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Is Terpene Preservation the Key to Saving the Craft Cannabis Industry?

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 create language that can survive, evolve, and thrive through the test of time.

SC Labs and Napro Research have been partners for a decade now in trying to dive deeper into the compounds of cannabis and the nuances of each cultivar. Over time, we’ve realized just how off base the industry is in defining cannabis classes.


The reality of cannabis classes

Since the launch of SC Labs’ terpene analysis back in 2013, we’ve conducted over a quarter million terpene tests on cannabis and hemp across California and Oregon. When we dive deeper into this data, it’s become clear that with all the thousands of individual names given to cultivars, most everything we’ve ever tested can be sorted based on the concentrations of nine of the most prevalent terpenes found in cannabis. Using these nine terpenes, we’ve identified six significantly different terpene profiles, or clusters that can be used to sort cannabis by flavor, aroma, and the unique and potential “entourage effects.” Each primary group then goes on to contain two to three subgroups, accounting for about fourteen archetype profiles that define 99% of the data across our dataset of over 250,000 terpene tests run on cannabis and hemp. This information has also been corroborated by the great and pioneering work of Napro Research, as well as Leafly.

Armed with this knowledge and historical data, there is an opportunity to better understand and pay tribute to the range and diversity of what cannabis can produce in regard to terpene content. The failure to identify and market cultivars based on terpene concentrations has led to the homogenization of cannabis across legal markets as well as the loss of genetic diversity.


Consumers are not getting what they’re paying for

Of the six primary terpenes found in cannabis, five are monoterpenes, which have the lowest boiling points of the terpenes produced, each beginning to evaporate at room temperature. The industry, and especially the craft cannabis growers, need to use a cold supply chain to maintain peak quality and prevent loss while in transit.

The supply chain and lack of continuous controls over ambient temperatures and humidity under which cannabis is stored and transported has significantly weakened our quality standards. In fact, by the time the average consumer purchases a top shelf eighth from a retail dispensary, 60-90% of terpene content is lost, leaving the consumer with a flavorless, aroma-less product without the nuanced entourage effect because of the widening cannabinoid-to-terpene ratio occurring from the loss or volatilization of terpene content as it traveled through the supply chain. The problem is a vast majority of cannabis consumers that shop at dispensaries have never seen what farm-fresh, ultra-terpene preserved cannabis flowers look, taste, or smoke like.


Craft farmers could benefit from more educated consumers

After alcohol prohibition ended, an 80+ year market consolidation ensued among a few large corporations and families before the modern-day explosion of the craft alcohol market. As cannabis legalization takes root, corporate and craft growers find themselves on the same playing field, yet craft is at a major handicap without the market maturity or an industry understanding of the role that terpene content plays in defining quality.

A market that is hyper-focused on total delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) percentage has all but effectively blurred the lines between low quality biomass markets and craft cannabis. As a result, states currently experiencing the negative market forces of cannabis overproduction have led to what many are describing as “extinction level events” for small craft farmers and legacy producers — a result of David and Goliath competing in the same marketplace.

Terpene concentrations preserved at their peak will always be the real indicator of what defines craft in cannabis and substantiates whether an entourage effect might even be present. Across our vast dataset of hundreds of thousands of samples, the average terpene content in dried flower is approximately 1.4%, whereas in the top 5% of this dataset, the potential is as high as 5.5% terpene content.


The reality of buying terpene-deficient cannabis today

Consider this: A consumer might purchase a “top shelf” eighth of a flower at a dispensary that tests at a legitimate 30% total THC. Such flowers could have been dried and cured poorly and now smell flat, or like hay. These flowers’ terpene content might test at a total of approximately 0.2%. The THC-to-terpene ratio is now 150:1. In the future, this cannabinoid-to-terpene ratio is what will define “biomass.” There is no other value to represent this batch as a premium quality flower, or even to turn it into an artisan extract because of the loss of terpene content. However, one can still distill this “biomass” into a highly refined and high potency extract, where terpenes can be added back in to reestablish flavor, aroma, and a potential uniqueness in the possible “entourage effect” that one may experience. In this example, it doesn’t matter what terpenes may have made such cultivars unique from a flavor, aroma, and “effect” standpoint, because those terpenes have all evaporated before the point of purchase.

Conversely, a batch of flower that tests at 15% total THC, which gets no love in this market, that has been harvested in the middle of the night, under temperature-controlled conditions, dried, cured, and preserved immaculately under optimum room temperature conditions, and handled under a cold supply chain could express an astounding 5% terpene content. This batch testing at 15% THC and 5% terpene content establishes a 3:1 THC-to-terpene ratio. Not only would this batch bomb the block in aroma like a skunk, but the relative ratio of THC-to-terpenes would deliver an outstanding flavor, aroma, and uniqueness in entourage effects. If the primary terpene is terpinolene (Jack’s and Haze), this 3:1 THC-to-terpene ratio would be incredibly energizing, cerebral, and artistically inspiring for most. By the same token, a cultivar that had myrcene (Sweet’s and Dreams’) as the primary terpene, would be incredibly relaxing and result in “couch-lock” for most consumers.

Delivering consistency is really the key to keeping this industry booming. And that consistency comes from establishing a standard in the industry of preserving terpenes at their peak to ensure that consumers are getting the highest quality products that deliver desired aromas, flavors, and experiences. Growers and consumers alike should understand the nuances of terpenes, their volatility, and their power.

About the author

Alec Dixon, Director of Client Relations and Cofounder, SC Labs

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