Emerald Cup: The Best Marijuana Doesn’t Always Have The Most THC


The Emerald Cup entries on display. The winning cannabis seen here was not the strain with the most THC.

Like everywhere else goods are sold, bigger is better at most marijuana retail outlets in America. 

Whether medical or recreational, consumers have but one quantifiable data point by which to judge the dozens upon dozens of cannabis flower varieties overwhelming them on dispensary menus: THC and/or CBD content, represented by a percentage figure.

For growers and sellers, the mantra is more. More THC means more dollars per pound for the cultivator, and the bigger a THC score for a strain, the more buzz in consumers’ heads and on their lips—right?

Wrong. At least partially. 

In an age when THC contents of 20 percent or more is routine on dispensary menus and where a flower clocking in at 15 percent is considered by some to be bunk weed, lower-THC strains of cannabis flower cleaned up at the Emerald Cup, California’s prestigious competition for organic, outdoor grown medicinal cannabis.

A cut of Zkittlez grown by Humboldt County’s Dookie Brothers won the title of best overall strain with 19 percent “total active cannabinoids”—the metric for a strain’s total percentage of active THC, as well as CBD, as tested by official Emerald Cup testing lab SC Labs. Second and third place, Greenshock Farms’ Purple Candy Cane and “Strain No. 8” from 3rd Gen Family/Terp Hogz/Dying Breed came in at 17.2 and 15.5 percent respectively, Emerald Cup judges informed HIGH TIMES on Monday.

And out of the top 20 strains of flower, a total of 11 entries recorded cannabinoid contents lower than 20 percent, proving there’s much more to top shelf cannabis than merely a blast of THC.

The highest THC content seen in the top 20 flower entries clocked in at 28 percent THC—very high indeed, as high as you’ll find on some dispensary menus.

“But the highest-THC flower has never won the Emerald Cup,” judge Nikki Lastreto told HIGH TIMES. “Never, never, never.”

Strains compete for a victory based on their appearance, aroma, taste and overall effect. Judges do not receive any strain data when evaluating according to these four criteria, with effect being the most important. 

“So it can be a beautiful product. But it’s really got to have a nice high,” explained Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake, in an interview with SF Station. 

In other words: it can smell great and it can be as potent as a slap in the face—which are the two criteria by which most marijuana consumers value their weed—but that won’t win over an Emerald Cup judge.

What’s going on here?

Remember that cannabis’ effect on the body also depends on a plant’s terpenes, the fragrant oils that live in the plant’s resin. Like the best wine depending more on terroir, blending and quality of process rather than alcohol content, the approach to top-shelf cannabis is more careful sculpting of all these criteria rather than over-the-top THC punch.

Case in point: There was a mistake in judging this year, judges told HIGH TIMES. Someone accidentally sent one of the CBD-dominant strains to the judges evaluating strains in the main category—that is, the flowers with THC. 

And for eight of the 10 judges, the CBD strain was in the top 10 of all strains, competing—and beating—strains it shouldn’t even be in the same ballpark with, according to conventional market logic.

“It’s really telling,” Lastreto said. “It’s not about the munchies anymore. That’s just so rookie.”

“We’ve been saying this for years,” added Swami Chaitanya, a Mendocino County, Calif.-based Emerald Cup flower judge for 13 years and cofounder (with Lastreto) of the Swami Select cannabis brand“We’re sophisticated cannabis consumers—who needs a machine? What is the machine going to tell us? It’s not quantifiable in that way.

“With 400 compounds, and every plant with a unique ratio, this plant really is magic,” he added. “You really can’t put a number on it.”

You can keep up with all of HIGH TIMES’ marijuana news right here.

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