Everyone wants to say they have the best weed.

Cannabis has the same sophistication as wine, spirits, and gourmet cuisine, the grey market we’re currently in still makes education around buying high-end, luxury products hard to find. Refined bud structure and trichrome coverage is obvious to the naked eye, with a strain’s smell and taste as the finishing notes of perfection. Are you really smoking the best weed?

Coming in at around $33 billion per year, cannabis hauls the same volume as the luxury watch industry. Although growing faster as legalization sweeps across the United States, the lack of federal regulation makes defining a quality standard tough. State regulation ranges for testing of molds and other toxins, as well as what you can even name a strain (for example, Oregon’s regulations forbid Girl Scout Cookies and Skittles as those are already food products). Additionally, cannabis has seen a rise in opportunists taking investor cash, developing a flashy brand, and not being able to keep up with consumer demands or standards. The industry also lacks a unified vocabulary, which is why it's filled with slang and marketing jargon that often confuses even the most experienced consumers.

As more state governments approve legalization and weed use among young people rises, we spoke with industry experts on the high-end cannabis market:

The Difference Between Exotic and Top-Shelf

Exotic and top-shelf are the most used terms to describe premium cannabis. A common misconception is that these are tiers of quality, which isn’t necessarily the case: exotics are rare phenoms, while top-shelf is referring to the growing environment.

“When you’re talking about exotics, you’re primarily talking about genetics. When you’re talking about top-shelf cultivation, you’re talking about the environment and growing practices," says Tracy Anderson, cofounder of Pure Beauty alongside Imelda Walavalkar. "You can take an exotic phenotype and use it as an auto-flower plant out in some field somewhere, and the outcome would be very different than in a controlled, indoor environment. You’re going to see two indistinguishable products.”

Pure Beauty is a purveyor and cultivator of premium cannabis products adored by aficionados and celebrities alike. Their strains range from uniquely fun combinations like Double Dream (Blue Dream x Dream Star) to legacy favorites like Super Silver Haze.

“We’ve worked on strains for over two years before introducing it to the market,” says Anderson, noting that constantly dropping new strains is an incredibly hard task to take on. Many brands will market existing strains under new names as an attempt to reinvigorate interest, which muddles consumer education into what new genetics and exotics actually are.

“For my generation, exotics were strains like Maui Wowi and Acapulco Gold that we never got our hands on,” says Mario Guzman, founder of Sherbinski. “People in the ‘70s brought that back from different places like Vietnam and Hawaii. When we talk about ‘za, the streets have taken that history and evolved it into today.”

Sherbinski is the creator of Gelato, one of the world's most popular strains. Considered perfectly balanced between indica and sativa, Gelato gained notoriety amongst cannabis enthusiasts and celebrities as the quintessential rapper weed. In many ways, the rise of Gelato also ran alongside the industry’s growing use of the term exotic.

“Nobody was calling weed ‘exotic’ until we brought the branding up to par with the product. 10 years ago, it was just plastic containers and your uncle’s camera case stuffed with weed and stickers,” Guzman reminisces. He also points to geography as a reason why a strain is considered exotic.

For top-shelf, Guzman says that the label has significant weight universally.“Top-shelf is the 10% or less of flower grown with meticulous love and care. For breeders and cultivators, it's the unicorn of the bunch with the best structure that looks phenomenal. When you’re smoking, it ‘wets the whistle’, which as soon as you smoke, it makes your mouth water. That candy gas.”

Gelato's sweet taste and well-rounded effects have made it a popular genetic strain to create new hybrids, with growers creating hundreds of new strains based on its DNA. “A lot of what you see in the market is Gelato mixed up with some other people’s favorite strains. If you do the DNA analysis, Gelato is in there.” says Guzman. He points at popular online cannabis guide Leafly’s 2022 Strain of the Year Jealousy, which is a cross between Sherbinski's two most popular strains, Sherbert and Gelato.

Beyond creating new strains, Gelato’s strong genetics also make it a popular favorite in the resurgence of legacy strains: strains from previous decades that can now be grown in a top-shelf environment.

The Resurgence of Legacy Strains

When we asked Pure Beauty about its Super Silver Haze, Anderson mentioned it was “a legacy cut the team had to be protective of for years.”

