The Art of Cannabis: An Excerpt from Mitch Shenassa’s “The Cannabis Aficianado’s Handbook”

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While high grade sinsemillia cannabis has been available for decades, the craft has entered a renaissance in recent years. With legislative positions on cannabis progressing nationwide, a blossoming industry has attracted artisan horticulturalists who produce exquisite flowers as labors of love. The goal of the cannabis aficionado isn’t to identify her favorites—though, certainly, she should smoke what she enjoys. For the true connoisseur, the goal is to appreciate the skillful work of the cultivator, the multifaceted aesthetic expressions of the cannabis flower, and the miraculous experience borne from their dynamic interplay.

The creation of luxury cannabis begins with an intention, as the master cultivator carefully selects from hundreds of elite varietals—called in the nomenclature strains. The cultivator considers the scores of known and unknown genetic traits of each varietal: characteristic fragrances and flavors; rate of development and period until maturity; preferred environment; fertilizer and preventative needs; flower size, shape and color; and psychotropic effect. While each of these respectively provides a spectrum of variables for the cultivator to determine, the analysis can proceed to even greater detail: length of resin glands stalks, size of gland heads, wax content of the stems, responsiveness to pruning, cannabinoid content, and so on.

Once the strain is selected, the cultivator raises it from a seed or propagated cutting. The plant’s environment must be perpetually controlled in minute detail in order to produce the virtually supernatural specimens being achieved in the modern cannabis garden. The cultivator masters the photoperiod, lamp type, luminosity and position, temperature and humidity, air circulation and movement, reflectivity and light absorption of the environment, carbon dioxide levels, and more. Similarly, each strain requires unique nutrition, inspiring the cultivator to design and implement fertilization regimens for each strain by considering complex organic chemistry across multiple phases of growth and specific micro- and macronutrient needs more complex than the performance athlete’s diet. To accomplish perfection superior to nature, the master cultivator nurtures each plant individually, providing, sustaining, and responding to its needs with a finely tuned environment.

As the plant grows under the cultivator’s care, it proceeds through an immature vegetative phase where it focuses on developing its leaves to power its growth. It develops in strength, size, and vigor, and then progresses into a prolonged blooming phase, typically lasting from eight to twelve weeks. At the start of the blooming phase, the plant expresses itself at the internodes of stem and branch with white or cream-colored pistils which will, toward the end of the plant’s life, recede, curl and darken to become the flower’s characteristic rust colored “hairs.”   From these sites, the flower builds itself of discrete clusters called calyxes in nature’s spiral pattern, according to one of a few genetic archetypes. Whether spiraled, spear shaped, fox tailed, teardrop, or clustered, the calyxes stack as they fill with the developing plant’s vital essences. The plant’s juices push out through the swollen flowers, producing tiny resinous growths–technically called trichomes, though referred to as resin glands–and the flower’s unique aromatic compounds, known as terpenes. The trichomes are waxy sheaths protecting the mysterious chemicals unique to cannabis—the cannabinoids. These begin as cannabinoid compounds such as cannabigerol (CBG) and are metabolized by the plant as it matures into the highly psychoactive -9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and an acid form of the same that takes on its psychoactive character when heated.

The calyxes swell as the flower approaches its peak maturity, becoming engorged with terpene-rich fluids. The trichomes protruding from the surface of the flower can be observed under magnification to take on three distinct colors: clear, indicating that the resins are still running and the flower is not yet mature; cloudy, indicating that the resins have (at least for the moment) ceased flowing and begun to harden; or amber, indicating that the flower’s maturity is at or nearly past its peak, as the resins have stopped running, and the cannabinoids have begun to oxidize, providing a more sedative psychoactive experience. In most cases, the master cultivator harvests when the trichome heads are five- to fifteen percent amber.

In the weeks before harvest, the plant’s stems bent under heavy flowers, the cultivator manipulates the environment and nutrition, guiding the plant into senescence—slowing its growth and chlorophyll production as it burns through the last of its nutrient reserves. The broad shade leaves begin to reveal a secondary color–often a spectacular gold or dark eggplant—as they fold and recede, while the small water leaves in the buds curl slightly, laden with trichomes. The plant is progressively transitioned onto a strict regimen of pure water, allowing any chemical salts or complex compounds to be washed out, ensuring a smooth smoke and clean-burning ash.

In the darkness of the garden, an hour or so before the lamps illuminate, the flower exudes its most potent fragrance and the calyxes begin to slightly recede and set, signaling the moment of peak ripeness. The keen cultivator quickly reaps the plant—harvesting before its virtues degrade and moves from cultivating a supernatural plant to crafting luxury cannabis flowers.

While each master’s specific protocol for drying luxury cannabis is jealously guarded, the process always involves multiple steps to progressively remove the undesirable foliage and painstakingly ease the moisture from the flower to accomplish a smooth smoking flower that can be collected and stored without any degradation of aesthetics or potency. The shade leaves must be allowed to remain attached just long enough for the flower to dry progressively, but never permitted to trap moisture or degrading chlorophyll that could compromise the flower’s aroma.   Similarly, the plant must be left hanging inverted out of direct light until it is dry enough to seal for curing—a margin of just days separating the perfect moisture content from flowers too dry, having surrendered forever their finest aromas. Either at the time of harvest or after drying, the thousands of tiny water leaves must be individually hand-trimmed from the calyxes with small scissors, both the flowers and the removed leaves being handled with absolute care to preserve their fragile trichomes intact. The removed trichome-rich leaves are then typically processed with either a solvent or mechanical separation technique to produce some form of hashish, while the flowers progress to curing in a sealed container.

The curing process is critical to the final quality—a meticulously grown harvest can be completely ruined in this final phase. Curing can takes weeks or months, the cultivator carefully sealing the flowers in an airtight container and periodically opening it to breathe, allowing accumulated moisture to escape. The moisture is teased out over long periods of time to prevent quickly drying the flowers and compromising the developing terpenes before their aromas ripen. This process is controlled until the cultivator is satisfied with the texture of the flowers and aroma of the jar, which is then sealed to capture the aroma at its peak. The process takes months of constant interaction and expert attention to detail, with the cultivator finely adjusting a plethora of nuanced variables to arrive at the cultivator’s vision of perfection. The result of this perfect alchemy is luxury grade cannabis: finished flowers outstanding in every nuance of their Appearance, Aroma, Flavor, Finish, and Effect.

To purchase a copy of The Cannabis Aficionado’s Handbook, click here. You can also follow the book’s Facebook page for updates and more excerpts from the author.


Photo Credit: sonnyboy under (CC BY 3.0) via deviantart