Emerald Cup has revised the way that cannabis will be evaluated and classified. On February 22, the organization announced a new, easier method to understand the system they use to classify cannabis based on a mix of terpene profiles, flavors, and aromas. Not only is this a reflection of the way that growers already select and blend strains, but the launch of the system culminates in an effort to allow judges of competitions like the Cup to select best-in-class and best-in-show more accurately. The change has the potential to drive a massive change of how customers interact with cannabis at dispensaries and how brands talk about the types of cannabis they grow, allowing for clearer access to effects based on what the user is looking for. The new system completes the shift away from seeking out the highest THC totals and places the focus on the dominant and co-dominant terpenes. 

“When you look at the competitions that are for wine and beers globally,” says Kenneth Loo, Head of Communications, for the Emerald Cup, “the awards in these categories don’t go to the one that gets you the most drunk.”

As the organization said in their press release, “science has converged to finally prove that terpenes are at the root of the entourage effect that consumers are seeking.” In that same science, however, the concepts and language can be overwhelming to a lot of consumers. The names of terpenes are complicated enough and not always easy to say. Bisabolol? Guaiol? Isopulegol? For the uninitiated, there is a lot of terminology in the world of cannabis that can lead to hesitancy and confusion. Of course, if you grow your own, you don’t have that problem . . . but it is still a problem for many folks.

Their first pivot was to implement a system into the 2021 competition based on “terpene” as reported by SC Labs – the Emerald Cup’s 13-year testing partner. While that offered more alignment between entries, there were still big holes that many entries found themselves in. Why? Because the most popular and specialized strain is usually not only a dominant terpene but a co-dominant aspect to most hybrids. Loo points to a defining moment that came when last year’s previous classification system didn’t allow for individual strains that had unique qualities to go head-to-head in competition. “What also became clear to us after a lot of analysis is that after 17 years of doing this competition, the highest THC percentage had never won the Cup,” he says. “So not sorting them in classes made head-to-head competition arbitrary. Our team quickly realized that the way we were judging without formally categorizing and classifying cannabis being reviewed started to become irrelevant.”

Plants courtesy of the Small Farms Initiative.

The advisory council that consulted on the new system consists of Dr. Mark Lewis of Napro Research; Joe Sullivan of Mercy Wellness; Michael Backes, author of “Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana” and co-founder and creator of infused cannabis blends Perfect; Ryan Lee from Chimera; Alec Dixon of SC Labs*; and Emerald Cup Awards founder Tim Blake. Starting this year, the cannabis system broke down three judging categories even further based on the “dominant terpenes.” That term is in quotation marks because the term really refers to the “chemovar,” meaning the breakdown of a plant species according to its chemical composition. See what we mean about terminology? In other words, it’s further sorting the flower category into groups based on primary terpene content.

“We just refused to go back to this ‘Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid’ generalist language,” says Loo. “So we said, all the desserts go together. All of the hazes go together. All of the fruit and the flowers go together. We started grouping them into these categories and that’s when it started sticking. Now, as someone in the wine world might say, a chardonnay will go head to head with a chardonnay and a merlot will go head to head with a merlot — then in the end, we can put the best of each class into the running for a best of competition.”

“The system that we’re using now was a combination of what SC Labs’ testing information was giving us and connecting it to what Dr. Mark Lewis of Napro Research gave us from his PhytoFacts system,” said Loo. “What we came up with is a clearer system made up of familiar touch points to speak broadly to the marketplace and customer audiences.”

The new creation was named Emerald Cup Cannabis Classification System based on PhytoFacts powered by SC Labs.” PhytoFacts** is a visualization tool that was developed by Napro Research in 2013. The report displays an easy-to-understand visual of a complete chemical profile of cannabis or hemp products. SC Labs has thrown in their powerful database of more than 250,000 terpene tests. The main categories are named based on descriptive but non-scientific terms that are commonly used among growers, consumers, and dispensaries, so they will feel familiar to most people. Each class is further explained using tasting notes, effects, and common “cultivars” exhibiting those characteristics. 

“Together we hope to empower a better way for consumers to understand the range of flavors, aromas, and effects within Cannabis, and bridge the gap between what legacy has always known with regards to terpene content defining quality,” explained SC Labs’s Alec Dixon in the announcement. “We need to move away from this fixation that dispensary buyers and consumers have on delta-9 THC, which is currently blurring the lines between craft and corporate cannabis, and is homogenizing cannabis genetics and leading to the loss of biological diversity within Cannabis.”

The new classification system from Emerald Cup.

The new classes of the Emerald Cup Cannabis Classification System based on PhytoFacts powered by SC Labs” are the following:

Jacks + Haze 

  • Mostly ‘Sativa’-leaning varietals
  • Tasting notes: fruity, pinesol, haze
  • Effects: energizing, cerebral, artistically inspiring
  • Common cultivars: Classic Trainwreck, Jack Herer, Durban Poison, Super Lemon Haze
  • Terpenes profile: terpinolene, caryophyllene, myrcene

Tropical + Floral

  • Mostly ‘Indica’-leaning varietals
  • Tasting notes: sweet, floral, tropical fruit
  • Effects: calming, soothing, relaxing
  • Common cultivars: Super Skunk, Hawaiian, In the Pines, Dream Queen
  • Terpenes profile: ocimene, myrcene

Sweets + Dreams 

  • Mostly ‘Indica’-leaning varietals
  • Tasting notes: fruity, sweet, woody, hoppy, herbaceous
  • Effects: relaxation, couch lock, analgesic
  • Common cultivars: Blue Dream, Tangie, Forbidden fruit, Grandaddy Purple, Purple Urkel, Grape Ape, Cherry AK, God’s Gift, Purple Punch
  • Terpenes profile: myrcene, pinene, caryophyllene

OGs + Gas Class

  • True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
  • Tasting notes: gas, fuel, sweet, citrus, and pepper
  • Effects: uplifting, stimulating, analgesic, relaxation
  • Common cultivars: Classic OG Kush, Chemdog, Sour Diesel, Gorilla Glue
  • Terpenes profile: any combination or shifting codominance of caryophyllene, limonene, myrcene

Desserts

  • True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
  • Tasting notes: deserts, doughs, citrusy and spicy
  • Effects: stimulating, racy, uplifting, comforting
  • Common cultivars: Classic Bubba Kush, GSC, Gelatos, Cakes
  • Terpenes profile: any shift in codominance of caryophyllene and limonene

Exotics (Rare Terpene Combinations)

  • True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
  • Tasting notes: varied based on chemistry of entry
  • Effects: varied based on chemistry of entry
  • Common cultivars: rarest terpene profiles entered into the Emerald Cup Competition

The system is first to be used at the 18th Annual Emerald Cup Awards (winners announced May 14) by four teams of expert judges covering Flowers, Pre-rolls, Solventless Concentrates, and Hydrocarbon Extracts categories. The Emerald Cup’s press release states, “With six easy-to-understand classes/names/descriptions the system aims to become an open-source, globally recognized grading solution for Cannabis. Just as in the wine industry, where you wouldn’t judge a Chardonnay against a Merlot, this new system allows strains with similar profiles to be judged against each other. The California State Fair Cannabis Awards in July 2022 will also use this new classification system.” The window to enter cannabis products into Emerald Cup categories for judging closed on February 25.

*SC Labs is a registered trademark of SC Laboratories, Inc. 

**PhytoFacts and PhytoPrint are registered trademarks of Napro Research, LLC.

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