Cannabis and humans have a very long history together – nearly 6,000 years in fact! – and this relationship has taken many forms throughout the years. In Asia, thousands of years ago, it’s said that the people of the era used it for medicinal purposes. The weed, so to speak, spread its way across Europe, Africa, and even the Americas where it was used mostly for making rope and textiles. Somewhere along the way humans discovered that this already nifty plant had other useful properties as well. Namely, it makes you feel good.
So it is not surprising that our fascination with this wonder-plant has only intensified as time has worn on. Humans, doing the kinds of things that humans do, wanted to know how we could improve our relationship with cannabis and get more out of what makes it so good.
Enter concentrates: a concentrate is a cannabis product that has been processed to keep only the most desirable compounds, while removing excess plant material and other impurities. Concentrates can be made in many different ways and can take on a wide variety of textures and flavors. This article will serve as a guide to concentrates, their many forms, and most importantly…how they can be consumed.
While cannabis has over 400 chemical entities, it’s the cannabinoids and terpenes that we’re really interested in. So, what are they?
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant. Besides humans’ historical, cultural, and political relationship with the cannabis plant, we have another more intimate one. Our bodies have what’s called an endocannabinoid system with receptors that bind to naturally occurring chemical compounds known as endocannabinoids. The endocannabinoids produced by our bodies are similar to cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. So similar, in fact, that cannabinoids can bind to our endocannabinoid receptors to produce certain effects.
Although there are multiple cannabinoids in the cannabis plant including Delta-8, CBN, CBG, THCA, it’s usually delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) that are the most desirable, and thus are the ones that end up in your concentrates! THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects associated with cannabis use. This is the compound that creates the high or sense of euphoria. THC has also been known to help with pain, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety. The other main cannabinoid, CBD, does not produce a high, but it has been known to help with seizures, inflammation, pain, psychosis or mental disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, nausea, migraine, depression, and anxiety, among others.
Now, it is possible to create concentrates with only THC or with only CBD or a combination of the two. These, after all, are arguably the most desirable compounds in the plant, and that’s what we want in a concentrate. However, there are many who argue that these two compounds work best in a team of other compounds rather than flying solo. This is known as the entourage effect.
This is where terpenes come in. Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in many plants that give them their specific scents. In the cannabis world, terpenes are commonly seen as the second most important members of the entourage for a number of reasons. One is that they give the flower or the concentrate their specific flavors or scents that we all know and love. But there are those who say that terpenes also help to give flavor to the experience itself. Think, for example, of essential oils. Different distilled scents in essential oils are said to elicit different effects on the mood. Lavender will make you calm while peppermint will wake you up. In the same way, terpenes give THC or CBD concentrates their character.
There are thousands of terpenes that exist in nature, but cannabinoids have a few main ones:
How are concentrates made?
All of these desirable compounds are found in trichomes. Trichomes are the hairy or crystalline stuff found all over the cannabis plant, but mostly on the flower. It might make the plant look frosty or fuzzy, but under a microscope most of these little crystal-like structures look very similar to mushroom-like protuberances. In any case, this is where all the good stuff can be found.
So, how do we get the good stuff on its own without the excess plant material? There are two main extraction methods: solvent-based, or solventless procedures.
The solvent-based method is exactly what it sounds like; solvents like butane, carbon dioxide, ethanol, or propane are used to strip out cannabinoids and terpenes from the plant. The concentrate then goes through another process that evaporates the leftover solvents.
A solventless method uses pressure, filtration, and/or heat to extract a concentrate from the cannabis plant.
What kinds of concentrates are there?
Because there are so many ways to extract compounds from the cannabis plant, there are naturally many different forms concentrates can take. These forms range in color, texture, and flavor.
Oil: There are three kinds of oil concentrates, all of which are produced with solvents. CO2 oil is produced with – you guessed it – CO2, carbon dioxide. This process helps to retain more terpenes and can be consumed with vape cartridges and disposable vapes. Butane hash oil (BHO) is produced through the use of butane. A common way to consume these is through dabbing. Finally, distillate oils are commonly used in edibles because they can be refined down to only the THC or CBD compounds, removing the strong natural flavors and aromas.
