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What I learned sitting courtside at the NBA Finals of weed

Published on July 26, 2021 · Last updated July 27, 2021
A sensitive, experienced nose is just one of the skills required of an Emerald Cup judge. (AdobeStock)

With great flower comes great responsibility. And nobody on Earth has a greater collection of flower than the judges at the Emerald Cup, the annual cannabis celebration and competition that tasks a panel of experts with identifying California’s finest buds from among hundreds of entries.

No matter how much herb you smoke, not everyone’s cracked up to be an Emerald Cup judge.

Judging all that weed is a grind (pun intended) that’s equal parts glorious and grueling. But rest assured, those entrusted with this awesome responsibility do everything in their power to honor both the privilege of their position and the importance of the task at hand.

I report this after spending a couple of months observing their judging process at close range, powered by a set of carefully calibrated protocols that pair an incredible depth of human knowledge and experience with cutting-edge laboratory analysis and data.

My behind-the-scenes access came with great responsibility and, ultimately, a hard reckoning with my own limitations. After initially agreeing to serve as a judge in this year’s contest, I reluctantly bowed out midway through the process.

Here’s the hard truth: No matter how much herb you smoke, not everyone is cracked up to be an Emerald Cup judge. Despite devoting a lot of time and energy to the process, I had to admit I was smoking over my head. To put it bluntly, I couldn’t run with the big dogs when it came to smoking and evaluating so many incredible samples in the time allotted. Out of respect to the growers, I gave up my chair.

But I’m glad I got a chance to see the Emerald Cup process firsthand. Because rating weed in this annual competition is more serious and demanding than you can imagine.

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The Emerald Cup origin story

The Emerald Cup began in 2003 as an underground locals-only competition among outdoor organic growers in California’s famed Emerald Triangle, which is comprised of the state’s three biggest counties for outdoor cannabis cultivation—Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino.

From those truly homegrown beginnings, the Cup steadily grew into a world-class expo at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds that drew crowds in the tens of thousands and musical headliners like Damian Marley and Melissa Etheridge.

After two pandemic years as a virtual event, organizers just announced they will return as a live event in Dec. 2021, with a harvest festival in Santa Rosa. The next full competition will be held for the first time ever in April 2022 in Los Angeles—a profound cultural and geographic shift for an event with deep roots in outlaw grower culture.

Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya, co-founders of Northern California’s Swami Select brand, take their Emerald Cup judging extremely seriously. (Photo courtesy of Swami Select.)

And yet, some things haven’t changed.

Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya, the cannabis couple behind Swami Select, are two of the most respected old-school growers in Northern California. They’ve served on every Emerald Cup judging panel since the very beginning. They say the point of intensely evaluating cannabis is not to be more judgmental, but rather more appreciative. And while big data and hard science clearly have a role to play, they will never replace true human intelligence.

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“We’ve always had the same four categories for judging,” Lastreto told me. “Looks, smell, taste and effect.”

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‘The nose knows’

While appreciation of the plant’s many varied aromas has always been a central part of cannabis connoisseurship—see the old adage “the nose knows”—this year marked the first time Emerald Cup judges were presented with samples pre-grouped by their dominant terpene.

According to Leafly’s official primer, terpenes are “aromatic oils that give cannabis varieties their distinctive aromas like citrus, berries, mint, and pine.” Over 100 distinct terpenes have been identified in cannabis, many of which have proven health benefits on their own and especially as part of an entourage effect when working in concert with cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

Tim and Taylor Blake 2017 Emerald Cup
Emerald Cup Founder Tim Blake, left, and Associate Producer Taylor Blake speak at the 2017 Emerald Cup.

Terpene data profiles included

Every flower sample submitted to the Emerald Cup this year was analyzed by SC Labs not just for potency and purity, but also to determine its unique terpene profile. Alec Dixon, co-founder of SC Labs and a longstanding member of the Emerald Cup judging team, says this allowed the competition to be organized in a manner similar to the Westminster Dog Show, where different breeds and groups must first compete amongst themselves before moving on to “Best in Show.”

“How can you judge a Jack Herer or a Trainwreck versus an OG Kush or a Chemdawg,” Dixon commented. “It’s like judging apples and oranges.”

He says the Emerald Cup’s move towards terpene grouping started in earnest last year, with the sorting all done informally by smell. Based on the success of that experiment, Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake and his contest team decided to get the lab directly involved this time around.

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Terpenes revealed but not brand names

What that meant in practical terms is that while the Emerald Cup remains a blind judging competition—nobody knows who submitted what entry until after a winner is crowned—the judges’ samples were all marked in advance with stickers denoting their primary terpene.

Not that the judges always needed it, since the judging panel is comprised of growers, dispensary operators, plant scientists, and others with an encyclopedic understanding of cannabis varietals and an uncanny ability to sift through vast quantities of entries to find the true standouts.

During our regular Zoom meetings, I frequently found myself humbled and astounded at their ability to recall in exacting detail how a specific strain looked, smelled, tasted, and felt.

It was like sitting courtside at the NBA Finals of smoking weed.

Meanwhile, data from previous years confirms that terpenes have always played an outsize role in crowning a champion. According to Dixon, past Emerald Cup winners were not significantly higher than average in terms of THC percentage, “but they always turn out to be a standard deviation higher in total terpene content. So that alone shows how huge of a role terpene content plays in judging, independent of whether or not an analytical instrument is part of the process.”

Thousands will gather for the trophy awards Sunday. This year, the Cup comprises a record 30 categories. (Courtesy of Emerald Cup)
Thousands of growers, sellers, and cannabis connoisseurs typically gather for the Emerald Cup awards every year. (Courtesy of Emerald Cup)

Terpene profiles emerge as key category

So then, if the nose knows, why bring in hard science at all?

For one, because in past years the top ten strains in each flower category tended to over-represent varietals sporting a similar terpene profile. Dixon attributes this to excitement around the hot strain of the moment, as well as certain “regional terpene biases” among the judges.

The end result was not ideal: Growers’ attempts to meet such a specific demand led to market gluts (see the current craze for dessert strains), and that pushed less prominent terpene profiles further into the margins.

“There’s a responsibility in judging to pay tribute to the full range of what the plant expresses,” Dixon told me, “without getting caught up in the hype strain of the moment.”

This is only the beginning

In the future, the contest director envisions sorting entries not just into the six primary terpene categories, but further into subcategories that take the interplay of primary, secondary and even tertiary terpenes into consideration, thus accounting for the approximate 12 “archetypes” seen through historic SC Labs data.

But even then, all that hard data will always be in service of human evaluation. Which means if you’ve got a few friends with weed, you’ve got everything you need to start judging for yourself.

“It’s so fun to invite some friends over and have them each bring a sample to share,” said Nikki Lastreto. “When you smell each bud, squish it just a bit to release the terpenes, and consider what it reminds you of—mangos? socks? pine cleanser? Those are the terpenes. Next roll a joint and take a ‘dry hit’ before lighting it to get the flavor. When you light it up, the final judging is of course the effects, so take some time to sit back and really feel it.”

Solid advice. And while I’ll never try to judge weed again, I’ve definitely learned how to appreciate it on a whole new level.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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