As the year comes to an end, we’re looking back at the strains we believe made the biggest mark on cannabis in 2023. Every year the battle to make this list gets more cutthroat. Why? It’s simply a numbers game. From closet pollen chuckers to the most advanced breeding rooms, more people than ever are producing new cannabis cultivars. Most of them trace back to the same lineages. But from within that common grouping that we’ve come to describe as commercially viable, there are twists and turns yet to be taken. Magically, the best breeders on the planet are able to find those hidden corners and the new flavors and experiences within them. At its core we hope this is what the list represents, but sometimes things are undeniable.
How do you trade off uniqueness for impact on the market? If something has a lot of notes we’ve heard before but takes them to a new level and consumers can’t get enough of it, should that factor into our decision? Absolutely. Just look at how many dessert strains have made it to the top of the list over the years. And they deserved it. Lemon Cherry Gelato, one of our top strains choices for 2022, has had a massive impact again this year and Gelonade is still one of the best sativas out there. Sure, a lot of the notes combined into those flavors were ones we were already familiar with, but the magic occurred when the ingredients were mixed.
This year we’re celebrating a few new varieties that made a splash in 2023.
Blue Face was the first-ever indoor cultivar to win Best in Show in California’s legendary competition, The Emerald Cup. Fig Farms got to put that feather in their cap in 2023 when Blue Face delivered the goods. This was one year after its sister pheno, Animal Face—the seeds of which came out of the same pack—took home the top prize in the indoor category but couldn’t capture Best in Show in the third year of the famous outdoor competition’s indoor category. The pack the duo came from was Face Off OG x Animal Mints from Seed Junky.
Blue Face went on to win a bunch of other stuff, but according to the team at Fig Farms, the third-place finish at California Ego Clash invitational in December 2022 was really special for them after winning so many awards over the years. Fig Farms COO Mike Doten explained what made it special to High Times.
“It was a pretty special moment for us because we’re in a room full of other competitive brands in the marketplace as well as even home growers,” Doten said. “We all judge the flower together so there’s no opportunity for anybody to have any judgment of the flower based on what they think of other people or anything like that if it’s all blind or right in front of each other and then the other competitions that happened are mostly blind also, but on this particular one it hits home because we sit there and touch flowers with them. And so it’s really special to have Blue Face when amongst all the other competitors also all sitting there in the same room.”
The biggest problem with Blue Face? Availability. It only yields about two-thirds of what its sister Animal Face puts out. Fig Farms is already dedicating as much space as they can to it at the moment.
“It’s low yield so the facility can only generate so much of that and also make other flowers too,” Doten said. “So there is like a finite amount we can put out of that. We already do a whole bench of it in almost every single room. It already is making up a gigantic amount of our production as far as production space, as far as production output and doesn’t make up as much of it but that’s okay because we do it for the consumer, for the culture, for ourselves.”
The first time I saw French Laundry at the California cannabis trade show Hall of Flowers a couple of years back, I knew we were dealing with a heater that would eventually be recognized at The Emerald Cup, High Times Cannabis Cup, Zalympix, and The Transbay Challenge for its quality. The strain is a pairing of L.A. Rouge and The Soap from Maven Genetics.
2023 would see French Laundry carry Maven Genetics on its back in its transition from OGs to award winners. The pot was already solid, but it just takes a little bit of magic to raise the bar for a whole company that was already in 400 shops before the French Laundry rocket took off.
We talked with Maven’s co-founder and president Mike Corvington to get his take on the huge year that French Laundry had.
“That one, I think kind of solidified itself,” Corvington said. “We’ve been working the line a little deeper. Now we’re doing some S1s and F2 crosses on it and playing with it a little deeper. But yeah, man, it’s been a good run this last year. When you find a superstar, it’s nice that everyone kind of gives that similar feedback and you kind of just build on it.”
Even with their 15-year pedigree of success and survival in transitioning from the medical to recreational markets, we asked if 2023 was at least a little bit beyond expectations.
