Hemi Truffle from 1841 El Camino
Edibles are quickly becoming the fastest growing part of the industry – there are nearly 200 edible makers across the country now – but the emphasis today is more about getting and maintaining the right dosage of THC or CBD in a safe, reliable edible product than actually inventing a new product.
The baking process for most edibles is much like any other baking process, where cannabis butter is used to replace dairy-based butter. Prepping the cannabis for butter involves getting the plant tested for THC levels and pesticide or other contaminants, then decarbing the bud, or roasting it under a carefully controlled temperature until golden, which activates the THC. Cooking with cannabis is a fine balance of making sure that the THC level and content is uniform across the product, from one end of a candy bar or brownie to the other, known as homogeneity.
It is a process that starts from the top down, according to Jaime Lewis, owner and executive chef of Mountain Medicine in Colorado. She’s a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, and began her career in cannabis business in 2006 making edibles for HIV and AIDS patients. “Cooking with cannabis starts with really well-defined recipes, and with training,” she says. “Getting the right homogeneity is a simple process of making sure that the recipe and the batches are mixed properly.”
She explains she takes the decarbed cannabis and puts it into her butters. The decarbed cannabis butter also has a very defined recipe process involving precise cooking time, amount of water, and temperature. “It’s a stirring process in there as well. I stir it every thirty minutes, and then during the straining process it’s stirred again.”
Jaime then tests it for homogeneity to confirm consistency before it goes into their baked breads. “Each recipe has a defined mixing process. For our pie bars, it’s mixed seven and a half minutes to the left, and seven and half minutes to the right. It’s really that defined.”
Cooks generally are told to taste what they cook to ensure that it’s what they are intending to make. That’s not the case in the cannabis business, because in Colorado a cook, or any of her assistants, cannot consume the edible on site. “I can’t taste my product after it has cannabis in it,” Jaime says. “My staff doesn’t taste anything in my kitchen. We don’t have that luxury.” Instead, she explains that before they launch a product full force they do a small batch survey, where they have a dispensary try the new product, then fill out a survey. “From that, we are able to gauge if it’s going to be a flavored product.”
“Cannabis, to some consumers, has a very pungent flavor that we don’t generally try to mask in the baked goods,” she says. “But in the chocolates, we just do added things, like add ginger which is actually good at helping cover the flavor of the cannabis.”
The biggest issue in this unregulated industry is one of consistency – that a product has the same level of THC in every product, and that the THC is consistent throughout the product. One testing lab can verify a level of THC that varies from another testing lab. When a batch is then spot-tested by a regulator, variances that show up in the THC level can result in the destruction of the product, and possibly fines or other disciplinary action.
There’s another challenge to consistency, according to Guy Rocourt. He’s a lead extraction artist and partner in Neos, makers of a strain-specific vape pen that uses extracted cannabis oils. “While the products may be consistent in dosages especially when it comes to edibles, the physiology of the consumer is different, so if you have two pieces of chocolates and two different people have a different experience. It’s likely that they just need a different dosage based on their physiology,” he clarifies. “We have to understand this, and have to start getting data on how cannabis affects users based on a bunch of other metrics.” This new industry is seeking regulation, not only to advance the understanding of the plant, but to make edibles consistently predictable for recreational consumption and more importantly, safer for those with health conditions.
This effort is getting a boost from a 106 year old, conservative, non-profit company with 4,000 members in 90 countries. That company is the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), based in Urbana, Illinois, a scientific society studying fats, oils, detergents and related materials. Cynthia Ludwig, the AOCS director of technical services, is a former research scientist for Monsanto. She says that the AOCS has always been looking for an unmet need in the oils and fats industry. “Cannabis people started calling about a year and a half ago asking if some of our official testing methods would work on THC and CBD oils, and we were like ‘We really don’t know.’ We don’t want people to have heavy metals and pesticide residue or any other contaminants in the product. This is about patient safety,” she says. “So we say, ‘let’s develop some investigative analytic lab procedures to make sure that these things are safe and that the dosage is correct.’ This is something that’s in our wheelhouse.” The AOCS is working with several cannabis labs to do a large-scale collaborative study working with hops, the closest cousin to cannabis, with the goal of having a certified, validated method for testing cannabis that will be adopted by the industry when cannabis is federally legalized.
Lewis says that working with the AOCS is one of the most exciting pieces of news she has heard. “We have three to five years of data that we can bring to the table and smarter people than ourselves can help guide us in terms of taking the cannabis and treating it just like they do for oils in any other industry,” Lewis says. “This company can bring that knowledge of the standardization process that they have done for every other industry before us.”
Ludwig says that she would really like to see cannabis industry regulators talk to analytical chemists a little bit more before they write their regulations. “They should work together to get things on the books that are enforceable, that are trackable and that are reasonable,” she says. “Analytical chemists have been around forever. We know how to do this. So let’s look to the people who do this and quit reinventing the wheel.”