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The Science Behind Chemistry's Small-Batch Cannabis

The art of crafting full-spectrum products with founder and chemist Paul Roethle

Chemistry might be a hard company to Google at first, but if you know to add search terms like, “small batch” or “whole flower,” you’ll end up finding the cannabis company known for their mission to stay true to the plant.

This “craft cannabis” business is led by founder and C.E.O. Paul Roethle, Ph.D., who has worked in labs for almost 20 years. Combining two of his passions, cannabis and chemistry, he launched a company named after the latter from behind the scenes towards the end of 2017, just before legalization passed in California. They stepped into the spotlight with a third-place prize at The Emerald Cup cannabis competition that year, and have been building on that early success ever since.

We talked to Paul about how sustainability is at the heart of his company, his work to support other local, small businesses, and how he’s constantly thinking of ways to stand out in a growing industry.

Chemistry Founder Paul Roethle, Ph.D.

How did you first get into cannabis? Where did you start, and what was the road that got you here?

I’m originally from Wisconsin, which isn't exactly the promised land of pot. So my first experiences with cannabis were pretty typical, generally consisting of crappy weed from who knows where. I certainly wasn't yet aware of the true power of the plant as a medicine. I got my undergraduate degree from The University of Wisconsin, Madison in chemistry prior to migrating west to continue my education. Settling in the East Bay was ultimately an advantage for starting our business, and it was here that I received my Ph.D. in organic chemistry at The University of California, Berkeley. During this time I started my never-ending journey to study how Mother Nature makes complex, natural products like THC and CBD.

I worked at Gilead for seven years, mainly on HIV and hepatitis, and mostly in the lab. Working for corporate pharma and the manufactured-medicine world had me a bit burned out, and as I learned more about the power of cannabis and the potential of naturally-derived therapeutics, I decided it was time for a change. We need as many options as possible to treat the myriad of diseases we face, and cannabis provides many of them in one plant. Mother Nature created this amazing mixture of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, all of them uniquely found together in cannabis.

It was also important that I find my purpose. I needed something to keep me going over the long term following my mother's passing from a long struggle with lymphoma and my daughter's birth. Before Chemistry became its own brand, it started as a contract manufacturer called Peridot Labs in the Prop 215 days, helping small farmers diversify their offerings beyond flower. This was when we really honed our methods and learned how to make the product we now call Chemistry. Things started to take off when my friend and co-founder did what he does best in bringing the brand to life. He took our concept and made it tangible with a comprehensive line of beautifully-presented products.

What was the business like when you first started, and how has it changed in the last three years or so?

When we started, we were trying to set up to make products differently and be able to make almost anything—any type of extract that can go in vapes, tinctures, edibles, or concentrates. As we continue, we ensure that our methods are fluid and flexible so that we can pivot within our process.

Our methods are fluid and flexible so that we can pivot within our process.

We did learn that our oils aren't flavorless, and that’s what we think makes full-spectrum cannabis oil special. We're not trying to rip everything apart and isolate individual compounds, thats pharma. We want to represent cannabis as it naturally exists. In the early days, edible makers didn’t like our oil. They were like, “It tastes too much like weed.” 

Now we’re actually using that as a selling point to develop partnerships. You can use tasteless, storyless, sometimes even boring ingredients, or you can use full-spectrum oil that's responsibly sourced and processed. This is an important part of our story and what makes us different. It also maintains that nuance of the strain, and it still tastes like weed.

What would you say is the most important thing your company is doing right now to help differentiate you from other vape and tincture brands?

This is something new. Full-spectrum products + sustainable sourcing = Chemistry, a company true to the plant. It's those two pieces that mean everything to what we do. To stay true to the plant, you also have to respect the earth where the plant came from, and that's why we believe in nothing but all-natural sun and soil. No other agricultural crops produced on scale are grown inside, so why start with weed? 

Our full-spectrum method is a differentiator that highlights the finer points of each strain we work with. It also puts into focus our responsibility to the earth in terms of how we source and process with concern to our overall efficiency, waste production and energy minimization.

Specifically related to sourcing, can you tell us about your selection process? How do you vet who to source from?

When we first got going, it was mostly a kind of a fun word of mouth thing. Some of the farms that were our clients were dreaming of creating their own brands and selling products. As Prop 64 came to life, it showed all of us how difficult it is to wear multiple hats. This inevitably led to some of those farms deciding to stick with us as we were launching our brand rather than trying to do their own thing. It's the same reason we didn't go start a farm. 

It was a situation where one farm said, “Hey, it's really great to work with Chemistry. You should meet them and sell them a batch.” That was both helpful and sustainable for us in the early days because we were able to really tap into that small farmer network, mostly in the Emerald Triangle. 

Now the process is a bit more planned out and sophisticated as we've had someone (shoutout to Jimmy!) dedicated to that aspect of our supply chain. We’re working months ahead with our farm partners to determine the plants we would all like to work with for the upcoming season. We also aim to only work with farms that utilize regenerative and organic cultivation practices, even though we can’t claim anything in cannabis is organic yet.

Chemistry is more than just the class you take. It's the bond we have between people—and the plant.

It sounds great to go down this whole-flower, full-spectrum route by sourcing from these small farmers, but how do you maintain consistency between batches and products?

It’s something we admit, they won't be the same. We really latch onto the winemaker analogy. Even if you grow on the same farm next year, the profile is just a little bit different due to the growing conditions or climate. All these different variables can change the outcome. There will be that subtle difference from year to year, and we're trying to educate from that agricultural analogy. Again, think about wine in relation to terroir. 

