What’s it take to be a flower judge for The Emerald Cup, Northern California’s premier cannabis competition?

We asked Nikki Lastreto, who has judged every contest since its inception 13 years ago — sampling, she estimates, more than 3,000 entries. Nikki and partner Swami Chaitanya, who live in the hills of Mendocino County, grow Swami Select, direct Ganja Ma Gardens Collective and are involved in forging future legislation for California’s specialty cultivators.

The stakes are high. A winning entry means a big surge in sales for the grower, as well as sudden popularity of that strain’s clones and seeds.  (The winners of the 2016 contest can be found here.   The results of every entry, tested by the Santa Cruz-based analytical lab SC Labs, can be found here.)

This year’s winner: a fruit-flavored and citrus-scented strain called Zkittles, grown by “The Dookie Brothers” of Humboldt County, who did not provide their real names.

The flower that won the 2016 Emerald Cup was a fruit-flavored strain called Zkittles, grown in Humboldt County, with a THC content of 19.02 percent, according to an analysis by SC Labs in Santa Cruz.

The flower that won the 2016 Emerald Cup was a fruit-flavored strain called Zkittles, grown in Humboldt County, with a THC content of 19.02 percent, according to an analysis by SC Labs in Santa Cruz.

While several strains of Zkittles were entered in the contest, their particular flower “packed a punch” and stood out from the crowd, Lastreto said.

“These two guys made it special,” she said, dressed in an emerald green judge’s robe and sparkly green alien antennae.

This year was unique because of the abundance of the “fruit-flavored” samples, she said. Perhaps this is because a fruity strain called Cherry Limeade won last year. Or maybe it’s because more women are smoking, shifting the market towards their sweeter preferences.

But, she said, the qualities of a winning grower stay the same.

“The winners are always kind, gentle, soft-spoken people who really love their plants,” she said. “It’s not the loud, big-talking guy with a million bucks. The No. 1 flowers have always been cultivated with extra love and care by a farmer who has a real connection with their plants.”

How has the contest changed over the years?

We started with 30 entries, mostly from Mendocino and Humboldt counties, at (Emerald Cup founder) Tim Blake’s place up in Laytonville.

Everything was so underground. Judges wore masks, and growers would not accept awards on stage

This year, there were over 600 flower entries and 14 judges are from eight different counties (Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, El Dorado, Amador, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Sacramento).

We were in front of 30,000 people at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds — and we’re proud to show our faces.

Six hundred entries? That sounds complicated.

You give up three weeks of your life. You’d be surprised how many judges in the past couldn’t keep up the commitment and pace.

Judges of The Emerald Cup must evaluate more than 600 entries, in the flower division alone.

What’s the process?

Entries start coming in at the beginning of November. It starts slow. You might take home 50 samples and go over them. Right before the deadline, tons come in.

We have to divide it up, because there’s so much. We meet at Area 101 in Laytonville … and split into four groups, and each group gets 75 samples. They take those home and narrow them down to the top 20.

The top 20 are tested to make sure they’re pure. No pesticides, no pathogens.

Everything gets points. Your first choice gets 20 points, plus five points. Your second choice gets 19 points, plus three points. Your third choice gets 18 points, plus one point. And so on.

Everybody samples the top 10.  We have a big “smoke off” on the final day,  deciding which one you like best and in what order.

There might be “horse trading” — if, let’s say, there’s a three-way tie for third place.

On Friday, we gather our brain cells.

What do you look for?

There are four categories: looks, smell, taste and “effect.”

With “taste,” we let our imaginations go wild, flashing through flavors until the perfect one jumps to mind: “Aha! Kiwi! Or roast chicken! Or carnations!” The curious thing about “taste” is that it can change quite a bit as a good joint progresses, so I usually take notes all the way to the last hit, if it is a real contender.

But “effect” gets twice the points of the other three.

Emerald Cup cannabis contest top judges Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya review candidate specimens. Samples came from eight California counties. (Bulldog Media)

With all that smoking, don’t you get confused?

We will do a max of 18 a day. Just a couple hits on each joint.

If it doesn’t look good and has no smell, we say, “Why bother?”

We’ll take a break, to avoid a cumulative effect. It helps to take a little walk, eat some grounding food, or work on a project. There are a few that are “creepers” — they’ll suddenly hit you upside the head.

What happens at a certain point is, when you stumble upon something really special, it breaks through. Suddenly you say “That was great! I am really feeling this,” and you know it’s good. The cream rises to the top.

Any trends?

Some years are better than others. But entries seem to be getting better each year. They’re getting very very good.

For awhile, we were getting junk. People would give us stuff just to get free tickets (to The Emerald Cup festival.) We had to install a charge — $250 per sample, just to keep out the junk.

This year, some entries weren’t trimmed properly. There was big green leaf, which is harsh and gives you a sore throat.

And because of the early rains, there was a lot of black ash when you lit it.  That’s because people were afraid of mold and wanted to get their plants in, so they didn’t “flush” their plants before cutting, to remove the phosphorus, nitrogen and other stuff.

You need to stop giving your plants all those nutrients and then water them for two weeks before cutting to flush all that out. Plants should have white ash, not black.

Describe the winner

The winner is never the one with the highest THC content. It won’t lay you flat. We are looking for “the entourage effect” — that combination of looks, taste, smell and effects that will leave you feeling good. A new user will love the winner.

It makes you relaxed and inspired and creative and all those things. It’s a sophisticated smoke.

What’s next? 

We can smoke our own cannabis again — something every judge looks forward to.