The Science (And Sweat) Behind High-Quality Weed
Feature by Kate Ryan
Aug 07, 2018 · 7 min read

Between a staff of researchers and a top-notch grow facility, Caliva is refining the process behind incredible bud.

On a stifling hot day in July, I headed to San Jose for what I thought would be a straightforward tour of a high-end cannabis grow operation. Having never toured a grow-op before, I pictured a glorified garage filled to the brim with plants and too-bright lights. But to my pleasant surprise, Caliva’s grow-op was anything but average. Compared to the warehouses full of weed you might find on Instagram, Caliva’s indoor setup was more of a Wonka-esque funhouse of botanical miracles. 

Caliva, in case you didn’t know, is a cannabis brand and dispensary boasting a wide range of product offerings from flower to low-dose pre-rolls to sleek, strain-specific vape cartridges. Housed in what used to be a Wonder Bread factory, Caliva grows thousands of plants at any given point, relying on a large team of market researchers, chemists, and data scientists to cultivate top-notch flower and extracts. And because they take flower seriously, visitors and employees alike need to suit up in lab coats and hair nets before stepping foot in the facility. I just have to say that as a professional smoker and wannabe scientist, the tour was a dream come true on all kinds of fronts.

Walking around the building with Rosie Rothrock, Caliva’s VP of Marketing and Branding, my nose was quickly overwhelmed by a tidal wave of complex fragrances. One room containing Strawberry Banana smelled overwhelmingly of—you guessed it—strawberries and bananas. It was as if my favorite lunchbox fruits had been distilled and restored as one potent plant. As Joel Warner described in his review of Willie’s Reserve flower, not everyone is stoked about the pungent smells coming out of large-scale operations like these. I’m sensitive to smells, so I can empathize, but strains in this facility are simply mouthwatering. If I could bottle the smell of Caliva’s Alien OG, I would. This top-shelf, indica strain has sweet, earthy notes with a delightful, hoppy undertone. After sampling some for myself, I can say it certainly delivered on the dreamy, sleepy, euphoric front.

On our tour, I was able to see just how many people are involved in the process of pumping out this much high-quality weed. Maya Kochman PhD, Caliva’s Director of Research, knows firsthand how much effort goes into developing something truly consistent and unique—a harder balance than I previously imagined. Before this gig, Kochman worked at Impossible Foods developing sustainable plant burgers that “bleed” like the real thing. With a background in analytical chemistry, it should come as no surprise she has a molecular sense of what makes a good product good.

The way Kochman sees it, we’re barely scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the potential uses of cannabis. While most of us see products in terms of THC and CBD levels, she sees the entire spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes as a gateway into specific highs and benefits. Even when it comes to ratios of CBD to THC, we have yet to discover what the perfect balance looks like for individual needs. So, all those products with 3:1 or 20:1 ratios? Most brands are likely mimicking one another rather than relying on research-based evidence. There’s often this mindset that “if it’s selling, it’s selling,” Kochman says, something she thinks may be holding cannabis brands back.

Between water, temperature, light, and airflow, there are a number of factors to consider before you even begin to think of planting your first seed—or in this case, clones clipped from ideal “mother plants.” Walking around the grow-op passing room after weed-filled room, that’s what became most apparent to me—how detailed and difficult it is to get it just right. Consider the lighting, for instance. Depending on the growth stage, indoor plants require the right combination of spectrum and intensity. That’s why you’ll see some rooms steeped in radioactive orange light and others looking like bright white tunnels into weed heaven. Even Caliva’s hallways are illuminated with green lights that won’t interfere with room-specific lighting as doors are opened and closed throughout the day.

But that’s only where the variables (and opportunities to fail) begin. Once you’ve got adequate lighting set up, it’s time to worry about managing temperature and humidity levels since a few degrees could impact growth phases significantly. Just don’t let that distract you from the soil quality—drainage, aeration, and fertility all determine whether your plants ever get a chance to lift off. And if you’re worried about getting good yields, water can be your best friend or worst enemy. Use it to deliver nutrients to your plant babies, balance pH levels, and maximize flower size, density, potency, aroma, and yield. Mess up on the water and nutrient front and you can get all kinds of wonky weed.

Once you’ve checked all those boxes and your plants are growing strong and tall, it’s high time to consider airflow. Air becomes the MVP, breaking heat stamps created by artificial lighting, improving stem strength, and preventing mold and mildew. Spacing your plants also becomes increasingly important, as we wouldn’t want any big trees taking all the spotlight. As soon as your plants reach maturity, it’s time to harvest those buds—just be sure to dry, trim, cure, and test that flower in a lab before consumption.

See? Growing weed is as simple as that.

We built our grow and our product line around the notion that happy plants equal happy people.

— Rosie Rothrock

Sarcasm aside, seeing the grow-op in every stage of this complicated process increased my appreciation for good cannabis by tenfold. It’s kind of like sitting through the credits of an incredible movie and wondering how so many people could be involved and still pull it off. Then there’s just the scale of an operation like this that’s impressive in its own right. In one storage room, surrounded by bins of weed stacked to the ceiling, I asked Rothrock how much one bin might retail for in the recreational market. She said one pound of trimmed bud currently goes for about $2,500, and after doing a little mental math, I had to stop my jaw from dropping. We must have been surrounded by at least half a million dollars worth of flower casually stuffed in plastic bins you might find in a suburban garage.

As impressed as I was by the whole operation, it appears Caliva is just getting started. For Rothrock, it’s all about responding to what consumers want and need. Right now, they have a topical for pain in the works and are looking to refine their strain offerings according to the data they collect via surveys and focus groups. “Part of the problem with the industry,” Rothrock says, “is that different data sources aren’t connected to each other.” She and her team are looking to not only change that, but change the industry as a whole to better serve a widening market. “We built our grow and our product line around the notion that happy plants equal happy people,” Rothrock says. “Cultivating them with care and good intentions makes a difference in both the final result of our product and in the health and well-being of our employees, our plants, and ultimately our customers.” I can get on board with that. 

Photos by Anthony Tripoli.

This article was created in partnership with Caliva.

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