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Testing Cannabis Competitively: A Conversation with the Emerald Cup’s Lab Partner, SC Labs

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Feb 03, 2022   
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To a cannabis connoisseur, the Emerald Cup needs no introduction. The annual cannabis competition and awards ceremony has now been a part of Californian cannabis culture for 18 years and has grown to be one of North America’s foremost cannabis events.

The Emerald Cup also has a similarly long history with SC Labs, which has partnered with the event for the past twelve years and in 2021 debuted new terpene data technology into the event’s judging process. This year, SC Labs has also announced its partnership with the California State Fair to bring the first-ever CA State Fair Cannabis Awards to life.

To learn more about what it means for cannabis labs to partner with competitive cannabis events, and just how involved they are in the judging process, Analytical Cannabis caught up with SC Labs co-founders Jeff Gray and Josh Wurzer. 

The Emerald Cup and California State Fair

From its early days of friendly competition, the Emerald Cup’s awards have grown to become a mark of quality and authenticity in the cannabis industry. The California State Fair is quite different; while it is already a major and well-respected event for the broader agricultural community, the fair has never held any events for cannabis cultivators before.

“The Emerald Cup is very much a reflection of a long-standing cannabis culture in California, which hopefully is representative of a much larger cannabis culture in the approach, the respect, and the amount of craft that’s represented by the entrants and the farmers who have been supporting that Cup for years,” said Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs. 

“The State Fair here in California has such a long-standing history. And it’s such a part of the larger culture of California, it represents so much to the community here,” Gray continued. “But it’s now making space for cannabis to be involved.”

Josh Wurzer, the president of SC Labs, echoed this sentiment. “The State Fair is where the agricultural community comes to show off their best work, and it’s just really good that cannabis is being included in that,” he said.

“We hope it’s a model for other states to start welcoming the cannabis farming community into the broader agricultural community,” he added.

The role of testing in competitive cannabis shows

The primary function of a testing lab in cannabis competition is to provide data on the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the flower, concentrate, or other materials that are submitted, Wurzer explained. These data can then be used to categorize the different products that have been entered into the competition and allow for a greater diversity of prize categories. 

“The first part is putting everything into buckets,” Wurzer said. “If I was going to use an analogy to wines, there’d be the red wine and white wine buckets, and maybe then the desserts and then you’re going to go into varieties. And so we’re trying to do something similar with cannabis because it does have this sort of wide range of flavors, and even experiences, based on the chemicals.”

“Both competitions are sorting the flowers into classes – I almost want to draw a parallel to the Westminster Dog Show,” Gray added. “You have these classes of cannabis cultivars and chemovars that you’re able to distinguish primarily by [their] terpenes and major cannabinoids.”

With a testing lab providing exact data on the compounds present in a strain, it is easy to categorize different products submitted into categories to be judged. For categories that specifically relate to a strain’s cannabinoid content, such as the Emerald Cup’s “alternative cannabinoids” awards, accurate cannabinoid and terpene profiling data can be a valuable supplement to a judge’s opinion.

“What we’re looking at is which terpenes and cannabinoids are present in that plant or in that sample, and then we're also looking at the overall magnitude of those terpenes,” Wurzer explained. “There’s awards in each of the broad terpene categories, as well as the broad cannabinoid categories. And then we’re also looking at a novelty – so there’s a category where we’re going to see a lot of novel new strains that are relatively uncommon, and terpene profiles that are relatively uncommon.”

Best in show

By utilizing cannabis testing in cannabis competitions to highlight variation between strains, Wurzer and Gray believe that judges are now more able to appreciate the wide range of different flavors and experiences that are offered by unique cannabis strains. 

“The Emerald Cup, they are doing the more classic judging, where judges are given the strains and you’re getting judges notes,” Gray continued. “It’s a broader set of curriculum [sic] under which the samples are being evaluated. I think the true value here is that we’re highlighting an aspect that has been overlooked for so long, which is the chemistry, the bioactive compounds, those elements of the cannabis that you’re seeking [when judging], but can’t quite articulate.”

In the past few years, high-THC strains have tended to dominate the consumer market. Yet so much of the cannabis experience is tied to the flavors and influences of the terpenes and minor cannabinoids present in a strain. Now that such high-profile cannabis events have testing to highlight specific terpene mixes and minor cannabinoid formulations, there are hopes that the compounds could receive more visibility and shape consumer trends.

“For so long here, not only have we been using the incorrect terminology, we’ve been valuing the wrong traits, or overvaluing certain traits in cannabis,” Gray said. “The market here is dominated by THC, when really the sophistication of the chemistry within the plant is such that you should be evaluating the quality of your cannabis based on something much broader; ​​based on a broader set of data points that give you a more specific indication of what the effects will be.”

The cannabis industry as a whole has become more normalized in California in recent years – the inclusion of cannabis in the State Fair is a prime example of this. Wurzer and Gray hope that the involvement of analytical testing in such cannabis shows will also help to normalize the concept of consumers using cannabinoid and terpene profiles to make informed decisions about the products they want to try. 

“I think with more information, you’ll see greater diversity,” Gray reflected. “Hopefully, the competition, because the way that it’s structured, will highlight some of the diversity of cannabis as well.”

“It’ll help us all in educating and getting a much more informed understanding of something that people are so enthusiastic to participate with.”

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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