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In a period of just five scant years, cannabis has gone from the frequently maligned status of stoner counterculture to a Kardashian-level social phenomenon. Popularity of the plant has eclipsed even the most avid marijuana supporters’ expectations. That success has had a lot to do with many decades of activists fighting for legalization state by state, combined with powerful political interests in America taking a can’t-beat-em-join-em approach to the popular substance. There are enormous profits to be made in weed and corporations are ready to do what they do best — acquire it, scale it, and mass distribute it into every CVS, Starbucks and Walmart on the planet.
The principal event that’s affected the greatest change to date in the American cannabis industry occurred last December with the federal legalization of hemp (the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana) passing with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. That bill effectively sounded the starting gun for legal, hemp-derived cannabis products to be sold across the country starting in January of this year. The trendy cannabis compound CBD (short for cannabidiol) has been the biggest hit so far of the cannabis renaissance, showing up seemingly everywhere at once. A recent estimate reckons the collective market for CBD sales in the U.S. should surpass $20 billion by 2024. That stratospheric number shouldn’t really come as a big surprise, as CBD is currently an ingredient in a variety of goods, including sleep aids, face creams, energy drinks and pet products.
Now another floral star is about to hit the scene hard: cannabis terpenes.
The essential oils present in the cannabis plant — and in fact in all plants — terpenes are like the hardworking herbal roadies to the cannabis flower rock-star. Laboring behind the scenes, terpenes give cannabis its distinctive aromatic and flavor qualities, as well as imparting a host of therapeutic effects. Cannabis terpenes like linalool (also present in lavender) and pinene (in conifers) have been used to promote sleep and fight inflammation. Studies by the National Institutes of Health have also shown the terpene duo can produce an antidepressant-like effect.
A Mass-Market Appeal
For years, devoted cannabis consumers have been aware of cannabis’s therapeutic benefit, but it’s only recently that the idea of these hidden properties has truly penetrated popular American culture. One high-profile example this year was Kim Kardashian West’s baby shower. The company True Terpenes — creators of terpene products including lotions, make-up, chocolates and candles — was hired to provide guests with terpene-infused teas for the “CBD and Meditation”-themed celebration.
“It’s fun to see a family like the Kardashian’s with such a large audience helping to educate the world about CBD and terpenes,” True Terpenes COO David Mclean told Yahoo Finance.
Recently, at a bar called the Sidecar in San Luis Obispo, cocktails were being shaken up with cannabis terpenes provided by Golden Apple Cannabis Co. Sidecar’s creations have included new cocktails using myrcene and limonene — compounds also found naturally in citrus, basil, and hops — inventing mixtures from the wide spectrum of tastes available in cannabis terpenes.
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“It’s a tool that a lot of bartenders have never had at their disposal,” says Sidecar owner Josh Christensen. “You’re messing with things at a molecular level. It’s kind of fun. It creates a situation where we have kind of unlimited possibilities.”
Then there’s the company Mr Terps that’s creating terpene mixtures that mimic the properties and flavors of cannabis without using any marijuana at all. “Our strain profiles are developed without using any ingredients derived from cannabis,” CEO Alec Riffle told Leafly. “Instead, we work with non-cannabis botanically derived terpene isolates, essential oils, and flavorings to recreate a strain’s terpene profile from scratch.”
New Terpene Tech
And then, of course, there’s the psychoactive market, which is a mammoth industry also looking to optimize the enjoyment of terpenes. Products are coming online that specifically cater to consumers looking to make the most of marijuana’s psychoactive lift, taste and terpene effect. A new product that’s just debuting this week is the Pulsar Rök, a portable, electronic water pipe that is a technological leap forward for concentrate lovers. The Rök allows consumers to more efficiently capture the wide spectrum of terpene flavors available in cannabis. Its coil-less quartz cup atomizer offers precise temperature control, preventing contact with an actual heating element, and ensures peak vaporization and optimized flavor.
