By Ramon Rascon, Engineering Technician for Snubber Technical Services LLC
A couple weeks ago, I went on a trip to Denver, Colorado to attend the Seed to Sale Show and to get a rough idea of the state of the Cannabis industry, particularly in regards to edibles in Denver. I toured several kitchens of the larger suppliers in the state to get a basic idea of how edibles are produced and marketed in Denver. I also visited several dispensaries to get an idea of what products were being sold most commonly, and how often. What I found certainly surprised me.
For eleven months I attended Pima Community College in the CTD (Center for Training/Development) Baker’s Helper course where I learned the basics of working in industrial-scale kitchens as well as food safety protocols, particularly for large scale bakeries. Over the course of the program I attended several large-scale catering events, the largest of which being just over ten-thousand people, and learned quite a bit about what it means to both prepare and serve food on a large scale. While my experience is limited I’ve found that, when developing a product to be sold on a large scale, uniformity is key. There’s no sense doing things slightly different every time and wasting minutes every day that, over a year, add up to wasted hours. Upon touring the kitchens of the largest edible suppliers in Colorado I found a lot of familiar technology and procedures, but their processes were not quite as streamlined as I’d expected.
For making butter, the majority of suppliers still use the antiquated method of slow cooking the cannabis in a vat of butter, thus infusing the fat in the butter with THC. Any milk solids and plant matter are then strained out and the leftover cannabis-infused fat is stored for future use. This method has been around about as long as stoves have existed and has been employed by unprofessional bakers far longer than professionals, which was why I was so surprised to hear that this method is the business standard. The main problem with this method is it’s repeatability. When infusing butter with cannabis, most will use a stovetop or a crockpot as their heat source, and it can be difficult to maintain the exact same temperature batch after batch. In industrial kitchens, particularly the ones I toured, the device used is a vat, which is essentially a massive pressure cooker. There’s also the issue of straining. Traditionally, this was done with a cheesecloth, but in these large-scale kitchens they use what is essentially an industrial-sized, fine mesh strainer basket. While this improvement in technology sounds ideal on paper, the final products that I saw, and tasted, were far from ideal. Each batch of butter was a slightly different shade of green-yellow, with some being profoundly green, indicating that some of the plant matter did indeed make it through despite the countermeasures. If an edible tastes of cannabis, which all the ones I tried in Colorado did, that is a clear sign that it isn’t fully purged of plant matter. Most edible suppliers import the leftover trimmed leaves from grow operations, and use this to cook their butter. This trim contains far more cellulose than flower, and is thusly harder to purge, leading to a strong cannabis flavor despite the equipment used to purge. This, in tandem with outdated techniques, leads to a product marginally better than the previous standard.
Another problem with the majority of edible suppliers using trim is that they often don’t ask the strain, if it’s an indica or sativa, or the potency. This means that one batch could be cooked with a strain that is 23% THC, and another with a strain containing only 14%. Keep in mind that in most cases this is trim as well, so those numbers, being the flower’s potency, are already inaccurate. Both batches of butter are then used in the same cookie recipes, and both are distributed as the standard 10mg per cookie dose. I personally experienced this whilst sampling edibles to collect scientific data at the dispensaries I visited. Where one day I tried a 10mg cookie and felt very little, I tried a 10mg piece of chocolate the next day, and found myself glued to my hotel bed. The biggest problem I see with this is not in the recreational market, but medicinal. Recreational users tend to be a bit more lenient with dosage, as they’re doing this to have fun and not as a medicinal treatment. So when, in an hour, the brownie is a bit of a letdown, they’ll usually just have another one with minimal complaints. Now imagine being a medicinal user and being told that in order to be comfortable, or in some extreme cases, in order to survive, you have to consume a certain dosage of this drug, like any other drug, every day. Now imagine that sometimes, your medicine is stronger and sometimes it’s weaker, yet it’s up to you, not the company making the medicine, to figure it out. In any other industry, this would be unacceptable.
Overall what I found in Colorado genuinely surprised me, as despite having been recreationally legal in the state for just over four years now, the industry still seems quite immature. The standard methodology for extracting cannabis is the same as it has been for decades with minor improvements to technology, but few improvements to actual procedures. A side effect of this is that most cannabis infused butter used in making edibles is more or less of the same quality as it has been for decades, or in other words, not up to par in terms of potency and uniformity when compared to its synthetic, pharmaceutical cousins. The major issue with this stark lack of standardization is that edible suppliers don’t all import the same quality of product as one cookie can be far stronger than another, while both are marketed as being the same dosage. Finally, for medicinal users, as well as people with allergies or an intolerance of nuts, gluten, dairy, or sugar, it can be exceedingly difficult to find treatment in the form of edibles. All in all, I believe all of these factors to merely be symptoms of an immature cannabis industry, and have hope that as the industry matures throughout the country as a whole, Denver will be on the front line of these advances.