“Yeah, absolutely man. I mean, you know, like, I look at it kind of like, you know, the analogy of like, what we do is similar to like a record label,” Corvington said. “You know, when your label’s only as strong as the artist you’re signing to it and always looking for the next superstar. So you always feel good about what you put out or that’s the goal at least. But you know, I kind of felt when we found this one that I knew it was a little special.”
Corvington assures that Maven will continue to hunt down unique heat as opposed to jumping on the next trend.
In a world of Papaya and GMO everything, Whitethorn Rose has carved itself a spot among the elite strains that carry big flavors and produce enough hash to be commercially viable. Adding to that, with this strain you’re also dealing with a decades-old family genetics line from Humboldt County providing even more reason to love it.
John Casali bred the strain at Huckleberry Hill Farms when he crossed his mother’s strain, Paradise Punch, with Lemon OG in 2016.
“I really hope that really my mother’s legacy would be one of the cultivars that maybe we all grew together over 40 years ago and experimenting around with some breeding projects, really discovered a cultivar that really resonated with the consumer,” Casali said. “It has a sister plant known as Mom’s Weed but Whitethorn Rose really has taken the stage and done really well in The Emerald Cup of the last couple of years with back-to-back bubble hash wins.”
It was also placed on numerous other podiums. Casali said the Whitethorn Rose has really opened his eyes to the power of legacy strains to preserve what is left of the farmers on the hill as they’ve watched so many peers fall in recent years to the brutal marketplace.
“People are maybe a little bit over the commercialized cultivars that have been shared with them for over five years now,” Casali said. “They’re really starting to resonate with the terpene profiles and the cannabinoid profiles that these legacy genetics in the Emerald Triangle have. It’s fortunate that Whitethorn Rose is one of those.”
Even with the success of Whitethorn Rose and some of his peers doing well, Casali emphasized it is never going to feel great to be some sole survivor or do well unless the rest of our community of farmers, those people who were always with them during the legacy days, support one another.
“Our biggest challenge is really trying to figure out a way to uplift them to continue the journey with us,” Casali said.
One of the biggest up-and-coming strains in the game, Sherbanger continued the legacy of Massachusetts putting out absolute hitters like Chemdog and Mass Super Skunk. Sherbanger is a pairing of the Sunset Sherbert that traces back to Sherbinski and Cookies’ co-founder Jigga in San Francisco and Headbanger from Karma Genetics.
After being bred in Boston, the packs eventually made it to California. Some of the most choice phenos selected are producing some of the best flower in the state. The rosin version is also starting to take off with some of the people running it having won a handful of awards in 2023.
We talked with John, breeder and owner of Boston Roots Seed Co. to get his take on the big year.
“Honestly brotha I’m just happy to be here and do what I love and I’m happy people are enjoying the gear,” John said. “I’ve probably had the roughest few years of my life so it’s all kinda bittersweet.”
John emphasized it wasn’t some high-tech breeding process, just faith in good flavors.
“As far as the breeding of it, you gotta start with what you like and I’m a smoker so Headbanger by Karma was perfect as it was/is one of my favorite smokes,” John said. “The rest? Well, I just stay working, have help from a few good people around me and a whole lotta luck.”
Expect to see Sherbanger in every major U.S. cannabis market within the next year.
There is no strain carrying the Z flag higher than Blue Zushi these days apart from the Original Z from deep in the heart of Mendocino County where they don’t let lawsuits from candy companies stop the hype. The Blue Zushi wave has been led by one of the better marketing minds in cannabis, Staks of The Ten Co., who doubles as arguably the most prominent Englishman in international cannabis at the moment.
Hype is a finicky thing though. Blue Zushi has always done well since it first hit the scene and has always had its haters. When it won its first Zalympix it was still in the packaging. The haters argued people were voting for the hype. When it won its second Zalympix award, it beat out 120 plus other strains that entered the contest that year, roughly four or six times a larger field than the first win and it was blind. Still the haters came out.
In the end, as it has on many other occasions, the Blue Zushi conquered all. Be sure to go read Jon Cappetta’s full sit-down with Staks.
This story was originally published in the December 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.