Any one of the more than 7,000 craft breweries in the United States will tell you one of two things: their art is a science, or their science is an art. The answer may depend on the brewer’s personal approach, but the combination of experience, process, precise measurements and intuition is exactly what is needed to create a great beer. Likewise, the cannabis industry has its own master brewer: the extraction technician.
Using knowledge from multiple scientific disciplines, cannabis extraction technicians apply industrial solvents, heat and pressure to plant matter through a variety of methods with the goal of chemically extracting the pure compound. Extraction technicians use their love of cannabis and the cannabis plant to combine chemistry, physics, plant biology and chemical engineering to help create a result that is not quite art, but not quite science. By controlling the plant material, pressure, heat and other variables, extraction technicians craft the base material for an edible, tincture or extract.
Similarly, brewers use their knowledge of a variety of disciplines, including chemistry and microbiology, as well as different brewing processes and a variety of ingredients, to develop creative recipes that result in consistent, interesting beers. The work of this master brewer is both science and art. They also manipulate plant material, pressure, heat and other variables to achieve the results they want.
Author Jeremy Dill collects cannabis extracts from test equipment
“I certainly think brewing is an art and a science, but it requires a very rigorous approach to create consistent, evolving beers for today’s craft market,” says Marshall Ligare, Ph. Research Scientist at John Haas, a leading provider of hops, hop products and brewing innovations. “Our job is to make sure that brewers can create something different with each new beer, as well as something that helps create an experience and a feeling.”
In brewing and refining, the art comes from the subjective experience of the artisan and his or her ability to curate the endless possibilities in each process. Both, however, are a science, as they both require establishing a production method that ensures a consistent, reliable product experience every time to earn customer loyalty (and regulatory compliance). Just as hops determine beer flavor formulations, the cannabis plant determines extraction formulations, especially given the role terpenes play in the quality, flavor and effectiveness of the final product.
The development of new and attractive cannabis products is beginning to mimic the variety of craft beers now found around the world. Just as beer connoisseurs look for the perfect stout, cellar beer or India pale ale, discerning cannabis consumers are now looking for single-source, strain-specific vaporizer oils or irresistible dab extracts.
“I see an exciting new day for high-quality, crafted extracts that tell a story of not only how the cannabis plant might be grown, but also the handling, careful pouring of edible oils that can be ignited for vaping,” said John Lynch, founder of Spy Intelligence Technologies. “Imagine the impact on the market when product manufacturers figure out how to conduct seasonal one-off auctions, because the connoisseurs involved are willing to pay a premium for the artwork behind the limited release.”
Just like hops determine the beer flavor recipe, the cannabis plant determines the extraction recipe
In both processes, you’re creating art with science. Each process applies to a different strain of bacteria. Each has to do with chemical composition and flavor. Each has its own challenges. In both worlds, quality depends on consistency. You’re creating art, but you need to replicate the art over and over again – and that can only happen with tight control of the process. Brewers seek to control factors such as yeast quantity, health, oxygen input, wort nutritional status, and temperature. In their quest, extraction technicians seek to control temperature, pressure and flow – and all the ways in which these variables interact with each other. In both endeavors, what achieves this control is the equipment used to achieve the results.
“A modern brewery is very much like a science lab,” Ligar says. Brewers treat their equipment like scientists treat their lab equipment, with the same concern for accuracy, cleanliness and purity of results. For each new beer, they want to develop a process that can be controlled and replicated.”
The key to creating an accurate process is to use instrument-grade extraction machinery that meets specifications and allows you to repeat the process time and time again. The value of using high quality instruments to manage and monitor the brewing or extraction process cannot be overstated. While it may seem counterintuitive, this is where the “process” comes into play when it comes to brewing and extracting cannabis. Precise instrumentation allows the brewer or extraction “artist” to manipulate and monitor the conditions needed to meet the recipe criteria. In addition to the quality of the ingredients (hops, hemp, marijuana, etc.), the quality of the equipment used to produce the product is a key factor in the final outcome. “Imagine the impact on the market when product manufacturers figure out how to conduct seasonal one-off auctions, because the connoisseurs involved are willing to pay a premium for the artwork behind the limited release.”
The second key decision in cannabis extraction is determining which solvent is the best solution for the recipe you’re using, and the end result you want to achieve. This decision is part of the “process” of extraction, and is determined based on a combination of criteria. There is no doubt that each solution has a business case for the best fit, and the debate continues over which method is best. But overwhelmingly, the solvent that best meets commercial needs is carbon dioxide because of its inherent versatility and ability to be adjusted to the concentration of a particular compound.
“Control is what makes or breaks any process product,” said Karen Devereux, vice president of Northeast Kingdom Cannabis. “We are based in Vermont and we love that Vermont is known for its great craft beer, cheese and maple syrup. We wanted to bring that craft approach to cannabis extraction, and everyone knows that any craft effort focuses on the details and getting them right time and time again. You can’t do that without controlling every aspect of the process.”
Better control of the process can also open up a world of discovery. the inherent “tunability” of CO₂ allows extraction technicians to target specific compounds, increasing the potential for experimentation and even whimsy. This could lead to entirely new products, just as a brewer can control his process to create new and interesting beers.
American portrait photographer Richard Avedon famously said that art is “about control”, describing the artistic process as “the meeting of the controlled and the uncontrolled”. The same is true of beer brewing and cannabis extraction. The more precise your control of the variables, the more options you and your customers will have. You’ll have more choices about different recipes and products. You’ll end up with more loyalty among your product fans.