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The Results are In: The SAP Gets Put to the Test at the Emerald Cup

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Considering this is the 17th year that we have been Flower Judges for the prestigious Emerald Cup, it was a welcome change to do things a little differently this time. For starters, we are testing hundreds of cannabis entries in March instead of November and December, which makes a big difference in the curing of the previous year’s harvest. It also means, in this Covid Year, that our traditional Judges group meetings in person are limited to only two this year, the first and the last (with masks), and all the rest are via Zoom. The Pandemic has certainly changed the way we do a lot of things, some for the better and some not so much. 

“It’s amazing we are pulling this off,” expressed Emerald Cup Founder, Tim Blake. It’s true – we are a determined group who recognize the importance of The Cup. It annually establishes the best current brands, as well as determining what the hottest cultivars will be for the coming year. For cultivators, bud-tenders, buyers and aficionados, this is very important. For the winners, it is a huge honor. People even brag about taking twentieth place in the flower competition.

Being a Judge is a big responsibility. We recognize that every bud we sample has been grown with great care and entered in the hopes that it will win. The assumption is that the farmer has taken the time to choose their best cultivar, cure and trim it to perfection, and then pray it stands up against the others. This year we have about 260 entries in the flower division, plus 34 pre-rolls. The vast majority of them live up to those qualifications.

Back in 2003, when the first Emerald Cup was surreptitiously held at the infamous AREA 101 in Mendocino County, we had around 35 entries from the few brave souls willing to put it out there when it still was very illegal. Obviously, the samples were all from people’s personal gardens. The winner the first year was an 80 year old man who had planted a few seeds his son gave him just for fun among his tomatoes next to his compost pile. How far we have come!

Fast forward to 2021 and we have expanded the judging to evaluate eight flower categories:

  • Licensed Sungrown
  • Licensed Mixed Light
  • Licensed Indoor (for the first time) 
  • Licensed 3rd Party certified Sungrown
  • Licensed 3rd Party certified Mixed Light
  • Personal (non-licensed) Sungrown
  • Personal Mixed Light
  • Pre-Rolls

Within each of those categories (except pre-rolls) the entries have been broken into sub-divisions based on their dominant terpene, measured at SC Labs, who have performed the lab testing for the Emerald Cup for many years. For us Judges, it is such a blessing that the samples are all now pre-tested for pesticides, cannabinoid content and terpenes. For too many years, we had no idea what we were smoking, although all entries were supposed to be “organically grown” and pesticide free. 

The other very valuable tool available this year for the first time, is the SAP (Systematic Assessment Protocol®) developed by the members of the Ganjier Council. Swami and I tested the SAP on several of the best samples to get a feel for using it for this process. While we simply did not have time to employ it on each of the 260 plus entries, it was fascinating to see how it compared to our tried and true methods we’ve established over the nearly two decades we have been judging for the Cup.

Obviously, most buyers working in a dispensary might have to assess ten to twenty cultivars in a day, but would not be presented with over two hundred and sixty samples at the same time, so the Cup presents a very unique situation. In years past, all the Judges would rate their scores based on a fairly simple 4-step system: up to 10 points for each category of Looks, Smell and Taste and 20 points for the Effects. The highest possible score is 50 points, which we have never awarded to anyone – we are a very discriminating crew! 

Another big change over the years is that I now sample flowers via the Volcano, while Swami is still and always will be a joint smoker. I find it fascinating to set the Volcano to the temperature which brings out the particular terpenes for each category, and then test again at the setting which releases the THC content to get the full effects. Not only does this protect my lungs but the flavors are very pronounced via the Volcano. We make a good team and truly consider each and every entry. To be fully fair, we also make sure, as any buyer should do as well, that we always test in the same place, sitting on our couch in the living room, so that set and setting is the same for each entry.

When using the SAP, obviously we could not fill out the first Sample Data page completely as this is a “blind” tasting contest: all the flower entries are anonymous . All we receive is a small plastic canister with a number on it and a 1 gram sample in it, but that number is not the entry number given to the contestant. Hence, all we could do on that first page of the SAP was to enter a Sample # at the top and move on.

