Judging the High Times Cannabis Cup People’s Choice Edition is a rare opportunity to be directly involved in the outcome of the ultimate quest for the dankest, most flavor-packed flower strains and concentrates.
Each cannabis tournament has its respective perks, and there are many events to choose from. But the High Times Cannabis Cup, launched in Rotterdam, Holland in 1987 by longtime editor Steven Hager, is the OG competition. It was the first major cannabis tournament to take place. Only a handful of seed companies entered the first Cannabis Cup in ’87, and about 30 people attended. Skunk #1 was the original winner, placing first and setting the stage for promoting and celebrating individual cannabis cultivars. It wasn’t until the event’s sixth year that attendance surpassed 800.
Over time, Cannabis Cup events have been held everywhere from Jamaica to Alaska. Nowadays, High Times provides People’s Choice events that are judged using an entirely different structure and scheme. Instead of only allowing a select list of seasoned experts to evaluate the weed, the competition is open to all participants who pay to join in. No person is excluded from the pool of judges, regardless of their level of professional expertise.
Judging the People’s Choice Edition
It was an honor to serve as a judge for the High Times Cannabis Cup People’s Choice Edition: SoCal 2022 this year. Judge Kits in Southern California became available to High Times store loyalty members on May 13 and the general public the next day. Entries were due on July 10, about two months later, and on July 24, the winners were announced. This timeline gives judges about 60 days to review each strain—the perfect amount of time to have a full day to savor each strain’s aroma, taste, and other aspects with a clear flavor palate. Judges can easily smoke or vape each entry on a different day or hours apart to avoid confusing any of the effects with one another.
I headed on over to the High Times San Bernardino store, the nearest location to where I live, to grab a Judge Kit and see for myself how this process works. While I’ve contributed to the magazine for a number of years, I’ve never visited a High Times dispensary before, until now.
Walking into a High Times store alone is enough to induce a sense of awe and wonder, let alone the ultra-dank scent emitting from backpacks stacked up behind the registers. The long legacy of High Times magazine, stretching back to 1974, becomes more pronounced when you see the decor inside. Legendary High Times magazine issue covers from times in the past adorn some of the walls. Everything in the store is aligned with the High Times classic red, white, and black color scheme.
The backpacks were lined up neatly with a label indicating which category they fall under. The categories are the following: Indica Flower, Sativa Flower, Hybrid Flower, Pre-rolls, Infused Pre-rolls, Solventless Concentrates, Vape Pens, Edibles: Gummies, Edibles: Non-Gummies, Edibles: Beverages, and the final category is Topicals, Tinctures and Capsules. Each Judge Kit in the SoCal Cup has a market value of up to $280, pre-tax.
I felt like a child seeing Willy Wonka’s factory for the first time when I opened the backpack. Some strains were purple, others even deeper purples. Others were frosted with white crystals or covered in orange hairs. Some were dense nugs, while others were fluffy buds with wispy sugar leaves still intact. Practically every strain had a set of unique characteristics that became more apparent the more I gazed at them. I didn’t know where to start.
“Each kit comes complete with all of the entries from that category,” High Times Director of Events Mark Kazinec says as he hands me my backpack. “So, for example, Indica Flower has 22 different 1 gram units from different brands, different strains. It’s all wrapped up in a High Times backpack.”
The backpacks have the High Times logo embroidered on the front and the High Times Cannabis Cup People’s Choice Edition: SoCal 2022 logo embroidered on the side pocket. Each backpack is stuffed with cannabis entries and includes a scorecard inside. The scorecard gives judges an access code to the judging portal. The 1 gram size is perfect—enough for up to several bowls each.
The scorecard indicates where to go to rate each strain, how to log in, and so forth. An email is automatically sent to confirm each time a strain review is submitted. The emails also serve as a placement point to know which strains have already been completed. In the event that a judge accidentally turns in two strain ratings, the most recent submission is selected by default. Judges assess how each strain looks, tastes, smells, effects, and burns on a scale of one to 10.
Judging Flower for the First Time
The SoCal judging marks not only the first year I’ve judged a Cannabis Cup event, but also the first year I’ve judged any cannabis tournament, for that matter.
In my case, I went to CannabisCup.com, then clicked the red judging portal button, verified my age, and selected Cannabis Cup People’s Choice Edition: SoCal 2022. Then I selected Hybrid Flower, the type of Judge Kit that I signed up to receive. Finally, I picked my first strain to review, Jealousy by LitHouse, a cross between Gelato #41 and Sherbet—two strains most aficionados are well familiar with.
My sample of Jealousy had a lower total THC content compared to the others in my bag at 29%, but it was what I describe as “two notches” stronger than I anticipated. To compare, Feria, aka “The Fetti,” by Green Dragon contained 39% THC and 2.68% terpenes. Feria is believed to be Pie Hole (Cherry Pie x OGKB) crossed with Secret Cake, Secret Cookies, or both. Just about every entry provided lab results showing cannabinoid content and sometimes terpene content.
