An educated palate
The breeding and production of fine quality cannabis is more an art than a science. A creative mind and sense of imagination is necessary to achieve success in this field. The other requirement is a very discerning palate, including the ability to discern and appreciate subtle variations in taste, smell and mental experience.
Anatomically, the palate is located between the roof of the mouth and the nasal passages. The intricacies of taste and palate are complex and poorly understood. The taste buds in the tongue and mouth make up only a small fraction of the mechanisms used to interpret taste and smell.
Olfaction is the term used to describe the sense of smell. The olfactory bulb is the main sensor used to experience and interpret smells. This organ is located behind the nasal passages ? up your nose. The sense of smell is one of the most complex we possess, and more of the brain is dedicated to processing smells than any other sense. Smell is closely related to memory, especially older memories. Anatomically, this region is located between the cortex and the occipital lobes, above and around the ears to the top of the head.
Research and experience suggest that some people have a greater natural ability to discern taste and smell than others. The palate can also be developed, educated and refined.
There are many similarities between the wine industry and the cannabis industry. One of these is that both use “expert palates” to identify and discern the various desirable traits of a product. However, unlike wine, cannabis has another added aspect to consider: the type of experience produced by the product. Alcohol’s main experience is similar (and overconsumption can be fatal) while cannabis provides a wide range of effects and is non-toxic.
Some herb is strictly pleasing to the mental palate but is not so tasty, while other might taste great but have mild or unpleasant effects.
Spectrums of experience
The first spectrum to consider is the “up and down” experience. “Up” refers to the stimulating aspects of cannabis, while “down” refers to sedative qualities. Up pot tends to liven the disposition and stimulate the emotions, inspiring sociability and talkativeness. Down pot tends to produce sedative and depressant effects. Some people refer to stimulating pot as being a “head” high and sedative pot as being a “body” high, yet although partially true this is also misleading.
Body and head highs are the next spectrum of the cannabis experience. Generally speaking, head highs are stimulating and body highs are sedative, but not all are. Some body highs are stimulating and some head highs are depressing. I once sampled a terribly paranoia-inducing head pot that inspired great couch lock qualities. I called it Boo-Goo.
Early to late harvest will affect the head to body spectrum expressed by a certain plant, with the later harvest tending to produce more body and sedative effects. However, I believe that certain aspects of this spectrum to be genetically inherited.
Next to consider are aspects of duration. Some cannabis tends to be short-acting (15-30min) whereas other varieties last much longer (6-7 hours). Once again production, harvesting and curing techniques can influence aspects of this spectrum, but much of this effect is inherited.
For me, the most important aspect of the cannabis experience to consider is tolerance. This refers to the product’s ability to provide the same experience via the same amount over time ? the burnout factor. By “over time” I mean the long run: months, years, decades…
Most of the cannabis I see on the market today has a terrible tolerance factor ? a quick burnout time with the product’s novelty lasting less than a week. Luther Burbank’s model of breeding needs to be employed here and no expression of tolerance to your product is to be tolerated. An example of where intolerance to tolerance is tolerated ? enough already!
Another aspect of tolerance is “ceiling.” This refers to how high (or far) one is capable of going with the variety. How many hits can you consume until more hits are unnoticeable? Most indicas have a low ceiling of less than 10 hits. For me that’s usually around 5 hits in one smoking session. If I smoke more than 5 hits of a strong indica I will either not notice the post-ceiling hits, or I will fall asleep.
Some sativas have a very high ceiling, or seem to have none at all! This means that the more you consume, the higher and further you go. Oaxaca Highland Gold, Black Magic African, and Highland Thai were some of the herbs I’ve tried with very high or no ceiling.
The final aspect of mental effects to consider when sampling strains for breeding is the tendency to produce anxiety. Certain strains of cannabis increase anxiety while others decrease it. This is also true for other emotions, which some strains may suppress while others may augment their intensity. Generally stimulating and head varieties are the ones that can produce unwanted anxiety, but this is not always the case. Quickly cured buds or an over-early harvest are contributing factors to anxiety-increasing pot, but this trait is also genetic in nature.
Tastes and tasters
The physical palates of cannabis add another dimension to the equation. Taste is an important factor toward determining the desirability of most cannabis. The range of flavours expressed by the genus cannabis is extraordinary. No other plant on the planet can equal the cacophony of smells and tastes available from cannabis. This fact alone should interest researchers from several fields.
The range of possible smells and tastes a human can experience is large and complex. To date, no-one has created a fully usable olfaction chart, but Ann Noble developed a nifty “aroma wheel” for the wine industry, which inspired me to develop a cannabis olfaction chart. Like Ann’s wheel, more basic aroma categories like “fruity”, “floral”, “spicy” and “pungent” go in the centre, and branch out into more specific aromas. So beneath “fruity” goes “berry” and “citrus”, and beneath “citrus” is “lemon”, “lime” and “orange”.
The main cannabis aromas are: woody, spicy, fruity, earthen, pungent, chemical and vegetative ? a wide range indeed. More specific aromas include pine and cedar under “woody”, musty and dusty for “earthen”, blueberry and mango under “fruity”, and many others. Most aromas are possible through some combination of strains. Many of these strains were best expressed and acclimated when they were grown outdoors in their region-of-origin, or homeland.
Note that aroma and flavour vary between various stages of the plant. The aroma of a live bud on the plant, a dried and cured bud, and the smoke on the inhale and exhale, may all be different from each other. My number one goal when breeding cannabis is the quality of the perfectly matured, trimmed and cured bud and the experience it provides.
I strongly recommend the use of “tasters” to help analyze the qualities of a given smoke. I prefer highly educated, seasoned and critical elders as they tend to be the most helpful in their analysis and feedback. If there is the slightest drawback to the product, such as arrhythmia, tachycardia, paranoia, or what have you, the experienced elder taster will be the first to notice it. By the same token, if a product is exceptionally fine, the experienced elder taster will also likely be among the first to fully appreciate this. Besides, the elders always appreciate good medicine.
The best way to educate and train the palate is through experience. Unfortunately, there has been a great depletion of variance among the product available to the public. Most grow-ops focus on quantity over quality, and as a result a general blandness has developed. In future articles I will describe some of the great region-of-origin varieties that were available twenty years ago, describing their aroma, flavour, effects, and growth patterns.