easier for him to trust people with his gear?
“Exactly,” Guzman quickly quipped back. “Let’s say for example our live resin pens, right. I can go to a top-notch extractor and I don’t have to give them my genetics. They have a Bacio. Before I would have to go through a yearlong process, and most of the time, people were assholes.”
As opposed to the era of having his genetics stolen before everyone had them anyway, he can now essentially walk in the door and vet the cuts for himself.
“Now people have things and I can just come in and go oh, yeah, this is official. This is legit, this is fire,” Guzman said. “I can buy it at a great price. There’s mad respect that the people give me because a lot of these genetics helped build their businesses and their livelihood. So the people really show love and I give that back to them. In terms of just being humble and not ever making them feel or anybody feel like I’m better than anybody. I just did the work I did and I’m proud of that.”
Keeping Brand Growth Steady
But even with all the new projects, Guzman still has to worry about the production demands for the amount of shelf space his flower brand has been able to secure up and down California in recent years. The trickiest part for him is finding the right balance, where he isn’t overproducing but still meeting his needs.
Guzman certainly looked straight off the farm at our second meeting. We asked him what it was like to switch between Hillbinski mode and Fashion Week.
“When I go to LA, I’m driving my Mercedes Benz, when I’m on the farm it’s my Ford f150,” Guzman laughed. “No one wants to see me in the fucking LA Sherbinski mode in NorCal. It’s almost like NorCal is like going to the beach. You’re allowed to wear flip-flops and shorts, and no one cares. L.A., it’s a little different, but I don’t know. I’ve always been like a shorts, flip-flops, hoodie-type dude.”
There was a period there when Guzman went through the L.A. kind of ‘what pants?’ thing. Then what shoes? Then what hat? He said it got old fast. But it was part of the evolution of everything. Getting comfortable in his own skin to the level he was before he started splitting time between L.A. and his Mendo farm was a critical part of developing the headspace he wanted, going into the seed hunt.
But Hillbinski is certainly synonymous with the grind, and being an industry leader with dirt under his nails. “And it’s really what I enjoy doing anyway. I miss being in the little gardens and just getting down like I used to,” he said.
Surviving to This Point in Cannabis
As Guzman looks around, there aren’t a lot of survivors from back in the day. Sure, the people he’s collaborated with over the years have done better than most per capita, but it’s still ugly out there. We asked Sherbinski how thankful he was to still be in it.
“Very thankful,” Guzman replied. “Look, I’m not anywhere near any of the biggest brands in California. I don’t even think I’m on the list of like, who does the biggest numbers… Whichever way the business goes, I know that I’m going to be there, and I’m going to be evolving and rolling in that direction. I think a lot of people choose to get mad and they want to punch air, but the reality is, in any business you need to evolve with it.”
Guzman argues there’s going to be business people that come in, there’s going to be people with deeper pockets, and you have to find your niche. He’s continuing to find his by working with best-in-class cultivators on a search for the heat.