People that get Sour Tangie or Paradise Punch today won't be getting a carbon copy of the strain next year, no matter what. However, we also just launched a standardized tincture line in April called Moods by Chemistry. These vibrantly colored new products, like our purple, yellow or green, offer up their own range of benefits and come together to span the full spectrum off cannabis' medical qualities. We want to be able to address both sides of the equation, especially when it comes to patient-focused products.

Lady Benbow Tincture

Do you feel like it takes a lot of extra education to get people to understand how your products are different?

It's our number one challenge, and opportunity, I suppose. There's still such a focus on price consciousness in the market that we unfortunately sometimes don't even have the conversation about what makes us different. People are like, “Oh, you’re $5 or $10 more, I don’t care about the difference.” That’s still a major reality when the traditional market (a.k.a. The Black Market) continues to flourish as our taxes and operational costs are obviously significantly higher. In California in particular, we have more than 20 years chronicling the medical history of cannabis, but the reality is the majority of consumers are just hyper price conscious.

We find it a bit harder to see the sale through when they're not receptive to learning what makes us special. And even though we are trying to be a little bit more thoughtful or scientific, that problem isn't unique to us or this industry. For example, we look up to Dr. Bronner’s and their philosophies around fair trade and a commitment to being organic. Cheaper products often cut corners and in turn hurt the environment.

Well, certainly your packaging with its bright rainbow colors also helps you stand out in a crowded market. What was the thought behind your designs?

We definitely wanted to stand out, especially when we chose a name like Chemistry. We knew we were taking on a challenge, but we really wanted people to understand that we're approaching this scientifically. Chemistry is more than just the class you take. It's the bond we have between people—and the plant. To us that array of color also relates to the full spectrum of our products, and it's why we felt we could be this vibrant, it aligns with our message.

This doesn't stop with cannabis for us, a life in color extends far beyond. So that's a little teaser of where we think we all want to be long term, and that's ultimately beyond cannabis.

What else do you have planned? Where does the brand ultimately go, and how does that align with where the industry is headed?

This year is all about collaboration, especially in California. I think it's a unique market where you have a lot of small businesses trying to compete. Companies are dying, shelf space is tight, and there aren't enough retailers. We have to find ways to share our resources, knowledge and expertise to make sure those of us that have been so passionate get to stay a part of it. Otherwise, we could see it go the way of a lot of these other states where there are handfuls of licenses instead of hundreds to thousands like in California. Sometimes I think it's just better to go faster with friends than slower alone.

We’re also very fortunate that our business is located in a city that’s aligned with our values. Equally important to that is a local government that actively makes positive changes to legislation, which ultimately allows us to continue our research. 

Some of you may have seen that Oakland decriminalized mushrooms and other entheogenic plants in 2019. This will be pretty key concerning our future plans. As we continue to research every facet of plant based medicine, to include psilocybin, we will discover new avenues and create unique, comprehensive products with potential benefits beyond what cannabis can offer. We’re in a welcomed, but fairly uncommon situation, so we have to extend a big thank you to Oakland for allowing us to pursue our passions by removing antiquated legislative limitations.

On a related note, something we ask every brand is if Chemistry has any social justice initiatives in mind when it comes to addressing the reality of cannabis regulations, and how they disproportionately hurt communities of color?

It's got to be more than simply writing a check or donating some products just to pat yourself on the back.

That’s something that we've been working to figure out, honestly, our bigger mission to support and help our community. We’ve struggled with how to do it. As such a small business, we’ve gone through times where we’ve had to make payroll, so how could we possibly think about making donations? It's rare to actually have time to pick your head up from all the work and ask, "How do we want the community involved and ensure this is an inclusive industry and company?" 

Making a meaningful equity partnership in Oakland is really what's important to us right now. The partner with whom we created our distribution company is passionate about genetics and breeding, so our ultimate goal would be to have our products go full circle and start and finish in Oakland. These genetics will be provided or developed by Rob (our equity partner), the seeds or clones will then go to our farm partners up north, and finally beautiful, sun-grown plants come back to us for processing. One thing at a time, done right. 

From there we will just continue to expand and find even more ways to engage and support our community. We are fortunate to have a diverse staff, but it also has to go beyond that and we will always strive to do better. It's got to be more than simply writing a check or donating some leftover products just to pat yourself on the back. However, compassion is so important right now, and we are excited to be working with the Sweetleaf Collective and a few of our dispensary partners as the state-approved compassion programs are allowed to come back online.

What are some things that help motivate you in this industry that is often so competitive? What does the future hold?

I think what keeps us focused is that this is medicine. We hear positive stories day in and day out of what’s worked for people—and it helps us improve.

It's important that we strive to be better, even with our products in terms of waste. We can simplify what we’re doing concerning what ends up in a landfill. I think we’ve built enough trust with our partners and customers to where we can start adapting our products to meet this initiative without fear of jeopardizing our brand appeal. We can still offer great presentation that’s a bit simpler and made with recycled materials, so that's something we're working on across our product line. 

We also aim to eliminate all plastics from our packaging by the end of 2020. That's really another huge part of my mission. As Chemistry grows, we will continue to focus on sustainability and fostering relationships with our neighbors in the great city of Oakland. Two values that will always be near and dear to my hippie heart.

To check out Chemistry's full product line, go here. Also, click the respective links for a look at Proper's top-rated and reviewed tinctures, vapes and concentrates.

Photos by Skyler Greene. 

About the Author

As a mutt mom, sci-fi buff, and soft athlete, Kate likes low-dose products that have an intoxicating edge with a side of relief. Don't expect her to try anything without a balanced ratio of THC to CBD.

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