Concentrates 101

600 600 Mark Francis

Illinois medical cannabis patients have a wealth of ingestion options available to them via legal dispensaries. So many options in fact, that at times it may feel overwhelming, a fact that is especially true in the concentrates category more than any other. Cannabis concentrates come in a rainbow of different styles, consistencies, and colors. This blog post is intended to help you have the knowledge you need to navigate the field, and select the concentrate best for you!

In the simplest explanation, a cannabis concentrate is a collection of the oil which is extracted from the plant material. This oil is mostly found on the surface of the leaves and buds in the form of sticky bulbous resinous trichomes. Any variations in the source material, extraction process, or post-extraction processing will result in a slightly different end product. The oil can be unlocked from the plant via various extraction methods, known by two main types; solvent-based vs solvent-free. Solvents can be used to dissolve and carry the oil from the plant material, but must then be removed to ensure a safe and healthy product. Any alcohol or hydrocarbon can be used to strip the oil from the plant, along with supercritical CO2. A process called winterization is then used to remove additional components removed from the plant during the extraction process, like waxes, lipids, and chlorophyll. Solvent-free methods utilize mechanical and physical techniques to remove, separate, and capture the resinous trichomes from the plant material.

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Concentrates can be consumed in a number of different ways, but ideally should be vaporized not combusted. The scientific difference between those two is a matter of specific temperatures. Simply put, combustion is burning, and vaporization is a phase change from solid or liquid to gas. When water evaporates it is changing from a liquid to a gas, and this phenomenon is similar to what happens with cannabis oil, but just at a higher temperature than room temperature. The closer the temperature to combustion, the more flavor that will be lost and the more likely it will be that you are combusting the oil and not vaporizing. Concentrates can be paired with typical flower, but some efficiency may be lost with this pairing. Simply placing the concentrate on top of a bowl or inside a joint will work as the heat from the burning flower will work to vaporize the oil nearby. Be wary as any of the concentrate which is not vaporized by the heat, for example which runs down into a glass pipe when heated or wafts away into the air, will be lost product. Typically concentrates are consumed using a vaporizer or dabber, both of which come in many different shapes and sizes. Even in the case of dabbing, be sure to mind your temperatures to ensure you are vaporizing and not combusting your concentrates.

Let’s start by focusing the solvent-free methods first! Most notably in this category would be kief, discussed in-depth in a previous blog post here. Kief is basically resin powder, or the collection of resinous trichomes. They can be collected by shaking cannabis trim or buds over a series of silk screens, which have smaller and smaller sized holes at the micron level and only allow trichomes to fall through while stopping other plant material. This variation is typically of power-like consistency, and is known as dry-sift kief. This same phenomena is what happens inside your grinder, resulting in the powder you find in the catch at the bottom. Trim and buds can also be frozen and washed with water and ice in containers, draining the results through successive bags with smaller and smaller holes sized at the micron level. The results are similar to dry sift, but is paste like in consistency and known as bubble hash. The name refers to the results when burning this concentrate, as it will characteristically melt and bubble when heated. Both variations of kief are similar, but will be different in potency, taste, and consistency. Medical patients who are particularly sensitive to the idea of solvents can choose kief as their concentrate of choice. Both dry and wet kief can be combined with flower to boost medicating power. Dry sift kief can be dabbed, but the results will be less than stellar, so choose the other keif concentrate option (bubble hash) if you are going to be dabbing. If you are typical flower consumer, sprinkling kief on top is a quick and easy way to increase your cannabinoid intake! Kief can be pressed and heated, transforming it into rosin. Rosin is more suited for dabbing applications than kief.

Now let’s move onto the concentrates extracted using solvents. There are many names for the varieties of wax found on the market. Solvent extraction is a powerful means to strip the oily essence from the cannabis plant. The characteristics of the resulting oil will be highly influenced by what specific solvent is used. Some manufactures of cannabis concentrates have gone so far as to create unique and proprietary blends of solvents, so that they have the unique path to their branded concentrate. The choice of solvent is one of the main determining factors which dictates the end result. After the oil has been extracted, it must be post-processed to ensure a safe and healthy product. This post-processing is the second most important factor which will dictate the end result. Special pressurized ovens, called vacuum ovens, are used to modify the pressure while heating the oil to remove any residual solvent locked inside the concentrate. By placing the concentrate into a vacuum the boiling point can be lowered, so the solvent can be made to boil at a lower temperature. Keeping the extract at a lower temperature will prevent degradation of cannabinoids due to heat, and in the case of making shatters prevent decarboxylization. Different mechanical treatments can be used in the post-processing phase, resulting in an end product which can vary from oily to buttery in consistency.

