OVERVIEW OF POPULAR CANNABIS EXTRACTION METHODS
Trim’s Story (5.)
While the cannabis extraction industry is a flourishing area today with enormous potential ahead; as cannabis extractors, we owe everything we have not to our fellow extractors, chemists, or lawmakers. But to growers. Growing cannabis is not complicated; the plant wants to grow and does so vigorously in almost every environment. The catch, however, is that it is difficult, and an art form that takes many years to obtain proficiency at, to grow high-quality cannabis.
Simplified Basic Process:
First, a cannabis seed or a cutting from a mother plant (a clone) is planted. If planted from seed, once the seed has germinated, the plant enters the second stage, becoming a seedling. Next follows the third and longest step, the vegetative stage, where the plant grows without pause, and in the final step, the plant begins to flower, attempting to reproduce.
Cannabis grower’s primary goal is to produce and harvest the female plant’s resinous and not pollinated flowers. Doing so requires feminized seeds or the immediate removal of any male plants from the rest of the crop once identified.
After the grower has worked all year carefully to manage their crop and has waited patiently for the plants to mature, it is time to harvest. Plants are first chopped down and “bucked” or removed of the largest stems and branches before the remaining plant material is hung to dry. Once dry, the process of trimming the flower can begin. The remaining plant material that is much less resinous than the flower, such as the fan leaves, is removed to leave the recognizable nug. Finally, the trimmed flower is cured before being packaged and ready for sale.
Granted, there are a lot of nuances and differences in practice to this process. However, for almost the entirety of cannabis growing history, this has been the basic process. The entire goal and the end product was the cured flower. Thankfully for the growers, this product sold for such a premium that they could make a living off the cured bud alone. The by-products of this process (trim, stems, leaves, etc.) were removed by any means necessary and were seen as one of the biggest nuisances of growing. Trim was primarily used as compost and mulch around farms if not simply disposed of at a local dump.
Here we begin to see the other areas of the industry that were converging and developing at the same time the ethanol extraction process was being innovated.
1. More Growers – Cheaper Flower
As more and more people began growing good cannabis throughout the ’90s, the price of the cured flower slowly began to dip. This meant the profit margins for the growers as well began to diminish.
2. Grower Extractor Symbiosis
Up until this point, cannabis extractors were still extracting and producing their products from cured flowers. Mainly because this was the only purchasable bulk product growers offered. One day, a relationship was struck between the growers and the extractors. Some ingenious and aspiring clandestine chemist or grower was working on a cannabis farm, probably trimming, when one day they looked upon the mountain of trim that was to be composted or disposed of this year. A lightbulb went on in their mind.
If processors could somehow extract the remaining THC from the trim instead of the cured flowers, they would produce extract cheaper than anyone else. The grower wouldn’t have to sell their flower for concentrate, leaving more flower to be sold and increasing their profit margins. And on top of that the grower would have an entirely new revenue stream, at the same time, creating a solution on how to consistently and quickly dispose of the most prominent by-product of growing.
Well, as you can imagine, this was quickly undertaken once understood. Seemingly on separate occasions all around the western U.S., this symbiotic relationship between the growers and extractors was emerging.
3. Ethanol and Cannabis Distillate
There was just one problem, the most popular method of cannabis extraction at the time was known as B.H.O. (Butane Hash Oil). While this produced a superior extract to almost all the other popular methods at the time, it wasn’t exactly a fast and efficient process. Due mainly to
the necessity of operating in clandestine environments and the minimalist style of equipment chosen.
Trying to extract an entire farm’s worth of trim open blasting (an old and clandestine method of butane extraction) at the time was a daunting task and was not likely achieved often.
Even if you were among the more intelligent crowd running closed-loop systems, the throughput wasn’t extreme, and the post-processing necessary to produce a quality product at the time was not trivial either.
So at the same time, cannabis flower prices are dipping, and the growers require a new revenue stream. Some ingenious growers and extractors get the bright idea to extract from the trim instead of the flower but can’t quite figure out how to operate at such a large scale with current hydrocarbon methods. Serendipitously the ethanol extraction process is being optimized by the application of fractional distillation and cold extraction methods. Allowing the chemists to take the crude extract commonly known as R.S.O. and create Cannabis Distillate, a product of quality rivaling anything else on the market. This all may sound like an oversimplification, but there is a lot to learn from this dynamic:
These three separate changes define the cannabis industry as it exists today.
Ethanol extraction was always known as more efficient at extracting cannabis. Ethanol could process much more biomass per batch and extract each batch quicker than other methods. Sadly, the end product was just a black sticky crude extract (R.S.O.) that was pleasant to smoke. However, with the application of fractional distillation, many extractors began producing mason jars full of beautiful gold distillate from this crude extract. This product was not only pleasant enough to smoke, but it was arguably the most potent cannabis extract produced to date, with its THC content ranging as high as 90%+.
Fast forward to today.
Most products, whether edibles, vape cartridges, or ‘infused’ flowers on dispensary shelves are produced utilizing distillate in one way or another. The most prominent extraction companies in the industry have made their money primarily from scaling their ethanol extraction processes and distillate production to a point where they can wholesale cannabis distillate (and cannabinoid isolates) cheaper than anyone else. And most importantly, it widened the available revenue streams that growers had access to, allowing more growers to operate profitably, provide more cured buds to consumers, and continue optimizing the growing techniques – continuing to improve the overall quality of the products on the market. It is truly, at least currently, the backbone of the industry.
In Partnership with Rocky Mountain Extracts