Matt Sampson from North Coast Growers is a passionate cannabis phenohunter. He is on a quest to source specialty phenotypes of cannabis to produce consistent and interesting chemical profiles in every crop. Many in the industry would still label the pursuit of cannabinoid and terpene profile a type of “strain hunting,” but Sampson adamantly rejects the idea of strain in the cannabis industry. In his opinion the term strain is outdated.
Even as the industry continues to develop new innovative hybrids between the traditional sativas and indicas, are these novel ‘strains’ really new varieties? Sampson explains that in botany, the term strain doesn’t have any meaning. Cannabinoid and terpene profiles, the chemical makeup of cannabis, is a much more informative method of describing the differences between plants then the term strain could ever be.
The Problem with Cannabis Strain
Long before prohibition, there were technically two types, or 'strains’ of cannabis: indica and sativa. Each type grew in different regions and latitudes of the world, and thus developed different characteristics. Once California's cannabis industry started moving plants indoors, during the 1970s and 1980s, that's when growers started playing with hybridization. Within only a few short decades, there are now more hybrids than anyone can keep track of.
Even strains advertised as strictly sativa or pure indica, are more hybrid than anything else these days according to Sampson. Specific strains like a Sour Diesel or Bubba Kush tend to develop dramatically different chemical compositions depending on who cultivates it, how they nurture it, and where it grows.
A kush grown outdoors in California will have a sharply different cannabinoid composition than that of the same strain grown indoors in Oregon. Sampson believes the industry has gotten to a point where strain is nearly meaningless; there is simply no consistency from one crop to the next as far as cannabinoids, terpenes, and end-user experience.
Instead, Sampson prefers to focus on chemovar, also sometimes referred to as chemotype. A chemovar is a chemically distinct type of cultivar. If a cultivar is a cultivated variety of cannabis developed through selective breeding than a chemovar is a chemically distinct expression from that cultivar.
Who grew it, how they grew it and in what area of the world all help develop these distinct chemovar subtypes of cannabis. The interactions between chemovar and cultivar play into the theories of genotype and phenotype whereby genotype (or the genetic constitution) develops into a variety of phenotypes through interaction with its environment.
The Importance of Terpene Profile
Sampson disagrees with the current push for cannabinoid content and testing. In his opinion, terpene profile may play a more crucial role in perfecting product consistency and user experience than the drive to increase THC levels. While he agrees there will always be a segment of customers seeking a cheap, high potency product, the market trend is shifting towards refinement and more nuanced cannabinoid and terpene profiles.
He likens it to the alcohol industry, where there is a wide variety of price points and quality available in the market. Where some people will happily pay extra for a handcrafted, small-batch whiskey, others reach for the cheap options on the bottom shelf. The cannabis industry has evolved into a similar space.
Sampson is spending most of his time ‘phenohunting,’ looking for cannabis cultivars which express themselves in an interesting way in the North Coast Growers environment. He strives to find varieties not only with exciting cannabinoid profiles, but also terpene compositions. Terpene testing is now embedded within the North Coast Growing methodology. There are very few growers today which implement mandatory terpene testing for their crops. Sampson strongly believes that terpenes give him more valuable information than strict cannabinoid testing ever could.
The Consumer Learning Curve
From Sampson’s perspective, the cannabis consumer is only going to pay so much for their purchase, no matter the quality of the cultivation and the attention to chemical makeup. North Coast Growers have already captured the top shelf market with their products, and it's now a matter of customer education to expand the market demand for higher end cannabis.
He admits this is a bit of a challenging task, considering just how much of the margin’s in Washington state are eaten up by taxes alone. Roughly 37 percent goes to the state, and a further 10 percent goes to the municipality in Seattle. Little profit remains to spend on customer education programs. Customers still largely seek out THC above all else?
For now, the educational component is a bit of a waiting game until more of the market grasps the value of secondary cannabinoids and terpene profiles. Until then, he's focused on sourcing interesting cannabis cultivars that fill a need for his customers and to focus on providing a consistent quality product worth more than its THC content.