The new Pulsar Rök electronic water pipe is an oil rig that enhances the flavor profiles in cannabis. COURTESY OF PULSAR RÖK /AFG DISTRIBUTION.
“The Rök opens up the ability to experience premium innovation and taste the finer properties of your exquisite concentrates and open up their full flavor profile,” says Marketing Manager Bennett Dickert from AFG Distribution, makers of Pulsar products.
The Rök is a creation of AFG’s close attention to consumer input, utilizing valuable feedback from a variety of sources — influencers, smoke shop owners, forums and social media — to create the unique electronic oil rig. The result is a new device delivering top terpene enjoyment to an ever-expanding cannabis concentrate consumer base.
“We listened to the people and we created a product for the people,” says Dickert.
Yofumo is part of a growing contingent of companies using science and tech to experiment with cannabis terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic organic compounds found naturally in marijuana, and they impact weed’s flavor and smell. The type and amount can also have varying biological effects when paired with THC and CBD, according to marijuana researchers.
“My grandmother has no interest in Skunk No. 1.”
As terpene experimentation advances, more producers are adding the amount and type of terpenes in their offerings to product descriptions. The compound, lesser-known among the general public, is something consumers are becoming more aware of as they seek out a specific kind of high — or flavor.
“We’re seeing a lot of our patients, or our clients, are demanding to be able to see terpene expression data for the flower that they purchase,” says Philippe Henry, director of R&D genetics and analytics at Flowr, which operates cultivation facilities in Canada.
“It’s part of educating people that they can make better choices,” adds Henry, who has a Ph.D. in population geneticsand hasanalyzed 5,000 cannabis plants to study terpenes and genetic markers.
Sometimes marketing gets in the way of information in the cannabis field. Blue Dream is a popular strain, but some producers may call their plant Blue Dream even if it isn’t the same as the original product, Henry says. Knowing more about the flower’s chemical expression, and how you react to that mix, helps you as a consumer.
While there are hundreds of terpenes, a few show up more frequently. Generallylinalool, also found in lavender, calms you, while limonene, with its citrusy aroma, can give you energy. Keep in mind, compounds may impact people differently. For example, myrcene generally relaxes, but it could do so to a different degree depending on the individual. When it comes to terpenes, and cannabis in general, it’s often about finding what works for you.
“I like to refer to it as the Jurassic Park principle.”
“It’s synergism,” says Mark Lewis, founder and president of NaPro Research in California. He compares a single terpene or a singlecannabinoid, be that THC or CDB, to a note — but when everything works together, it’s a chord.
While terpene levels in cannabis flower tend to be below 2 percent and cannabinoids hover around 20 percent, NaPro tweaks that through breeding plants with desired attributes together over several years. They’ve amped the terpene level up to 7 percent and THC down to 9 percent in one plant for a client entering a competition that awards top quality cannabis. Changing a plant’s composition can take years of breeding. Think about how watermelon today looks and tastes different than it did thousands of years ago, due to human intervention.
Once you get below 1.5 percent, the THC takes over, Lewis, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, says. But if a single terpene is higher than 2 percent, the flavor and impact “will hit you like a ton of bricks.” One NaPro offering that has 4.5 percent myrcene will cause one’s eyes to feel heavy for 15 minutes or so and then provide balanced, euphoric pain relief, Lewis claims.
NaPro Research has also built a search tool for clients to review the chemical expression of marijuana products to discern quality and value.
Flowr and NaPro mess around with a plant’s terpene profile through breeding, but Yofumo uses a different technique.
Its curing unit is currently only available commercially (the company is working on a consumer model). It releases terpenes from other plants stored in rods into a mahogany chamber, and through atmospheric transfer, the terpenes bind to the plant at a molecular level.
There’s a trend in the marijuana space of upping THC content to get super high, but Edwards says cultivators should look beyond THC.
