🇺🇸 Retired veteran, father, rock-climbing expert & rosin connoisseur.
Specific extraction methods are capable of showcasing a cannabis cultivar’s unique qualities to various degrees. Some extraction methodologies can target only specific components of a cultivar’s genetic expression, creating a final product that lacks a holistic representation of the starting material. Other methodologies capture the essence of the particular plant genetics in its entirety, amplifying the traits of the starting material in aggregate rather than selecting specific elements to exhibit.
Plant genetics dictate resin production, terpene profiles, and cannabinoid content. The unique set of genetics in any given cannabis plant is known as its cultivar, traditionally referred to in the industry as the cannabis “strain”. Selecting the right cultivar may make all the difference, or it may not matter at all. It depends on the extraction methodology. Genetics, and more specifically the overall quality of starting material, can be a leading indicator to which type of extraction methodology is best.
In some situations, extractors will aim to create a product that clearly represents the cultivar from which it was extracted. In other situations, representing the unique characteristics of a certain cultivar isn’t desirable, as is often the case with unremarkable cultivars. Sometimes it makes sense to preserve the uniqueness of a cultivar throughout the extraction process, while other times it’s better to obscure the source of an extraction and allow the cultivar to remain anonymous. Which path extractors choose to take depends on their production positioning within the market.
The extraction methodology an operation chooses to employ determines the extent to which a cannabis concentrate will either reveal or camouflage the cultivar from which it’s extracted.
Let’s take a look at three main types of extraction techniques.
Distillation is a methodology characterized by ultra-refinement, leaving extractors with a pure and potent oil. This oil, also referred to as distillate, is initially made through a hydrocarbon extraction process. It then goes through a steaming and condensation process, where it transforms from a liquid to a vapor and back again. This metamorphosis allows extract to shed the contaminants and other impurities which were previously bound within the oil.
The distillation method of extraction offers labs a lot of versatility, capable of producing small batches of concentrates or massive industrial volumes, depending on the scale of the system. The equipment can be scaled to fit the needs of any particular lab. Distillation is somewhat of an all-purpose method, as it can isolate certain cannabinoids or terpenes, regardless of the particular cannabis cultivar used as starting material. This dissociation from particular cultivars offers labs a consistent output oil, ideal for making edibles and flavor-added vaporizer cartridges.
This gives extractors the freedom to select starting material from a wide variety of cultivars, not just those that are currently in popular demand. Extractors can even start with trim and end up with a high-quality product, a feat that other methodologies couldn’t achieve.
Distillation is known for its ability to create a consistent product, regardless of the cultivar used in extraction. This is especially helpful when formulating edibles and vape cartridges, when select terpenes can then be reintroduced post-production.
Distillation is also great for remediating unimpressive or subpar material. And it allows extractors to be agnostic to specific genetics, taking whatever cultivar is available and making it profitable.
It does not preserve the spectrum of qualities that characterize a particular cultivar. This is an advantage when working with an unimpressive cultivar, but a blasphemy when working with a truly phenomenal one.
Hydrocarbon extraction relies on chemical solvents to isolate individual compounds, such as terpenes and cannabinoids, from starting material. Butane and propane are common solvents that extractors use in order to strip the target ingredients out of cannabis. Extractors heat the resulting concentrate which causes the solvents to evaporate away, leaving behind a finished product.
Hydrocarbon is a general purpose extraction method that can be modified to offer a little bit for everybody, depending on the situation. A skilled extractor can use hydrocarbon methodology to create high quality concentrates from either low quality trim or premium fresh frozen starting material. The process itself, and the type of solvents used in extraction, can be adjusted to accommodate any sort of starting material. Hydrocarbon extractions exemplify the characteristics of the cultivar, or mask them. The process can be modified depending on the use case and desired outcome.
In any situation, the extract needs to be thoroughly purged of the solvents before it's ready for consumption. The product's exposure to hazardous chemicals, even taking into account the purging process, is a downside to this extraction method.
