Within the Sense grow room, Cultivation Manager Rob King slides up along the wall in order not to brush up against the buds. It’s a tight space and reminds me of cultivation facilities I visited before California’s transition to the adult-use marketplace in 2018. That’s not coincidental. This grow, centrally located downtown in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., San Francisco, was one of the first in California to be city-licensed for cannabis cultivation back in the Proposition 215 era. With a room for plants in veg and two flowering rooms with around 100 lights, the team at Sense has the opportunity to be hands-on with each plant they grow. And this attention to detail shows in the flowers they produce, which are consistently some of the most frosted over, absolutely crystal-coated dank nugs out there.
“Because of how long it’s been in operation, this was never an ideal grow space,” King says upon my arrival. “Like you see a lot of these new ventures that are funded and backed in like super pristine lab-type grows and this is really not that. This has a lot of history to it. It’s not an ideal space. We’re in San Francisco, so cost per square foot is at a premium.”
I easily arrived at the grow via public transit on a weekday afternoon and, along with King, meet the company’s CEO Steve Griffith and COO Adam Hayes in a small hallway area. The group seems close and I later find out they’ve all recently had children within the last nine months. Hayes and King were even at the hospital together at the same time. When I ask if they’d ever consider moving out of San Francisco they all agree it’s easier and less expensive just to stay put. Plus, they enjoy working in the city where, before they all had kids, they’d sometimes go out for drinks together after work. In fact, they have plans to expand their current space.
Griffith explains that Sense is a “bootstrap wonder company.”
“We pride ourselves on being the least corporate company you can get,” he says. “We are as small batch as it gets. We’ve got about 100 lights. We’re just under a 2,000-square-foot canopy. We are in the garden every day… we’re grinders. As far as comparing us to the hype machine kind of companies, we’re the antithesis of that.”
Flowers Over Everything
With minimal marketing efforts and without a large social media presence, Sense’s flowers are what makes them stand out. Their Pink Certz win at the Transbay Challenge III, a cannabis competition hosted by Jimi Devine in March 2022, put the eyes of the weed world on them before they took first place in the hybrid category with the same strain at the High Times Cannabis Cup SoCal: People’s Choice Edition in summer 2022.
Like many sought-after companies in the cannabis space, the team pops seeds and conducts phenohunts to select which cultivars to offer. When we meet, they are planning a run of testing new genetics with about six cultivars grown out into 10 different selections of each to discover which one is best. Today they have Purple Churro, a cross of Cinnamon Horchata and Apples & Bananas from Compound Genetics, and an unexpected older classic, Headband, among the contenders. Their choices have produced great results in the past, as shown by their competition wins with Pink Certz, a cross of Grape Gasoline with The Menthol created by Compound Genetics.
“That was kind of a kismet kind of situation when we went to the Transbay Challenge,” Griffith says. “We didn’t know [Compound Genetics]. We just bought their seeds. We’ve been buying their seeds for a couple years now and we happened to enter the same strain that they brought. They were selling those Pink Certz seeds at the event and we kind of came together and showed them a jar and they were pretty wowed by it and we ended up winning.”
So what does it take to know you might be growing award-winning cannabis?
“You have to look at things through a pretty wide scope at first,” Griffith says. “So obviously, the first thing we want to look for is bag appeal, aroma, flavor.”
That hits three of the five senses: sight, smell, and taste. But even with all that, the ultimate decision maker is still the amount of THC. Griffith explains that if a strain tests lower than 20% THC, it’s “just not doable in today’s market.”
Sense’s Growing Style
Within the veg room at Sense, the plants really feel like they are vibing. A vibrant shade of lime green, they all look happy and pretty uniform. The clones are grown in rockwool and are on a drip irrigation system. The advantage of rockwool, King explains, comes in the labor savings. Before adopting this method, they would have to take the time to transplant the clones into gallon pots.
“[Rockwool] is a completely inert media,” King says. “There’s no cation exchange capacity (a measure of soil’s ability to supply nutrients), so whatever you’ve feeding it, it’s very quickly and directly responding to.”
While some cultivators will continue to grow their rockwool clones hydroponically by transferring them into larger rockwool blocks or slabs, Sense places them in a different medium mix with carbon, coco coir, and peat and then adds worm castings, mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial insects.
“I would never say we’re [doing] living soil because the guys who are doing living soil are doing something even beyond what we’re trying to do,” King says. “But we are trying to allow room for that biology, and I think allowing room for that biology really sets our quality apart.”
Griffith expands on that idea when it comes to the nutrients they feed their plants.
“[Our growing style] allows flavors and aromas to come out in the flower that you don’t get when you’re doing the full synthetic. So we feed synthetic nutrients, but we also are adding this proprietary blend we created of kelp, humic acid, fulvic acid, fish hydrolysate, and a few other things to help create some biology in the retail [market],” he says.
And while indoor cannabis has a reputation for not being environmentally-friendly, all the power it takes to run the Sense grow has always been generated by renewable energy thanks to San Francisco’s CleanPowerSF program.
“It’s a bit of a premium on our power, but you sleep a little better at night,” Griffith says.
The Sense Selections
While they aren’t about making too much noise, Sense is growing some of today’s most popular and sought-after cultivars. That includes GMO, a Girl Scout Cookies and Chemdawg cross that looks like a real monster in the grow room because thin branches jut out of gnarled colas as the plant continues to stretch for the light.
“It’s god-awful looking,” Griffith says. “Look at the plants. It’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ But when it’s all said and done, it’s one of the most potent and smelling strains even without us growing it, just period.”
Alongside that dank offering, Sense is growing the decidedly sweeter and creamier Rainbow Chip, a Sunset Sherbet and Mint Chocolate Chip cross from Exotic Genetix. There’s also Khalifa Mints. This one comes from Compound Genetics’s collaboration with Wiz Khalifa’s cannabis company, Khalifa Kush, and has one of the same parents as Pink Certz, The Menthol, combined with Khalifa Kush. My sample smells like a mojito, with muddled mint and fresh lime citrus, and reveals its gassy aroma when ground. The whole eighth is impressively staked in four buds, which are completely frosted with trichomes. Still, while Griffith hones in on Khalifa Mints as a cultivar with growth potential, pointing out the popularity of Khalifa Kush, the team reassures me the hype does not drive them.
“We’ve entered a lot of things and we’re pretty humble with all our thoughts on our strains,” Hayes says. “Pink Certz kind of came to us as a surprise and we’ve been riding that a little bit, but we’re not the ones to be like, ‘This one is going to be the best.’”
This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.