“Instead of just maximizing THC potential, how can we also look at post-harvest curation practices and maximize terpene potential as well?” he questions.
OK, but how did he do that for his flower with hints of chicken and waffles?
He starts with scrutinizing what makes up the flavor of chicken and waffles — the herbs you use, the buttery crunch of the bready exterior, the syrupy sweetness — and then replicates that as best as he can through chemical means.
“Once you understand the creation and how this works, it really does open itself up to you,” Edwards says. “I like to refer to it as the Jurassic Park principle.”
Edwards has had his share of duds in the past, but those failures have helped fine-tune the curing process.
“I’ve personally consumed an amount of cannabis that is extraordinarily unpleasant,” Edwards says. “I’ve had results that are similar to orange dish detergent just as often as I’ve had them be similar to orange fruit.”
Yofumo customers work with flower as well as oil, but it’s the expanding vape and oil market that has added an extra boost to terpene’s rise. (The strength of terpene’s impact in flower versus oil can differ because of a variety of factors, including the types of terpenes used, their source — cannabis or another botanical, synthetic or natural — and the ratio of cannabinoids to terpenes.)
LucidMood adds terpenes from other botanicals to enhance cannabis oil for its vapes.
The Colorado company removes the jargon from the equation, naming vape pens based on the desired effect, including Energy, Calm, and Relief. Each contains roughly 40 percent THC, 40 percent CBD, and 20 percent terpenes. LucidMood is focused on new users, not the seasoned dabber. “It’s for the person who doesn’t have a Ph.D. in cannabis,” Tristan Watkins, LucidMood’s chief science officer, quips.
“The more that we learn about these, the more we can control.”
Calm includes geraniol, a terpene that smells like roses. LucidMood names its pens based on focus group studies in which the first group gets pens with terpenes and a second does not. By having a control group, LucidMood can show that terpenes were behind certain biological effects felt by the first group.
“The more that we learn about these, the more we can control,” Watkins, who has a Ph.D. in neurology, says.
There is a divide among terpene researchers, though. Purists believe terpenes should come from the cannabis plant, not an additive. There are also those who don’t want their marijuana’s flavor messed with at all.
“Consumers should be asking for a product that’s 100-percent cannabis,” Flowr’s Henry says. “The ones that are really 100-percent cannabis are going to catch a premium sliver of the market.”
As marijuana legalization spreads in the U.S., each state has its own regulations, from who can buy to requiring mold checks. At least two U.S. states, Nevada and New Mexico, mandate terpene testing.
Now, what about weed you eat? If terpenes bring flavor and aroma, are they being used in edibles? Not so much. Edibles tend to use distillates, a form of THC that is supposed to be void of taste, or cannabutter, which is butter infused with cannabis that provides a strong, euphoric high.
Periodic Edibles uses terpenes in their caramels, but for the effect, not the taste.
“We’re actually limited on how high we can go with the dosage because of the flavor that they add,” says the Oregon company’s founder, Wayne Schwind. If Schwind adds limonene to give a burst of energy, he doesn’t want the lemon flavor to overwhelm the caramel.
Periodic Edibles started listing terpene profiles on their packaging a few months ago. Schwind says budtenders, the people who sell weed at dispensaries, love it, but buyers are sometimes confused. Many don’t know what terpenes are, but that may change over time.
Multiple brewing companies have also been adding cannabis-derived terpenes to their beer. Devour Brewing Co. in Florida uses cannabis terpenes to add lemon, pine, and earthy flavors to its Florida Thunder IPA, and Lagunitas, a California brand owned by Heineken, adds them to its SuperCritical Ale. Prank, a Los Angeles bar, mixes terpenes in cocktails.
The terpene innovators like Mr Terps may disagree on what’s best, but they concur that discerning customers will be key. Those seeking high-quality products, the craft beer drinkers of weed, if you will, are the target market for terpene experimentation.
