Craft cannabis

Will artisanal buds be the savior of small-batch producers?

An assortment of artisanal products lean on a black and gold aesthetic.

An assortment of artisanal products lean on a black and gold aesthetic.

Photos by ken magri

“Artisanal cannabis” is a term increasingly used to define the highest quality cannabis products. Some say it will be the savior of small-batch producers, as the onset of large-scale cannabis threatens to overcome the market. Others, however, say the term can be misused to promote less-than-superior cannabis.

From the simpler days of hand-grown “designer bud” to today’s terms—“artisanal,” “craft,” and even “small-batch luxury” cannabis—the semantics have changed, as have personal preferences. So what exactly is artisanal cannabis?

“It is the craft brew of cannabis,” said Yolo Family Farms owner Michael Hicks, an outdoor grower who supplies a strain called Holy Grail for Wilfred brand pre-rolls. As with craft brews, potency is not as important as a pleasant appearance, a distinct aroma and a unique taste. Hicks said that “certain quality standards, sustainability or techniques” differentiate artisanal cannabis from bulk commodity farms.

Oregon’s Craft Cannabis Alliance agrees. Its growers and allied businesses advocate for “an authentic craft cannabis industry that respects and serves people, place, planet and plant.”

The CCA mission statement cites four guiding principles: “social engagement, local ownership, social justice, environmental sustainability.” These principles include participation within the local community, paying workers a living wage and organic growing in an eco-friendly environment.

But does cannabis labeled “artisanal” adhere to the same philosophy that the “craft cannabis” industry advocates?

To answer that, let’s go back a decade or two before cannabis was legalized. “Artisanal cannabis and artisanal cannabis products have been around for a long time,” said Mindy Galloway, CEO and co-founder of Sacramento’s Khemia Manufacturing. “Many of the cannabis products produced in that time were created by small business collectives, and were crafted in small batches using high-quality ingredients.”

Iconic Northern California strains such as OG Kush, Granddaddy Purple and Trainwreck were all created during this era. Galloway said she believes that product refinement sets artisanal products apart from bigger companies “that only care about mass production with the simplest formulas.”

Growers also know that microclimates matter. Even in the same locale, cannabis grown along the coast may have a different taste and potency than the same strain grown further inland.

Likewise, many people believe that denser indoor cannabis buds are superior to sun-grown buds, but Jake Browne says that may not be true. As the co-founder of The Grow-Off, a science-based international cannabis competition headquartered in Los Angeles, Browne contends that sun-grown samples have dominated past Grow-Off competitions. “People tend to smoke with their eyes,” he said.

But look-alikes or slightly altered cannabis strains sometimes present themselves as artisanal products from famous locations.

“In today’s market, many companies may be falsely using the terminology ’artisanal’ as a marketing technique,” Galloway said. “My suggestion would be to look into the company to see if they are legacy operators with an experienced team, or if they are just blowing smoke.”

Just as Napa and Sonoma wines are sought out for their Goût de terroir, or “taste of the soil,” so are geographically specific cannabis strains. California growers have been asking the California Department of Food and Agriculture for appellation verifications, which certify that a strain was grown in an officially defined geographic location. The department plans to designate its first appellations by 2021.

“Large-scale production has such a negative connotation right now that everyone is rushing to be ’craft’ or ’small-batch’ or ’artisanal,’” Browne said. “In reality, a lot of this product is machine trimmed and packed by temp workers barely making minimum wage.”

The Lowell Herb Company is a good example of a California brand that uses the word “artisanal” and meets the standards for craft cannabis, while also boasting “legacy” credentials. Named after a grower from 1909, William “Bull” Lowell, the company’s products are grown on his original Santa Barbara farm. Lowell was subject to a 1913 California Poison Act amendment that made cannabis illegal, but he continued to grow it, and the company has wrapped itself around that original spirit.

Lowell’s unique packaging also plays an important role in identifying it as artisanal cannabis. Its use of black, gold and silver inks is typical of many premium brands. But Lowell goes further with embossed copper-top glass containers, and boxes that unfold themselves into octagon-shaped artworks, while displaying the company’s “pledge” to craft cannabis ideals on the top.

Khemia’s Galloway is striving for the same thing.

“Our mission is to revive cannabis artistry and preserve cannabis history by bringing back the artisanal manufacturers, backed with years of experience making artisanal products,” she said.

The notion of small-batch growers hovering over their organic hand-grown crops with love and tenderness is a delicious one, but not always true. Discriminating buyers should ask budtenders whether a product labeled “artisanal” adheres to the same principles as the “craft cannabis” industry. Only then will these terms be truly interchangeable.