Wondering how concentrates are actually made? We're here to help.
I love flower as much as the next person, but combustion and smoke inhalation take their toll. Whether consumed via vaporizer or dab rig, extracts and concentrates deliver flavorful highs with vapor instead of smoke, leaving my lungs and throat happy. There’s also the potency factor. Even the most potent, organically grown cannabis flower tops out around 25% THC, and that percentage comes not from the flower itself but from the tiny, oily trichomes that carpet and perfume the plant matter. Trichomes are, in essence, why we love cannabis. They are the crystalline, mushroom-shaped, microscopic filaments that make fresh buds sparkle and furnish cannabis with flavor, aroma, and the cannabinoids that get us high. Extraction isolates these critical compounds and eliminates all the plant matter—the biological set dressing, if you will. Considering extracts and concentrates contain anywhere from 50% to upwards of 90% THC, it’s no wonder these products have taken the recreational market by storm.
“Each one of them isolates trichomes from their adjoining plant matter.”
There are two main methods of cannabis extraction: with chemical solvents (i.e. extracts) or without chemical solvents (i.e. concentrates). Hash, rosin, and kief are all examples of solventless concentrates. Rosin is produced with heat and pressure, literally pressing the oily essence from cannabis flower, resulting in a thick, resinous oil perfect for dabbing. A basic three-chamber grinder will collect kief, the THC-rich powdery residue that naturally falls off flower in the grinding process, which you can sprinkle on a bowl or in a joint for added potency. Hash can be made by freezing buds and processing them in a blender with ice-cold water; once processed, the plant matter will rise to the top of the blender, and the trichome-rich water is easily filtered through a fine sieve. Once that water is evaporated, the final product contains a sticky concentration of trichomes.
Though none of these concentrates are produced via chemical extraction, each one of them isolates trichomes from their adjoining plant matter. When cannabis went recreational in my city, however, the products that piqued my interest were not kief or traditional hash. It was tiny glass cartridges full of amber oils, long syringes filled with inky black tar, and decorative bottles full of canna-potions that got me all hot and bothered. These, I would come to learn, are all extracts produced with the help of chemical solvents. While these methods also produce highly concentrated products, each is disparate in its effects and methods of delivery.
Ethanol extractions are created by soaking properly dried and cured buds (and trichome-flecked fan leaves) in pure naphtha or isopropyl alcohol. Alcohol is seriously efficient when it comes to separating dense trichomes from their plant matter. In fact, ethanol tinctures of cannabis were listed in the American Pharmacopeia of 1851, and before prohibition, were readily available for various ailments. Even though those inky syringes you see behind dispensary counters look a bit venomous, they are really just simple ethanol extracts. Ethanol extracts are particularly popular with the cannabis-as-medicine crowd because they can be made at home with minimal equipment and can be used to treat a wide range of afflictions, from epilepsy to chemo-related nausea. Rick Simpson Oil (also known as RSO and phoenix tears), tinctures, and even some candies and medicated beverages fall under this category.
Note that makers of RSO evaporate the ethanol once the trichomes have been separated from the plant, but alcohol tinctures retain the ethanol. Alcohol’s low boiling point makes it an excellent way to medicate food without overpowering the final product with cannabis flavor or effecting the mouthfeel, and when taken sublingually, a tincture has an activation time more in tune with smoking than ingesting.
Why you should try these products
Ethanol extractions offer quick absorption when used sublingually or a longer-lasting high when added to drinks or edibles—plus, no throat irritation! Try NU’s Phoenix Tears Gel Caps for a mellow introduction to the complex effects of RSO.
Butane was the solvent that made me question my intentions most. What was I willing to ingest in the name of clean, discreet highs? Well, it turns out nothing more than I was risking cooking with corn or canola oil, both of which are products of butane extraction. In fact, hydrocarbons like propane, butane, and hexane have been used since the 1970s for food extractions. Point being, this is nothing new to American human bodies. To make BHO (butane hash oil) or PHO (propane hash oil), hydrocarbons are run through the plant matter, drawing all the desirable oils out of the plant. Residual solvent is then removed via a low-temperature vacuum. Hydrocarbons can retain 90% of the cannabinoids found in cannabis, which is desirable if you’re looking for a nuanced high. Crumble, wax, shatter, budder, and live resin all fall under this category.
Why you should try these products
BHO extracts can retain 90% of the active cannabinoids in the plant’s trichomes, making it a great way to re-introduce yourself to your favorite strain. Butane is GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the Department of Agriculture and is used to great effect in edibles like Sour Bhotz' Orange Sour Bitz and dabbables like Lunchbox Alchemy’s High THC BHO Crumble.
Supercritical fluid extraction is where I ended up finding my sweet spot. This is the “solventless-solvent” CO2 extraction method. While hydrocarbon and ethanol processes both rely on methods that essentially wash the trichomes from the plant then toss the buds and evaporate the bathwater, CO2 is compressed until it creates a supercritical fluid that strips the essential oils from the cannabis plant. This method is not totally unlike hydrocarbon or ethanol extraction but is unique in its use of supercritical fluid. Since CO2 has the properties of a liquid and a gas, it can completely dissolve plant matter. The CO2 method also retains more terpenes, making it the extraction method of choice for discerning vapers who appreciate a carefully curated tableau of terpene flavors. Oil, nectar, honey, and most vape cartridges all fall under this category.
Why you should try these products
CO2 is a nontoxic extraction process that works like an oral magnifying glass by retaining terpene profiles and revealing the essential flavors of our favorite strains. (And just to be clear, it does not contribute carbon emissions to the atmosphere.) Orchid Essentials' Tropical Trainwreck and Pistil Point’s Super Jack Gio Pod are both stellar examples of exceptional CO2-extracted flavor profiles.
Despite the upsurge in canna-tech, extraction is nothing new. Hash, hemp oil, weed butter, cannabis tea—these have been in use for all of recorded history. And they all deliver more potent highs than unadulterated herb. Extracts and concentrates are, by design, psychoactively stronger than even the freshest, stickiest, greenest buds because extraction removes and condenses cannabinoids and terpenes—AKA the shit that gets you high.
A little goes a long way with these products, so finding the product that vibes well with your needs will take some trial and error. As a rule of thumb, try taking just one or two pulls of a vape pen and waiting 15 minutes to see how you feel before taking more. Read the dosing instructions on a tincture bottle; then read them again. And when dabbing for the first time or trying a new product, make sure the amount you scoop up is no larger than a grain of rice. As always, it never hurts to take it low and slow.