Reviews

Strain reviews: How the Cannabis Cup picks its winners

Editor’s Note: Journalist Ron Garmon is The Cannifornian’s first marijuana critic; you can read his first batch of reviews, focused on past winners of the High Times Cannabis Cup, here. In this column, he explains some of the background behind the Cannabis Cup’s selection of winning strains. 

In general, awards are given to promote an industry, a profession, or even the award-giving body. In the case of the High Times Cannabis Cup, the prize evolved out of that magazine’s long history of promoting both marijuana cultivation and public knowledge of locally available strains. For readers out in Flyover Land, part of the fun of the magazine’s long-running Trans-High Market Quotations column was imagining the buzz packed by Maui Wowie or Thai stick. Indeed, the editorial culture of High Times was and remains such that not to stage a competitive analysis of strains would seem downright perverse.

So, despite any cavils about awards-giving in the counterculture or the brief prospect of federal authorities shutting down the now-weedless ceremony this year, the award has come to be a useful metric for public education in marijuana farming and evolution in public tastes for its product. this world’s leading marijuana trade-show draws up to 35,000 attendees, with growers, distributors and aficionados.

Entries are submitted in a range of categories — Best Indica, Sativa, Nederhash, and Product, with winners selected along with second and third place runners-up. The first Cannabis Cup awards were handed out in Amsterdam back in 1988 and the event continues to be held there each year in November. Regional divisions of the Cup were drawn up or evolved over time, with regional events held in Denver, Seattle, Michigan and Northern and Southern California. The last-named is April 21-23 at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino. In addition to seminars, product demonstrations and a competitive cook-off, there were appearances by Nas, Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley, Vic Mensa and The Game. Despite post-legalization plans to let everyone spark up, open marijuana consumption at the event was limited to medical users only.

Various strains of marijuana available during the annual High Times Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino on Saturday, April 22, 2017. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

This year, the competition categories included Best Indica, Sativa, Hybrid, CBD Flowers and Concentrates, along with Edibles, Topicals, CDB Edibles, Non-Solvent Hash, Vape Pens, and Medically Infused Products, the latter being preparations like Moon Rocks or Cannabis Caviar. Flowers and hash are scored on taste, appearance, aroma, buzz, and burnability, with one to five points awarded for “various stages of cannabinoid levels.” Edibles are evaluated by guidelines for presentation, potency, product originality, and healthiness. Mindful of having a few well-funded labs sweep proceedings, competitors may only win only one award per category.

Judging is two-tiered, with “qualitative” results measured by judges consuming the submitted product and quantitative results provided by laboratory testing of same, with a final combined score range graded on a hundred-point range and results tallied just before showtime. How are judges selected? Through a process that starts with a simple online application plus access to a High Times staffer willing to vouch for your expertise. Anyone trying this is encouraged to get in touch with The Cannifornian to discuss their experiences at length.

Clearly a lot of bothersome fuss is made to ensure measurable results. Why should anyone care? Well, for a start, the Cannabis Cup exerts a huge influence over what tokers put down their lungpipe. Skunk No. 1, first winner of the Cup, went on to leave a genetic mark on Grape Ape, Green Crack, Jack Herer, and a number of other notable strains, each an improvement on its ancestor in terms of THC yield and general consumability. Northern Lights, White Widow, Super Silver Haze, and Tangerine Dream have gone on to substantial followings and multiple crossbred heirs. Kosher Kush, pride of L.A.-based DNA Genetics and runner-up in the Indica category last year, is as popular as any strain in Southern Californian dispensaries and becomes increasingly harder to find, while last year’s winning hybrid Larry OG (from Vault Genetics) fetches top prices and vanishes almost at once. Hash derived from these strains, including Cookies Ice Cream and Super Lemon Haze Cream, often win prizes in their categories.

The competition’s inspired at least one full-length study — Mark Haskell Smith’s Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers and the Race for the Cannabis Cup — and annual happenings like D.C’s National Cannabis Festival, Hempcon, and the various Hempfests held across the nation owe something to the Cup’s drawing power as an event. In fact, the whole cottage industry of grading and evaluating marijuana owes its existence to High Times and the Cup. Sites like The Cannabist give awards to individuals, businesses, and tastemakers, along with products.
Part ballyhoo out of every magazine publisher’s wet dream, part trade show, and a notable  benchmark professionalization of the marijuana-growing craft, the Cup made itself as necessary to the weed industry as the Oscars are to Tinseltown.

To read Ron Garmon’s strain reviews for The Cannifornian, click here.

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