Those in the marijuana industry add flavors, aromas and effects to weed with the help of terpenes.
The next frontier of curating a cannabis experience, experts say, lies not in a strain of the plant – the Sour Diesels and Pineapple Kushes that your dispensary will surely have on its menu – but in harnessing the terpenes within cannabis.
“Terpenes are essential oils found in different botanicals and plant matter. They’re why lemon has that citrusy smell, why pine needles smell like pine,” said Seth Yaffe, operations manager at Ermont Inc., a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Quincy, Mass.
Terpenes are mostly known for giving plants their unique aroma, which is why there are essential oils of lavender and eucalyptus. But when they work in conjunction with cannabinoids like THC and CBD, “it’s an entourage effect,” Yaffe said, meaning terpenes can actually change or heighten the therapeutic effects of marijuana.
To take advantage of terpenes, many labs isolate them when they process the cannabis into a concentrate.
“Most people processing for THC strip out the terpenes and other minor cannabinoids to get to a clear product,” explained Norman Olson of High Tech Extracts in Maine. “Then to get flavor and aroma, you add the terpenes back. That’s the sommelier art of it.”
Speaking of wine, Yaffe actually worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, where he wrote wine lists. He’s seen how people can smell a certain strain and know right away what it is, “just like a sommelier would be able to blind smell wine.”
But with terpenes, his role goes above and beyond suggesting flavors and scents someone might like. It’s about the kind of high these terpenes bring with them, too.
“It might be the same level of cannabis, but by adding in different blends of terpenes, we’re able to promote specific effects … like promoting more relaxing sleep,” Yaffe said. “The four major effects of the line we carry are concentration, helping sleep, anti-anxiety and the ability to have more energy.”
This is the customization that is taking over the business side of cannabis, Yaffe said. People aren’t necessarily looking just for certain strains anymore, but for a curated high, and terpenes help achieve that.
Still, terpenes are “new to the game” in terms of what we know, Yaffe said. Though there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research around cannabis and all its components yet, experts in the industry hope that with its acceptance – like the legalization in Massachusetts – comes more knowledge about it.
“Regardless of medical or recreational, a tremendous amount of people are cannabis users that are really looking for an effect,” he said. “It’s the importance of those terpenes and how we understand them, how we move forward with science to be able to manipulate and safely add them, that will allow for the creation of new products.”