Grading Cannabis Quality

Those who are new to cannabis often wonder if all the hubbub around ‘good weed’ actually has anything to it.
Is more expensive cannabis actually ‘better’?
How can you tell?

Read: 4 Key Tips for Judging Cannabis Quality

AAAA+ = greater than 95pts
AAAA = 85-95pts
AAA = 75-85pts
AA = 65-75
A = 55-65pts

There are countless people out there who grew up under the timeless motto, ‘weed is weed’. Before legalization, most people in North America would get whatever cannabis they could get, and quality product was incredibly difficult to come upon. Back then, few had the opportunity to experience the true potential of this plant.

Well, those days are gone. Today, legalization brings us an enormous variety of cultivars at all types of quality ranges.

So, how can you tell if your purchase is reflective of supreme quality? Here are some key pointers.

1. Analytics

Before you ever open a jar, there are ways to determine whether you can expect some semblance of what the cultivar is meant to smell like, or whether you will smell dull, hay-like aromas.

Funny enough, the one piece of data that people on both sides of the counter focus on thus far is not actually the best indicator for quality. THC content does not define the ‘strength’ of a high, nor does it in itself make cannabis ‘good’.

Moisture Content (the total amount of water inside a sample) and Total Terpene Content (the sum of the content of all terpenes tested) are by far the best pieces of data to predict overall quality.

Unfortunately, the majority of cannabis growers fail to include this information on their product labels. Without these essential pieces of information, the cannabis connoisseur will never know what to expect until after the purchase is made.

2. Nose

It’s all about the nose! How strong your cannabis smells and the unique character of that aroma directly correlates to how that flavour tastes and transforms when consumed.

When you open your jar and the whole room quickly fills with the aroma emanating from the jar, you know you have a winner.

Remember that the strength of a smell also directly correlates to the Total Terpene Content data point discussed above. The unique character of that aroma is be partially defined by the individual terpenes that make up that smell.

The reason why it is so important to pay close attention to your nose rather than just focusing on the interpretation of analytics, is because:

a) we are not able to fully quantify all of the biochemicals in the cannabis plant; and

b) we do not fully understand how all of these biochemicals come together to produce complex aromas/nuanced effects that have different types of effects/degrees of appeal to different individuals. 

This means that there is nothing more effective in this world that will tell you what you personally like or dislike than your nose, your palate, and what your body instinctively tells you is ‘good’ from where you are standing.

By combining the sensory skill of careful aromatic appreciation with the repeated interpretation of analytics, your skills for determining quality will increase exponentially.

3. Look & Feel

Sometimes you can’t get batch-specific analysis. If you grow your own at home, you may not test at all. In cases like these, your nose must come together with the rest of your senses to find the tell-tale signs of quality.

When it comes to look and feel, we primarily focus on one thing: Trichomes!

These smelly oily secretions contain the bulk of the cannabinoids and terpenes contained in the cannabis plant. When kept in appropriate moisture levels during curing and storage, trichomes can remain well-preserved on the bud surface producing a crystally sheen that is perceptible to the naked eye, together with a ‘gooey’ feel which can be felt by lightly rolling and squeezing a bud between two fingers.

If your bud is not sticky at all and demonstrates none of the ‘crystally’ look associated with high trichome density, chances are that you are not looking at a high-quality bud.

A handheld microscope can reveal even more detail in terms of the density, size, and maturity of trichome expression. Good quality cannabis tends to have dense trichome expression with large cloudy heads.

Keep in mind that not all cultivars are genetically primed to produce the same amount/size of trichomes, so one must learn to gauge the quality of trichome expression based on the unique qualities of each distinct cultivar, comparing like-to-like based on repeat experience.

4. Burn & Flavour

Vaping will not suffice when trying to determine if a flower will perform well under all circumstances.

Determining the quality of cannabis in its ultimate sense means to gather all of the available information to make the most accurate and relatable description of a product’s strengths and weaknesses. Burning a joint is the least forgiving of all tasting formats when it comes to flower. It provides every opportunity to spot defects in the performance of the cannabis flower while vaping is simply too forgiving, potentially covering up common defects.

Learning to determine the purity, or quality of the ‘flush’ of a flower sample is a key—and often overlooked—component of judging cannabis quality.

To ‘flush’ simply means to allow excess nutrients to be ‘flushed’ out of the plant by providing it with water that is free of excess nutrients. Hydroponic and soilless-medium growers that use bottled fertilizers typically need to stop feeding their plants for a 2-3 week period before harvest in order to allow for optimal burn and flavour.

‘Burn’ is best judged in joint form, and refers to how well the joint burns all the way down to the end and how it tastes. Questions, like, ‘Will it burn evenly?’, ‘Will it constantly go out?’, and ‘Is the ash going to be black and chunky?’ can only be answered by smoking a properly rolled joint.

As you will find over time, each of these visual/tactile inquiries is not only about the functionality of being able to comfortably smoke a joint, but also about detecting the common signs associated with low quality, horrible tasting smoke.

When a desirable genetic is grown and cured right, it should provide a smooth and flavourful inhale, free of harsh hay-like flavours. If you think all good cannabis should make you cough and gag, think again. Even if it does make you cough, smoke from ‘good’ cannabis should be delicious when the flavour matches your personal preference. Some cultivars with particularly high terpene contents (typically in excess of 2%) will even coat the mouth with an oily sensation that endures well after your toke. This is a sign of quality that is seldom seen, and again can only be experienced in the form of smoke.

Smoking is not for everyone, but it is important to know that this method of ingestion is a particularly effective tool for those that are trying to analyze flower quality at any level.

Learn more about how to judge cannabis quality in our free online cannabis education sessions or dive into our Cannabis Sommelier Level 1 online certification. Learn to grow quality cannabis in Living Soil at Home.

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