Like many emerging cannabis companies, Los Angeles Refinery was founded largely out of personal necessity. Although owner Ryan C. (who requested we don’t use his last name as L.A.’s legal market is still in a gray area) had started a small-scale grow operation with his wife, he soon realized the growing popularity of cannabis oils and extracts. Upon puffing on a vape pen himself, he realized many of these concentrate-filled cartridges had a harsh, artificial taste to them.
“Why did I buy an OG Kush that tasted like Pine Sol?” he says.
What he soon realized was that many oil manufacturers use chemicals or synthetic materials to fake the taste and aroma of the cannabis strains they’re named after. Ever wonder why Girl Scout Cookies weed tastes so much like, well … Girl Scout Cookies?
The answer, without going down a scientific rabbit hole, is terpenes. A terpene is an organic compound found in all plants — fruits, vegetables and cannabis included — which provides the product with its aroma and flavor. Terpenes commonly found in cannabis strains include Pinene (which smells like a pine forest and is the most traditionally dank smell), limonene (which has a bright, citrusy vibe) and Humulene (a hoppy, woodsy aroma). Many say that terpenes also contribute to the “entourage effect” of weed, a hotly contested principle that refers to how the different components of cannabis — THC, CBD, terpenes, and more — interact to produce distinct physical or therapeutic effects.
While terpenes are naturally occurring in cannabis plants, extracting and refining them for use in a concentrate or oil is a difficult process. More important, it’s an extremely expensive one, as the weed plant that it’s being extracted from is destroyed in the process. Cannabis terpenes on the market today can cost upward of $250 per milliliter, says Ryan, which is why they are relatively rare, in low supply and not often used by California manufacturers.
So Ryan began researching the process, experimenting with extraction, and through trial and error came up with a system that uses cold temperatures to keep the full terpene profile intact — high heat can destroy some terpene molecules, he says. Los Angeles Refinery now sources its organic cannabis from “strategic” partners and then uses a proprietary process to break the plant down into molecular parts, remove contaminants such as waxes and lipids, and then reassemble the desired ingredients of THC and terpenes into a final product, he says.
“If you vape on our product versus another company that puts in artificial flavor … you can tell,” Ryan says. “We’re trying to capture that [flavor] profile that nature created … rather than create our own.”
While cannabis terpenes may work for a small-scale, boutique company like Los Angeles Refinery, which produces them in house, they can be hugely cost-prohibitive for larger manufacturers. That’s why most producers opt for food-based terpenes instead — a safer, better-tasting alternative to chemicals and much more affordable and readily available than cannabis, explains Drew Jones, founder and owner of Connoisseur Concentrates.
“What would be preferable would be if everyone extracted it [terpenes] from cannabis, but there’s just not enough of it,” he says.
A weed industry vet and one of the first to sell terpenes, Jones officially founded his Portland, Oregon–based company in 2014 and, earlier this year, opened the Terpene Lab in downtown L.A. Jones’ business now consists largely of selling terpenes wholesale to companies flavoring distillates or creating vape pen cartridges. At Jones’ store in L.A., cannabis business owners can come in to sample terpenes, mix and match flavors and create their own blends — cherry mixed with cheesecake mixed with gelato, he says as an example. The Terpene Lab itself mixes flavors including Skittles, Tangerine and Sour Diesel.
Connoisseur Concentrates uses organic terpenes sourced from non-cannabis plants — from lemons to pine trees — to re-create the cannabis aroma. After all, the Pinene found in cannabis is the same that’s found in a pine tree, says Jones.
“It’s all the same terpene,” he says.
Obtaining the right cannabis flavor isn’t as simple as pure extraction, however. For one, a high-quality blend that accurately re-creates a flavor could contain up to 20 different terpenes, Jones says. But some manufacturers will use just one.
“It’s like saying I’m going to make a cake but just [using] an egg,” he says.
Like any specialty product, terpenes have fostered a bit of a cult following and become the stuff of cannabis connoisseurs. Mixing and matching strains to come up with new aromas, developing proprietary methods of refinement and figuring out how to best preserve the true cannabis essence, terpenes have become the subject of much experimentation.
In addition to use in weed products, cannabis terpenes — which, if refined properly, contain no THC or CBD and are legal to sell on regular grocery store shelves — are being used in the culinary world as well. Holden Jagger is a longtime chef and pastry chef in L.A.; he’s worked at the Soho House, was named one of Zagat’s “30 Under 30” and, two years ago, began to focus on cooking with cannabis.
Through his company Altered Plates, Jagger works as an educator, brand consultant, and chef, using cannabis terpenes as a potent flavor component in everything from salads to baked goods.
“Terpenes, I think, are probably the more interesting thing I’ve come across in cannabis,” Jagger says.
“It’s really opened my eyes to a lot of things about flavor, about taste.”
Analyzing terpene profiles and discussing and experimenting with cannabis aromas is much more interesting than simply getting people high, Jagger says. While he does create cannabis-infused foods that contain the standard THC or CBD, he also makes his own terpene sugars and salts, which are more intended to capture the essence of the cannabis as opposed to the psychoactive effects. Jagger also makes his own terpene honey, by taking raw cannabis he grows himself, placing it in a jar, pouring honey over it and then storing it in a cold, dark place for three to six months.
The chef also builds entire dishes around cannabis strains. One example is the Blue Dream Salad, which includes terpenes of its namesake blueberry weed and plays off these flavors with dehydrated blueberries, pine nuts and aged Gouda cheese.
Overall, cannabis terpenes are simply a new, creative tool for creating flavor, Jagger says.
“I really think that just like there’s a place for fine wine, there’s a place for fine cannabis, and a lot of that is going to be terpene-rich cannabis,” he says.