As the Cannabis Cup winner in 1997, 1998, and 1999, Super Silver Haze has been around for decades. Legacy strains like SSH fell victim to the ”telephone game”’ of an illegal market, where a variety of factors caused the end customer to have bunk bud, including improper grow environments, pushing the plant to market before its finished, poor drying/curing (which can cause molding and other bacteria to fester), bad genetic makeup, among other problems.

Now that cannabis has a legal, regulated market, legacy strains grown in top-shelf environments are becoming more sought-after. While most of us are familiar with the legacy strains we may have bought in high school and college (Sour Diesel, Granddaddy Purp, Jack Herer, and Northern Lights to name a few), our experience with them has varied. The legal market has enabled consumers to reintroduce themselves to these original genetics in their purest form, which has also invited cultivators to put their own unique spin on these classics.

“When you look at OG Kush, how do we give it that lime-green pungent gas color with a fruit flavor?” ponders James Kim, founder of STIIIZY. “It’s almost like fashion, how do we retro that legacy strain into 2023, 2024?”

STIIIZY is a high-end flower cultivator with a reach across Nevada, California, Arizona, and Michigan. By putting an emphasis on seeking high-quality genetics of popular strains, STIIIZY aims to offer the exact same product experience in every state. As a larger distributor, seeking legacy strains still comes from a very peer-to-peer market.

“Legacy strains come from all across the world. We have relationships with companies that have been in the industry long enough to have continuously bred,” says Head of Cultivation for STIIIZY, Sean Oganesyan. “We’re continuously crossing strains and swapping genetics. We’re able to support one another while simultaneously develop good products in a big environment.”

How Is Top-Shelf Cannabis Cultivated?

The cannabis companies we spoke with all had different methods of cultivation.

All three agreed that indoor grows relegated the most control, which helped create the best product. The smaller the batch, the easier it was to take meticulous care of the plant too, including feeding schedules, lighting, temperature, and other factors. That isn’t to say outdoor, greenhouse, or large indoor grows are bad, they’re just more susceptible to outside factors, and can often take longer to test-and-iterate changes.

For Pure Beauty, environmental sustainability is a big factor in cultivation, using recycled water via its HVAC for its hands-on approach. Sherbinski also prefers an intimate approach, hosting a small, indoor environment for initial breeding of 3-5 months, followed by 3-5 months of flowering out.

“The selection process is the human aspect. You use your senses to naturally gravitate towards certain plants. If I brought you into a room of 50 plants, there’s going to be some you’ll instantly walk up to and smell. Out of those 50, three or four are amazing,” Guzman says. “A plant can look great growing but when you dry it, some of it is a little weird. It doesn’t hold the structure you want. So, if it's got a great structure, then you’re crossing your fingers it tastes and smells as good as it looks. If it does, that’s your unicorn.” From there, Sherbinski grows small batches and slowly introduces strains into the market, creating good word of mouth within its community.

As STIIIZY’s goal is consistency of high-end products for their strains across multiple markets, Oganesyan handpicking the genetics is what Kim notes as the most important part, aiming to replicate as much of the process as possible from seed to sale. Every grower then dove into the aroma, cola size, as well as the trichrome coverages and preservation. However, their perspective on what made a product top-tier varied from consumers all across the board.

What Should Consumers Look For In Buying Top-Tier Cannabis?

Cannabis has what’s called an “entourage effect” for its users, hosting a lot of its genetic profile in the cannabinoids and terpenes. Despite this being widely accepted by industry experts, there's a disconnect with consumers on THC levels. While most people think that strictly THC is what gets you high, every smoker is different, which is why the entourage effect more matches a user’s experience with the cannabinoids and terpenes in a strain.

Outside of how cannabis is labeled or branded, the end product should look like something you want to consume, where the buying process is compared to produce. Despite the fact that you're smoking it, cannabis is a plant that, when grown properly, is medicine for many. The journey towards your favorite strains is deeply personal, which is exemplified in the industry’s demand for top-shelf exotics as much as legacy strains: people are after their own curated ‘high’.

“We look for that sense of meaning you’d get from looking at art or hearing a good song. It takes you outside the moment.” says Walavalkar of Pure Beauty. “Cannabis helps you feel things you haven’t. It gives you a perspective shift, which is what we’re all searching for when we’re seeking meaning. And, if it makes you feel those things, regardless of being stoned, it's a beautiful thing.”

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