Organoleptic evaluation is one of the oldest and simplest methods of food assessment. When you sniff beef to see if it's a little iffy, flip a package of raspberries to check for mold, or take a sip of wine to pick out distinct flavors of dried cherry and leather, that's organoleptic analysis. It is, in essence, the use of human senses to assess a substance.
And now it's being used to assess marijuana.
Organoleptic analysis of weed is still in its infancy, but it represents a major step forward in the advancement of our scientific knowledge of weed, which is light years behind our understanding of nearly every other agricultural product. Thus far, attempts to profile the flavor of weed have been relegated to half-baked sales pitches delivered by dudes whose palates are most familiar with Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Recently, I was invited to sit in on what may have been one of the world's first organoleptic analysis panels for marijuana, at Confidence Analytics in Redmond, a state-certified cannabis-testing lab. Bobby Hines and Nick Mosely, Confidence's co-owners, designed the panel based on tasting guidelines published by the International Organization for Standardization.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the panel was how much it resembled a wine tasting. Despite the trippy Einstein poster on the wall, super comfy chairs, and soft reggae soundtrack overhead, it was a remarkably rigorous affair. For each sample, we were asked to examine the bud under magnification; describe its trichomes, hairs, color, and appearance; determine its "squeeze factor" (i.e., its density and moisture content); and take several deep whiffs of it and pick out its distinct aromas.
Like wine, the sniff was when things got weird. One panelist, discussing a vaguely chemical element to a sample's aroma, described the weed as smelling like "a factory where all the machines were made of weed from that Cheech and Chong movie." Another offered, "It just smells like weed, dude." One of the strains left me with the unmistakable aroma of Skittles.
Those aromas, explained Hines, come from terpenes—organic compounds responsible for marijuana's intense odors. The terpene makeup is largely strain specific, but there is also an element of terroir. Weed's terroir is not about place so much as it is about a grower's technique, as weed tends to be grown in tightly controlled climates with heavily modified soil.
The strain I was given to try in my assigned "science bong"—a utilitarian glass bong filled with distilled water—was "Cheddarhead" from Fine Detail Greenway. It didn't smell much like cheese, but it did have an intense grapefruit note to it, which Hines told me was likely due to its terpene makeup. "There was a whole lot of limonene in strain B, and a whole cocktail of other terpenes that may have given a little grapefruit to that citrus," he said.
Hines and Mosely plan to compare the panelists' observations of terpenes with lab analyses. In addition to creating a great marketing tool for growers looking to stand out in a competitive market, Confidence Analytics hope to better understand the role terpenes play in marijuana.
Terpenes have been shown to have powerful therapeutic effects of their own, and though little is known about how they interact with THC, anecdotal evidence points to the existence of an "entourage effect," in which the molecules work in tandem to create a more potent high. So the lemon scent of your Lemon Haze could be important not just because it doesn't foul up your living room, but also because it can protect you from a staph infection (that's a real thing that terpenes do!) and give you a better overall high.
While most people buy recreational pot based primarily on its THC content, it may not always be that way. As we discover more of the properties of terpenes, a strain's aromatic profile may become just as important as its THC or CBD content. I asked Robert Huff, the grower responsible for Cheddarhead, what made the extra expense of a terpene analysis and tasting panel worthwhile, and he put it thusly: "People go in and they look at numbers. But [the panel results] help people realize it's not just about the numbers. You wouldn't buy wine based only on its ABV, would you?"