The Appearance page was much more relevant to our judging. As we always do, we pull out our 8×20 mm handheld scope to closely observe the trichomes, assessing quantity, density, color and condition. Are they mushy or distinct? Do they still have their heads intact? Are they amber, cloudy or clear? At that time, we also look for any anomalies in the buds such as mold, powdery mildew or insects. Next we closely observe the structure of the flower, how it has been trimmed to show off the “figure” of the sample without shaving her too closely. All of the questions under this category are right in line with proper judging and so we easily answered the questions and came up with final numbers on appearance, cure, texture and uniqueness of the flower.

Likewise, the Aroma section was very helpful in really getting detailed results in how to rate the entry. We always enjoy coming up with names for what it smells like in the “real world” as opposed to simply saying that it smells like Train Wreck, or Jack Herer, or “It’s that Lemon Haze crossed with Grandaddy Purple.” For example, is it dirty socks or jasmine? Does it elicit memories of roast chicken with rosemary or is it more like lemon meringue pie? Do you get floor cleaner or cheap soap? Once the fragrance has been identified, the next question is how strong, complex and unique are those scents. The SAP was very helpful in thinking this through, and while we have been doing this for many years now, for the buyer or budtender, it will prove to be infinitely valuable in opening their minds to all of the subtleties and possibilities. 

It has been very interesting this year to have terpenes as part of the equation. What we all discovered is that while the dominant terpene may be Myrcene or beta-Caryophyllene, the two most common dominant terpenoids in cannabis, if the secondary is Ocimene or perhaps Terpenolene, other strong terpenes, it may very well take over and the sample will smell more of Pineapples or pine trees than you would expect from the aroma of the dominant terpene. The lesson is, don’t judge a bud by it’s dominant terpene, but really get personal with it and decide what it really smells like. This is another example that the totality of all the constituent compounds in a given cannabis flower is what determines the actual fragrance and thus the effects on the consumer. It’s the ensemble effect, otherwise called the entourage effect. With over five hundred compounds produced by this magical plant it might really be better called the “symphonic effect”.

The same techniques of evaluation apply to the Flavor section of the SAP. We always start with the important dry hit before we light it, which many people don’t even consider. Does the dry hit taste like the aroma? And does it carry through to the smoking flavor? Again, we always consider what it really tastes like. Often, when the aroma is excellent, the taste may not follow through, and vice versa. When you find one that has both great smell and taste, and looks good too, you may well have a contender!

And finally, we come to the Experience category. Many people ask us how we can possibly judge the effects while we are testing so many. This year we have had almost a month to complete our judging, but with so many samples that still is a considerable amount to sample every day. While we average about 10-12 samples per day, the way we can tell which are superior in the effects category are simply by the “kick.” After so much consumption you kind of reach a plateau, but when you hit on a joint that really gets to your head, your body, or your very soul, you know you have found a winner. It literally will cut through the fog or the smoke. 

The SAP guided us very well through the experience, putting into words what we have done instinctually for the past many years. It helped us to focus even deeper than usual and get down to the real nitty gritty. Just what were the mental and physical effects? And how intense was the experience during the height of it, as well as evaluating the come down? And most importantly, did we enjoy it? 

Of course, every consumer will have their own favorites and the ones they dislike, but basically, there are four main groups: the ones that have no fragrance and don’t make it through the elimination round, the ones you just don’t want to smoke after one hit, the ones you feel non-committal about (we call that a “maintenance dose”, to keep the THC in the bloodstream to a constant level) or the ones you love so much you smoke them down to the tiniest roach and could smoke all day. Those are the winners!

We just completed our judging last night (March 17th, 2021) and celebrated by smoking some of our own cannabis to get back to ground zero. It feels like quite an accomplishment indeed. This weekend the Judges will convene to collectively decide on the Top 20 overall and the winners in each subdivision, including a Best of Show. 

Starting on April 5th and running to the 11th, The Emerald Cup Takeover will be virtual this year on SCTV and will include discussion panels, musical acts and awards presented every day in all the 39 categories. On the last day, Sunday, April 11th, we will have the honor of presenting the most prestigious award of the Cup for the Best Sungrown Flowers.

Our lips are sealed until then.

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