“It’s not a big thing now, but I think that return to quality is going to explode,” says Yofumo founder Alfonso Campalans. “It’s really the only way the small and middle producer is going to compete.”
When Los Angeles-based chef Holden Jagger announced an appearance at the James Beard House via Instagram earlier this month, he proclaimed proudly it was “a lifelong dream” and “historic moment” for the iconic institution of American food culture to host a CBD-infused feast.
Three days later, Reuters released the report, “In New York, confusion reigns in the emerging CBD edibles business,” which warned owners of restaurants and cafés to cease sales of CBD-infused food and drink products or face penalties.
Following a phone interview that same week with Jagger, he reached back out to let me know there had been a major shift in the then-titled “An Introduction to CBD Cuisine” due to legal concerns. Scheduled for May 15, it’s now instead an “An Exploration of Terpenes” where he and Rachel Burkons will present a dinner examining the molecules responsible for flavor and aroma in cannabis and how they can enhance food.
One of Jagger’s creations at a recent Altered Plates cannabis pairing dinner in Los Angeles.COURTESY: ALTERED PLATES
Siobhan Flaherty Haber, vice president of events at the James Beard Foundation says of the switch, “CBD is a very hot topic, but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding cannabis, especially following new rules instituted earlier this year in NYC. Most people aren’t aware that terpenes give cannabis its distinctive smell and taste, so a dedicated dinner on the subject is a great first step for those who want to learn more about the many flavor profiles found in cannabis.”
However, the upcoming event is not the James Beard Foundation’s first foray into educating about the cannabinoid known to be less psychoactive than THC. CBD made its debut on the Beard House dinner table late last year for “A Modern Filipino Feast” featuring infused dishes from chefs Jordan Andino and Gabe Kennedy, who is also the co-founder of cannabis wellness brand Plant People.
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The Burkons (he took his nickname as a chef name early-on in his career) are a brother-sister team who co-founded Altered Plates in 2016, a self-described “creative culinary collective,” who have grown into authorities among the modern cannabis food movement through their year-round calendar of private pairing dinners and infused fine dining experiences. The duo is also readying for the opening of one of the City of West Hollywood’s first-ever, licensed cannabis consumption loungesmatched with their signature brand of high-minded hospitality.
“While it’s not what we originally pitched, we are just as excited and honored to have this opportunity to still bring cannabis to the JBF table,” says Jagger. “Due to the climate of the legal space, we just have to be flexible and constantly shift the dialogue of how we actually can present the plant in a way that is acceptable — especially in states where it is not yet recreationally legal.”
An Altered Plates table scape for a private, consumption-friendly event earlier this year in Los Angeles. COURTESY: ALTERED PLATES
Despite the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing cannabis extracts derived from hemp, the CBD landscape is increasingly complex due to its U.S. Food and Drug Administration classification as a listed drug and unlawful stance on adding it into food and drink or distributing it as a dietary supplement. The FDA has recently stated, though, that it could make an exception and will hold a public forum on May 31 in Maryland.
Haber adds, “People have long looked to the [James Beard] Foundation as a resource for food, especially in recent years as new, progressive formats and offerings have hit the scene … and the plate. Obviously, CBD has become a point of fascination among food conscious consumers — and the industry — but a lot of questions remain. We feel like we have a responsibility, now more than ever, to provide education and perspective on the issue and Chef Jagger and his sister are so well versed in the area, we felt they were the perfect conduits for this conversation.”
As one of the few chefs that also cultivates his own cannabis, Jagger’s passion for the plant started as a teenager growing up in Southern California. He even credits pot for helping him focus to improve his grades in high school. He moved to San Francisco in 2002, working in kitchens for the next eight years and spending time off exploring Humbolt County, growing marijuana and starting to experiment with edibles. After moving back to Los Angeles, he held stints at Maude, Soho House and Craft — primarily as a pastry chef — earning accolades like Zagat’s 30 Under 30 in 2013.
