Lorena Cupcake, voted “best budtender in Chicago,” has answered hundreds of questions from cannabis shoppers and patients during their time as a budtender. And now they’re turning that experience into a monthly advice column, Ask a budtender. Got a question for Cupcake? Submit your questions to email@example.com.
I am a long-time cannabis consumer and I use a bong almost exclusively. I have long snickered when budtenders and online cannabis resources talked about the flavor of bud. “I don’t care about the taste,” I told myself, “I only care about the high!”
But I keep hearing more and more about the taste of different strains and how important it is to some people. So I started to wonder, am I missing out on something?
I’ve heard that as the smoke filters through the water of a bong, some of the terpenes may wash out, but I don’t know if that is true. Am I doing something wrong, or am I just genetically predisposed to not be able to taste my weed?
Have you read the old folktale The Emperor’s New Clothes? Sometimes I wonder if the “bright bubblegum” and “grape candy” flavors supposedly found in different strains don’t really exist, just like the emperor’s fancy new fit; by pretending we taste them, we’re all falling for the ruse.
I’ve never smoked a Blueberry OG that really tasted like blueberries, but I notice distinct differences in the scent between strains. Though humans use different organs for tasting and smelling, all the information we absorb converges in the orbital cortex. If you’ve ever lost interest in food due to a stuffy nose, you know how important your sense of smell is to taste.
I shared your question with John Maden, a cannabis sommelier who provides strain pairings and educational programming for dinner parties through his Boston-based company Buddha Som. “If you can identify the bouquet of the bud, you can begin to identify the effect as you become familiar with various aroma profiles over time,” he said. “You’re learning how to anticipate the chemistry that has been controlling your high, effectively.”
Below, find out how you can start separating the unique flavors and scents of different cannabis strains.
Hold a taste test
To start, Maden suggested enlisting a budtender’s help. Pick out three varieties of flower with very distinctive terpene profiles. After getting them home and storing them in airtight containers, perhaps with a few humidity control packs, pull them out daily for a blind test. “Get a little thing of coffee grounds or fresh coffee beans to have palate-cleansing between inhalation, and put your nose full-on in the container, one at a time,” he explained. “Eventually you will be very, very familiar with the bouquets of the three strains you bought, and you’ll be on your way to identifying which bouquet suits you best.”
Another technique he suggested is the dry haul or dry puff. Before lighting up, suck air through your smoking device to see how the bouquet of the untoasted flower hits your nose and tongue. Try to dry puff each new strain you try at least once.
While a bong might not be the best candidate for a dry haul, most terpenes aren’t particularly water-soluble. When I’m taking low-temp dabs of terpene-rich live sauce, I can taste the garlickiness of GMO right through the rig. Unfortunately, I suspect the issue with your water pipe isn’t the water but the pipe.
How combustion can affect flavor
Since humans have been controlling fire since the caveman days, it can be easy to forget that combustion is a complex chemical reaction between fuel and oxygen.
We’re surrounded by organic materials made up of carbon-based compounds. Cannabis follows the same laws of thermodynamics as any other organic material, whether it’s campfire wood or pure platinum. To use an example we’re all familiar with, I’ve chosen butter in a frying pan.
Gentle heat causes organic compounds to evaporate or vaporize, without substantially changing from their original form. If you warm butter in a pan over low heat, you’ll start smelling sweet, rich notes of creamy dairy long before anything boils off or burns.
After evaporation/vaporization is a step called pyrolysis, which is just a fancy Greek word for “fire-breakdown.” During this step, chemical composition changes significantly. Brown butter is partially pyrolyzed — sugar molecules within the butter have undergone caramelization, producing caramel-colored polymers and releasing nutty, roasted volatile compounds.
When exposed to higher temperatures, organic materials begin to decompose in processes known as oxidation and carbonization. As heat breaks the bonds between molecules, a gas made of atoms and energy is released, which sometimes reacts with oxygen to create flames.
Some carbon goes on to create the gas and particulate matter that makes up visible smoke; the rest is left behind as a charred residue. Whether it’s burned butter, a cashed bowl or the last dregs in a coffee pot, you’re left with something blackened and bitter.
Why vaping produces the best taste
Over a hundred beneficial compounds have been identified in cannabis, each with its own boiling point. Terpenes, the essential oils that give cannabis its natural scent and flavor, start activating at temperatures as low as 264°F. In comparison, the flame of your average lighter is about 600°F — hot enough to burn off terpenes before you ever taste them.
“I would say anyone who really wants to appreciate the bouquet of a bud should be vaping,” Maden said. That’s because vaporizers make it easy to maintain an even heat of around 330℉ to 365℉, creating an aerosol of oil droplets suspended in air. Unlike smoke — which is unfortunately full of things like carbon monoxide, benzene and soot — there’s no burning cellulose to get between you and the flavor of your flower. When you light up, “you’re letting that combustion get in the way of appreciating the terpenes that you’ve evaporated.”
As someone who enjoys my Roor and Volcano equally, I know a cold turkey switch to vaping is easier said than done. If you do want to smoke, Maden shared, “Don’t use a lighter — get some hemp wick, and gently light the bowl with hemp wick. If you’ve gone through the trouble of dry puffing or dry hauling before, don’t then just torch it, because all you’re going to get is butane fumes.”
Once you’ve scrubbed out your bong and filled it with sparkling clean water, fill it with a familiar flower from your blind tests. Take a dry haul and see what notes of the bouquet come through. See if you can identify any of those aromas in your smoke. If flavor still eludes you, it might be time to experiment with alternative ingestion methods that emphasize terpene profiles.
For example, if you attend a dinner like those thrown by Buddha Som, you’ll taste ingredient combinations that complement and accentuate selected strains. If you’re not ready for dabs, live resin oil cartridges are an accessible way to enjoy concentrated cannabis-based terpenes. Just remember — it doesn’t matter whether you’re simmering cannabutter, torching a banger or dialing in the temp on a tabletop vaporizer. Preserving flavor means sticking with temperatures just high enough to decarboxylate THCa, and appreciating flavor means taking an extra moment to appreciate a strain’s unique scent fingerprint.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Need advice on how to incorporate cannabis into your lifestyle? Write Cupcake at firstname.lastname@example.org.