Shatter: Shatter gets its name from its glass-like structure that can be “shattered” into smaller pieces for consumption. It can also have a taffy-like consistency that can be pulled and snapped.
Wax: This substance is soft and gooey, and very sticky, and is ideal for a dabbing tool or vape.
Crumble: Crumble has a honeycomb-like structure made by whipping shatter and then purging it in a vacuum oven at low temperatures to dry the concentrate.
Sugar: Sugar is a concentrate with a wet, sugary consistency.
Sauce: Sauce is similar to sugar. However, it’s thicker, more viscous, and has a more uniform crystalline structure.
Crystalline: This concentrate, as the name implies, has a crystalline structure and can take the form of small crystal-like rocks or powder.
Live Resin: Live resin extraction uses frozen plant material to maintain its cannabinoid profile. The terpenes in a live resin concentrate are preserved nearly at the same levels as a live plant – hence the name.
Rosin: Instead of using a solvent, cannabis compounds are extracted via heat and pressure. This concentrate has the consistency of very thick syrup.
Budder: This concentrate is also known as “badder” or “cake batter” for its batter-like consistency. It is produced by whipping shatter under low, even temperatures to evenly distribute air molecules. This texture is considered ideal for dabbing.
Sap: Sap is a thick, viscous, aromatic oil with high terpene levels. It has the consistency and coloring of tree sap.
Isolates: Isolates are THC or CBD compounds that have been chemically removed and purified from cannabis oil, creating up to 99% pure concentrates that can appear as crystals or CBD powders.
How to consume concentrates
Now that you know what concentrates are and how they’re made, it’s time to answer the most important question of all… how do you consume them?
You might say that the methods for consuming concentrates are just as varied as the concentrates themselves, so where to begin? Probably the most old school method is to add a concentrate to a joint or a bowl to intensify the experience when smoking cannabis. This method harkens back to the days when “concentrates” were more crude; for example, grinding the flower to make kief, which can be sprinkled over a bowl or into a joint. However, these days more sophisticated concentrates can be consumed by vaping or dabbing. Both of these methods vaporize the concentrate into an inhalable form, and both have undergone some serious technological improvements over the years.
You may or may not remember, but vaporizers used to be bulky, cumbersome things. These days, vapes or vape pens are much smaller and sleeker, portable and discrete. Most vape pens require a pre-filled cartridge carrying oil that can be vaporized through the use of a heating device in the pen.
Another method of consuming concentrates that has gained popularity is dabbing. Traditionally, dabbing required a dab rig consisting of a ceramic, glass, or titanium “nail” that is heated using a torch. The concentrate is applied to the heated nail for vaporization. As opposed to vaporizers, a dab rig allowed people to choose a wider variety of cannabis forms, but there are drawbacks to the dab rig as well. Namely, it is bulky and not ideal for portability, and it can be dangerous because it requires the use of a blow torch.
Like vaping, dabbing has also evolved into a sleeker, simpler thing. These days you can buy dab pens that do the same work as a dab rig but without the need for an open flame. Dab pens are also far more portable and discrete. They have become wildly popular because they allow the user a wider variety of concentrates than a vape or traditional methods of smoking cannabis. Some of the best ones, like the Dipper made by Dip Devices, come with multiple attachments. This provides choices on how cannabis concentrates are consumed including an electric dab straw that can be dipped directly into the concentrate or a quartz crystal atomizer that allows the user to load the concentrates like a traditional pack-and-go dab pen but get a true dab rig hit.
With all of the amazing things that cannabis does for us, it’s really no wonder that we’ve sought out dozens (hundreds?) of ways to interact with it and consume it. You might even say that the marvel of cannabis and the genius of humans have combined to create a beautiful relationship that we’re really only just beginning to explore now.