(This is the latest installment in an ongoing series offering tips and advice for marijuana and hemp extractors. The previous installment is available here.)
The best cannabis is dried and cured for flower, while the rest heads for extraction, right?
Cannabis extractors say that gone are the days of blasting low-quality trim with ethanol or hydrocarbons to extract cannabinoids. Increasingly, they’re taking the same care with cannabis inputs that craft-flower producers would.
In other words, proper drying, curing and storage of cannabis are becoming paramount concerns for extractors who want the best outcomes.
Can’t fake quality
The adage of “fire in, fire out” is driving extractors to make sure their cannabis inputs are handled in a way that gives them the best chance for success.
That’s because increased competition and falling wholesale prices have made cannabis extraction a game of narrow margins.
A processor who can get more valuable end products using the same machines and solvents will outcompete those using lower-quality biomass.
“The richer the raw ingredient is, the better chance you get a high-quality extract,” said Lior Chatow, head of research and development for Eybna Technologies, a terpenes manufacturer based in Long Beach, California.
That makes it paramount for extractors to ensure that cannabis has been properly harvested, dried and cured before extraction.
If a cannabis plant gets moldy or loses potency or terpenes in drying and storage, there is nothing an extractor can do to improve things, said Deepank Utkhede, chief operating officer at Vantage Hemp, a cannabinoid manufacturer in Greeley, Colorado.
“If you’ve got material that hasn’t been stored and processed properly, the damage is done. You’re not going to be able to reverse that,” he said.
The importance of proper cannabis prep before extraction has driven some large-scale extractors to invest in prepping the cannabis themselves.
That’s the case for Papa & Barkley in Eureka, California, which makes tinctures and topicals across the THC spectrum, some low enough for national sale and others for the adult-use marijuana market in California.
The company hires temp workers and sends them to contract cannabis cultivators to trim and prepare cannabis to the company’s specifications, said Guy Rocourt, Papa & Barkley’s chief product officer.
“It should be good enough to use without any other overrefining,” Rocourt said.
“In this industry, there’s no such thing as chain of custody, per se. So when we buy flower, we don’t know how they’ve been keeping it, how it was kept at the farm.
“Whereas most industries, in food for example, the way they package ingredients at the farm is uniform, it’s secure, it’s kept in a certain way so that it’s perfect for the extractor.
“There are no industry standards in cannabis. Most companies have to do that for themselves.”
Your biomass, your concern
By contrast, so-called toll, or contract, processors sometimes choose the opposite approach.
For Jason Muniz, founder and president of hemp extractor and decorticator Texas Blue Diamond Solutions in Three Rivers, Texas, clients are on their own in terms of prepping cannabis for extraction.
“We’re not farmers; we’re processors,” Muniz said.” People get into this industry thinking they’re going to sit on 300,000 pounds of cannabis, all at spec.
“I think, ‘Why do I need to do that?’”
He predicts a future where marijuana and hemp alike are graded like tobacco, where farmers sell plants at different price points depending on quality.
That happens today in cannabis, of course, but there are no common grades or tiers across state lines.
Even rates that pay per percentage point of certain cannabinoids can be inconsistent or fail to account for the full picture of a crop’s quality.
“With tobacco, you can get a very high-quality harvest and lock in a certain premium. And then some of your other plants, they didn’t come in so good, and that’s not a problem. You can still sell it.”
Muniz is more concerned about prepping hemp for extraction when it is going into his house brand. Then it is worth the investment to store hemp at cool temperatures in a humidity-controlled facility.
Restoring peak freshness
Processors have more options than either outsourcing input prep or handling it all themselves.
Some are buying terpenes to add post-extraction.
At Eybna Technologies, Chatow and her colleagues researched terpene degradation in properly stored cannabis and found double-digit declines in the prevalence of some terpenes in the first two weeks after harvest.
That means processors seeking peak flavor need to extract cannabis before it’s dried. They could try solventless extraction, which can be slow and expensive, or they could buy terpenes to add later to replace what was lost.
“The genetics that you breed and you work so hard on, sometimes it’s not reflected after all these post-harvest processes,” she said.
So, one size does not fit all extractors when it comes to input prep.
That makes it important for extractors to think through their entire business model before deciding how involved to get in pre-extraction preparation.
“What are you going to produce is going to dictate how much biomass you need and how to do it,” Utkhede said.
“Whether you’re doing CBD or THC or whatever, you’re trying to preserve the cannabinoids in that biomass.”
Kristen Nichols can be reached at email@example.com.