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You can take a deeper dive into the chemistry and material science theories behind the difference between a wax and shatter by clicking here. Winterization is also part of the post-processing, removing contaminants and further refining and altering the oil in taste, texture, and consistency. There can also be variations in the choice of starting product from dried buds, various forms of trim, fresh moist buds, and even fresh frozen buds. When cannabis is frozen fresh and then run through the extraction process, a concentrate called live resin is produced. Live resin is known for being especially flavorful and one of the best extraction methods of capturing the essence of the plants unique smells and flavors. With solvent based extractions the most common solvent used is butane, and is abbreviated many places as BHO, short for butane hash oil. The solvent most commonly thought of as the best to use is supercritical CO2, which is CO2 gas super-pressurized to its supercritical point. At this special point the CO2 flows through the plant matter like a gas but dissolves oil from the plant like a liquid. This method can be fine tuned to extract all or parts of the plant’s chemical makeup.

Concentrates are available in a wide variety. When selecting a concentrate to try, keep several things in mind when you are making your decision. First, look for a strain you prefer and try to find a concentrate of your ideal strain. Second, decide if flavor or potency is more important to you in a concentrate product. Finally, look for a concentrate of your desired strain in the form which accentuates either flavor, (like live resin) potency, (like shatter) or range in both flavor and potency (like a wax or budder). Cresco Labs has a wide variety of concentrates available now. Please click here and find the dispensary nearest to you!

What is your ideal concentrate? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook!

Here is a breakdown of the concentrates in summary:

  • Solvent-free
    • Kief (Dry sift) (Trichomes)
      • Process: The sparkly coating of cannabis or resin powder in the form of resin filled trichomes, is broken off and filtered through screens and collected. Exactly the same powder that  you find in the bottom of your grinder.
      • Physical Description: A powder-like substance
      • Flavor & Taste: Carries the flavor essence of the plant well
      • Potency: 20%-60%
      • Overall: A great solvent-free concentrate which is easy to pair with flower to enhance both flavor and cannabinoid intake. Will burn quickly and smolder when ignited. Not good for dabbing.
    • Bubble hash
      • Process: Cannabis is frozen (can be dry) and placed into buckets with ice water. The mixture is agitated and drained through screen filter bags and similar to dry sift the resinous trichomes are broken off and collected.
      • Physical Description: A hash-like granular paste
      • Flavor & Taste: Slightly less potent in flavor and taste than dry sift kief as some smell and flavors will be washed away.
      • Potency: 50%-80%
      • Overall: A great solvent-free concentrate which can be paired with flower or a hash bowl. Will burn quickly and smolder when ignited. Not good for dabbing.
    • Rosin
      • Process: Either kief or dried cannabis is wrapped in wax parchment paper and simultaneously pressed and heated.
      • Physical Description: Semi-clear oil with tacky consistency
      • Flavor & Taste: Known to capture smells and flavors well
      • Potency: 50%-70%
      • Overall: A great solvent-free concentrate which can be used in a vaporizer pen or dabbed. Kief can be transformed into a dabbable substance as rosin.
  • Solvent-based
    • Wax
      • Process: Cannabis is placed into a vessel and a solvent is passed through. The solvent is allowed to evaporate, and only the oily essence of the plant remains. Further processing is necessary to purge the substance of its solvent, and winterization is done to remove unwanted chemicals extracted from the plant like chlorophyll, waxes, and lipids.
      • Physical Description: Great variation influenced by solvent and post processing choices. Generally oily to paste-like, can be smooth or granular.
      • Flavor & Taste: Potent flavor, bordering on harsh
      • Potency: 60%-90%
      • Overall: Great go-to concentrate which can be paired with flower, a vaporizer, or dabbed.
    • Shatter
      • Process: Specially treated extract, allowed to cool without being agitated, and kept at lower temperatures throughout processing. Terpenes and moisture are removed to increase the percentage by weight of cannabinoids.
      • Physical Description: Hard glass-like low moisture oil. Can be tacky, or solid like hard candy.
      • Flavor & Taste: Harsh flavor, thick smoke, can be overwhelming
      • Potency: 80%-95%
      • Overall: Extremely potent concentrate not for the inexperienced.
    • Budder
      • Process: Wax which is agitated mechanically or by hand, causing a molecular change in the substance altering its physical characteristics to be more wax-like than oil-like.
      • Physical Description: Butter like paste which is creamy smooth
      • Flavor & Taste: Flavorful
      • Potency: 60%-90%
      • Overall: Great concentrate which can be paired with flower, a vaporizer, or dabbed which has more personality and unique characteristics than unprocessed wax concentrate.
    • Live resin
      • Process: The same extraction process is run using fresh frozen cannabis.
      • Physical Description: Oily and colorful
      • Flavor & Taste: Super rich flavor, smooth taste, not overwhelming
      • Potency: 65%-95%
      • Overall: Most flavor rich of all the concentrates. Great concentrate which can be paired with flower, a vaporizer, or dabbed.