Creating Custom Terpene Profiles
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If you’ve ever watched a professional wine taster or sommelier at work you may have noticed that before they take a sip of whatever vintage they’ve selected, they smell it. That’s because they know there's more to a good wine than simply how strong it is, or how old it is. The aroma is quite simply an essential part of the wine tasting experience.
And it's similar for cannabis. Different strains of cannabis have different smells and different flavors, and users will naturally have certain preferences for each based on the kind of experience they want to have.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the two most prominent cannabinoids in cannabis, responsible for the majority of both the intoxicating and the medicinal effects of the plant respectively. However, both of these compounds are near-flavorless when isolated. The odors and flavors that cannabis users experience when they smoke the drug are almost entirely the result of the cannabis terpenes present. Terpenes are aromatic oils that are produced by the cannabis plant alongside THC and CBD, and can vary dramatically between different strains. Differing terpene profiles between strains can result in dramatic differences in aroma, flavor, and even the feeling of the high or the type of medicinal benefits that are experienced as a result of using that strain.
The importance of terpenes in the cannabis industry
The sensory effects of terpenes are particularly important to note for those in the industry who deal with cannabis extracts, and products that are infused with some form of cannabis extract. Some of the most commonly used cannabis extraction processes concentrate on extracting THC, CBD, or a combination of the two from plant material – usually with little attention paid to what terpenes, if any, are also extracted in the process.
When these extracts are being produced for use in other strongly flavored products, such as cannabis-infused chocolate or gummy sweets, the absence of terpenes may not be an issue for the consumer. But in products such as cannabis vape e-liquids, where the cannabis extract cannot so easily hide behind other ingredients, there is significant interest in developing ways of synthetically recreating terpene profiles that can be added back into the extracts. This would satisfy consumers who want the same cannabis-like flavors, aromas, and whole-plant-like effects that they can get from cannabis flower, but in a different product form.
Creating a custom terpene profile
But where do these terpene isolates come from? Some firms offer cannabis-derived terpenes, where the terpenes are extracted from the cannabis plant mechanically, without the use of solvents, leaving the cannabinoids intact for further processing. These methods produce a “full spectrum” terpene extract, and so the flavors, aromas, and effects of the extract will be a very close match to the original strain.
Alternatively, it's common practice to isolate terpenes from other botanical sources. For example, pinene, one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis, can also be found in abundance in pine needles, basil, parsley, and orange peel. Myrcene, a terpene with known anti-inflammatory and sedative properties, can also be easily isolated from mangoes, hops, and lemongrass.
Numerous firms produce individual terpenes isolated from botanical sources, and a growing number of firms, such as Eybna Technologies and True Terpenes, offer formulations of these botanical terpenes that are mixed to mimic the terpene profiles of popular cannabis strains.
If a firm wants to produce one of these botanical mixes, the first step in the process is to study the target cannabis strain that the terpene mix will want to mimic. Using a technique for terpene analysis, commonly some form of gas chromatography, the terpene profile of the strain can be elucidated. Once these terpenes are identified, building a botanical terpene blend becomes a case of extracting the relevant terpenes from readily available botanical sources and mixing them to the desired ratios to match the target strain.
"The process of developing a botanically re-assembled profile of a specific cannabis strain is not as easy as it sounds," shares Nadav Eyal, CEO and co-founder of the Israeli R&D company Eybna Technologies. "It all starts with tracing a good phenotype, then running the sample through different analytical instruments and methods that we were able to develop only from experience. But when it comes to aroma and flavor, it's not only about the analysis, as our clients need the smell and taste of their phenotype to be on point. Therefore, our final stage, which is fine-tuning, is done by the human nose as well as very unique analytical equipment, mostly used in food-tech."
Each of these terpene mixes, both cannabis-derived and botanically derived, have their advantages and disadvantages. Cannabis-derived terpene mixes have the benefit of including more minor terpenes, creating a more accurate match to the original plant strains in terms of flavor. This more diverse terpene profile can also be beneficial if the terpene extract is intended to provide some sort of medicinal effect as opposed to just adding to the flavor. However, these cannabis-derived terpenes can often be prohibitively expensive – the cheaper botanical feedstocks allow those terpene mixes to be sold at a much more attractive price point. Prices for cannabis-derived terpene profiles can be as much as $45 USD per milliliter from a high-quality retailer, compared to botanical extract mixes which retail for between $6 and $10 USD per milliliter from similarly high-quality botanical-only brands.
Applications of terpene master mixes
Is it really worth this expense to add in some extra flavor to your extracts? For many companies, yes. The oil profile of a cannabis strain is quite fickle, with the level of terpenes present in a certain crop being heavily influenced by environmental factors such as the climate, weather, and soil type depending on where the crop was grown. But when it comes to building a recognizable brand, one of the key things you want in a product is consistency. So while these terpene mixes are indeed useful as a simple flavoring, the important thing is that they are able to consistently create the same flavors and aromas every time, as they are expertly mixed to have the same profile every time.
This consistency is also important for people who wish to use terpene-containing cannabis products for medicinal purposes. By having a consistent terpene profile in the cannabis oil or extract, there should be a reliable and reproducible medicinal effect each time the product is used, even if using different batches of the product. This means that when a product does elicit a positive health response, it's likely to be easily reproducible – likewise, if a product fails to provide any medicinal relief then the consumer can be confident that this is down to the selected product being unsuitable for their needs, not due to the natural variation of the cannabis oil profile.
As well as being beneficial to company branding and to customers, there is an additional, more direct, way in which producers of cannabis extracts can benefit from using terpene mixes in the final product. Typically, for companies that use them, terpene mixes will make up around 3 percent to 10 percent of the final product, so using these terpene mixes can help make the raw product go further. Depending on the costs associated with the extraction technique, and how much product is produced in the typical extraction run, adding terpenes in this way could potentially be saving companies money, while still providing the additional benefits of a reliable terpene profile to consumers.
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Trends in Cannabis Extraction ebook in March 2019.