Adaptability is the key advantage of hydrocarbon extraction methods. These techniques allow extractors to produce live resin concentrates that dab true to the source cultivar, or vaporizer cartridges with true single source origins. On the lower end of the spectrum, solvent-based extraction can turn low quality trim leaves or flower into wax or crumble for the more budget-conscious consumer.
Underperforming cultivars can’t hide behind solventless extraction methods. Solventless extractions like rosin, dry sift, and bubble hash capture the resin in its totality, which preserves the actual qualities of the unique cultivar. There is no stripping away, reformulating, or reintegrating various compounds of the resin.
What the cultivar produces in terms of resin quality is what the consumer will receive. Solventless extraction methods isolate the entire resin head, and the resin head doesn’t lie. The resin that the plant produces is what gets passed through into the final product, just as it is.
Of all methodologies, the success of solventless extraction hinges most heavily on the specific cultivar used. Which cultivar to use for starting material is the most important consideration in the solventless extraction lab. Solventless can optimize for an exotic, boutique experiences with the most desirable cultivars. For many labs looking to to operate with a cultivar-first approach, solventless is the extraction method of choice.
It’s important to understand how a given cultivar will respond to solventless extraction. The amount of trichomes the plant produces, the hardiness of the trichome head membrane, the terpene profile, and other factors play into the success or failure of a cultivar in a solventless lab. Not all popular cultivars will be good candidates for solventless extraction, although many of the most exotic and sought-after cultivars will do very well. This is another reason why solventless extractors need to be hyper-conscious of which cultivars they’re running.
Solventless extraction is the best method for capturing the true essence of any given cultivar and preserving it holistically throughout the extraction process, all the way to the consumer. In our view, nothing beats solventless. It’s simply the best of the best.
As far as cultivar-dependence, distillation is on one end of the spectrum, and solventless is at the other. Distillation is great for economy of scale, while solventless methods are capable of delivering an exotic, boutique experience that reflects the best cultivars. Distillation and hydrocarbon are ideal for transforming lackluster starting material into a high-quality finished product. Solventless methods like pressing rosin, dry sifting, and ice water extraction are best for preserving exceptional qualities of a winning cultivar.
The demand for specific cultivars varies from market to market. And the winner today may soon become the afterthought of tomorrow. Agility is key to staying ahead of the competition. Knowing how to efficiently adjust to shifting tastes and fickle temperament of the market when it comes to cultivar preference, as well as the availability of specific genetics from growers, are two benchmarks of agility for extraction labs.
Once you’ve determined the top priorities of your lab, and clarify your goals for production, the challenge is staying focused while remaining agile at the same time. Choosing the right extraction methodology is one of the most important decisions you will make.
Thoughts? Let us know by joining our secret Facebook group. Hang out with a community of like-minded solventless heads like yourself. Ask our head extractor questions, share your latest press and learn from hobbyists and experts in the industry.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is cannabis distillation?
Distillation is a methodology that puts cannabis starting material through a steaming and condensation process, where it transforms from a liquid to a vapor and then back again, leaving an ultra-pure oil.
What is hydrocarbon extraction?
Hydrocarbon extraction relies on chemical solvents to isolate individual compounds, such as terpenes and cannabinoids, from starting material. Butane and propane are common solvents that extractors use in order to strip the target ingredients out of cannabis.
What is solventless extraction?
Solventless extractions like rosin, dry sift, and bubble hash capture the resin in its totality, which preserves the actual qualities of the unique cultivar. There is no stripping away, reformulating, or reintegrating various compounds of the resin.
What is the best type of extraction methodology?
Solventless extraction is the best method for capturing the true essence of any given cultivar and preserving it holistically throughout the extraction process, all the way to the consumer. In our view, nothing beats solventless.
What cultivars are best for extractions?
Some extraction methodologies rely on the cultivars of the source material more than others. Cultivar selection is much more important for solventless extraction than it is for distillation.