“Seeing the industry first hand up in the Bay Area was super eye opening for me. I have always been very upfront and very vocal about my passion for cannabis, as it truly helped me find my role in life as a chef.”
Jagger cultivates his own cannabis in his Toluca Lake backyard and on an additional property in the area. COURTESY: ALTERED PLATES
But don’t call Jagger a cannabis chef … or a cannabis sommelier. He prefers “ganjier,” a title he created because, “Both terms just sounded so cumbersome to me. The suffix ‘ganja’ is the magic. There’s no formal hospitality standard or guideline around this yet … no regulatory body … so I wanted to build off of what I have learned as both a chef and a cultivator to help push this idea of how we can appreciate craft cannabis in the same vein as fine wine forward.”
Jagger’s menu will spotlight five, fresh for spring dishes including: carrot–tangerine Soup with smoked parsnip, honey, and jamón; charred little gem lettuce with white icicle radish, ricotta salata, walnuts and green goddess dressing; duck carnitas with peanut, garnet yam, salsa verde, and cotija; lemongrass-braised beef short ribs with jasmine-scented barley, tamari, and soft-cured egg yolk; and thyme–lemon beignets with lemon curd.
According to Jagger, who will present different pairings for aromatic effect during each course, “Terpenes on their own are not psychoactive. They are not a scheduled substance and a major building block for food and igniting the senses. I believe cannabis is a crop … a vegetable … and like the farm-to-table movement, I celebrate responsible farmers and their techniques. I am very interested in spreading awareness through table-side activism that if cannabis is embraced in this light, it can have a tremendous effect on the future of our health and our planet.”
“An Exploration of Terpenes” will be presented by Altered Plates at the Beard House in Manhattan on May 15. COURTESY: JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION
Of the long list of discovered terpenes found in cannabis, only about 30 or so are relatively common in most commercial cannabis strains. Within that list, eight of the most common terpenes include: limonene, pinene, humulene, ocimene, myrcene, linalool, caryophyllene, and terpinolene. Aside from those, about 20 more sit on a list of secondary terpenes and are generally less prevalent in cannabis and less studied.
Phellandrene is one of these secondary terpenes that hasn’t received much attention from researchers. What we do know is that it represents a pair of organic compounds—alpha-phellandrene and beta-phellandrene—that are commonly derived from several eucalyptus plant species.
Phellandrene produces a minty, woody, and mildly citrus aromatic profile and it is easily absorbed, making it a fairly common additive to a host of cosmetic products. It has also been a staple in holistic Eastern medicine for a long time, used for its antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Despite the lack of extensive research, there is some on this secondary terpene.
Cannabis Strains That Contain Phellandrene
Although this terpene is somewhat mysterious, cannabis legalization has opened up the possibility of examining it more. In a 2017 study, alpha-phellandrene was detected in the cannabis strains Trainwreck and Jack Herer. This was done by testing 233 samples from 30 cultivars from a California dispensary via gas chromatography.
Alpha- and beta-phellandrene are a pair of organic compounds that are very similar but slightly different in their chemical structure. Prior to their discovery in the early 1900s, the phellandrenes were often misidentified as limonene and pinene. Only after the compounds were tested in eucalyptus oil was it discovered that phellandrene is actually two distinct isomeric compounds instead of one. The compound is easily absorbable, making this terpene a common additive to a host of cosmetic products.
Although most prominent in eucalyptus, phellandrene also exists in the essential oils of a variety of plants including:
A 2015 rodent model study tested the stimulating properties of phellandrene alongside limonene, showing that the two terpenes exhibit both antihyperalgesic and antidepressive properties. However, it isn’t clear whether phellandrene would display these same characteristics in isolation.
Phellandrene is also believed to have other potential anti-cancer (in vitro study) and anti-inflammatory (rodent study) benefits. This early research doesn’t tell us much about phellandrene’s effects in humans, particularly at the trace levels in which it’s found in cannabis.