“I loved breaking apart the bud leaves with my fingers to reveal the plum stripes with lime hints and great spongy nug structure,” I wrote of Jealousy in the judge’s portal. It had an earthy yet funky taste, which I described as pleasant but not bold, with a distinct sweet but piney aroma. I also was prompted to describe burnability, visual appeal, and so on. And this is just the first entry that I sampled! I still had 20 more strains to go through. I felt a little rusty on my first entry, and my descriptions of each aspect of the flower rating scale got longer as I went on.
Inside the portal, I’m prompted to rank the strain 1-10 in the following parameters: aesthetics/texture, aroma/scent, taste, burnability, effects, and terpene profile. The portal asks one question at a time, and when you hit enter, the next question immediately appears. It also asks me to describe several aspects of the strain.
Grandi Guava (Guava x Gelato) by Triple Seven immediately caught my eye with shelf appeal upon my initial visual inspection. The purple-plum sugar leaves were almost completely snowed over in trichomes to the point that you couldn’t see the bud leaf color very well. It looked diabolical. I felt a wave of excitement go through my body. On the other hand, the Vanilla Dice by Claybourne Co., with unknown parentage, was a darker green with trichomes that are much more white in color. It did give off a close to a creamy vanilla whiff, but it was very subtle, almost indiscernible.
Hyped-up strains like Pink Certz by Sense (The Menthol x Grape Gasoline) provided more sativa daytime effects than the indica-dominant hybrids and a complex flavor of bold berries and mint. Pink Certz also has a wicked look and shelf appeal with dark green buds covered in white-beige trichomes.
A person on Twitter asked me if judging cannabis is like judging wine, and I admitted that they are indeed similar. Both come from plants that produce a myriad of flavor and aroma profiles. Selections can vary in bite, body, bouquet, finish, etc. The cannabis industry uses different words, but the general idea is the same. Finished flower can rival the finest French wine in taste, color, aroma, and exquisiteness.
All of the strains are strong contenders, so it’s pertinent to keep in mind that judges compare them one to another, and not all are going to receive 10s, even though just about every entry is impressive.
Kazinec isn’t interested in descriptions by judges who only put in half of the effort. The portal even provided me with an example of a good strain assessment.
“We want people to be detail-oriented; we want them to say, ‘I opened it up, I smelled lemony diesel aromas, bright green fluffy buds, orange hairs, went on a hike with my friend,’ you know this and that,” Kazinec says. “We don’t want people to say, ‘They smell good, got me high.’ That’s not helpful.”
Keep in mind that all of the strains are going to be strong, as farmers and brands will only enter in only the finest flowers that represent their companies best.
“All of these responses go back to the vendors who put their heart and soul into creating these products that are literally picking their best yields or best buds to put in this cup,” Kazinec says. “We want the judges to also do the same thing and put their time and effort into this. They have 60 days to judge all of their products. And yeah, we want people to be very thorough and very detailed.”
Air of Inclusiveness
Not everyone can be a grower who has been in the biz for over 30 years. People’s Cup is about including all.
“People’s Choice is now open to everyone,” Kazinec says. “We want people from all walks of life, whether you’re an OG grower who knows exactly how to describe, you know, limonene and myrcene, terpene profiles, but we also want the new consumers who, you know, are trading out their glass of wine for a joint at the end of the night, people who are very experienced, people [who are] are not very experienced. All of that is part of the wide demographic of cannabis consumers. We want to capture everybody.”
Kazinec explains that the feedback from all these different types of people will help inform these brands to better understand what is working and what’s not working.
“This is now People’s Choice,” Kazinec says. “It’s open to everybody. It’s not reserved for the Snoop Doggs and Willie Nelsons or the High Times homies, you know, from 40 years ago, so it’s the perfect opportunity for those who have been waiting or for those who are just finding out about this judging opportunity to take advantage and see who’s the best.”
In my Hybrid Flower judge kit, Green Dragon, Claybourne Co., Wizard Trees, and Canndescent had stellar contenders that stood out. However, I cannot reveal all of my observations quite yet, as the competition is still in motion as I write this article. My advice is, as always, it’s best not to get too caught up in the packaging, as it has nothing to do with the actual quality of the flower.
Judging a Cannabis Cup was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. I learned about some new strains, I got to compare them to each other, and I feel like I know more about flower now than I did when I started judging. Would I do it again? Most definitely, and I encourage others to do so themselves.
Anyone who is willing is worthy of becoming a High Times Cannabis Cup: People’s Choice Edition judge. Visit cannabiscup.com to learn more and find events closer to your home state.
This article appears in the August 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.
There was a quite a bit of literal bargain bin weed this year.