The art and science of cannabis extraction
Organigram’s Borna Zlamalik and Abi Roach of Mera Cannabis disclose product innovation, industry setbacks, and the importance of pleasing concentrate connoisseurs
May 29, 2023 By Ashley Keenan
Cannabis extracts, or concentrates, are a unique and robust product category. One that blends science and art to create cannabinoid-rich products like shatter, budder, rosin, live resin, hash and more. The concentrate market in Canada is growing steadily, though it remains a relatively small part of legal cannabis sales.
Concentrates are the third best-selling ‘cannabis 2.0’ category behind vape pens and edibles. Their market share has increased from 2.9 per cent to 3.8 per cent of total cannabis sales, according to Headset data. Despite recent growth and ever-improving extract products, there are numerous barriers unique to this category.
Product innovation meets popularity in shatter, hash and infused pre-rolls
New product formulations and growing sales make the cannabis extracts product category alluring to many licensed producers. Mera Cannabis and Organigram have both seen success in their cannabis concentrate offerings as the format’s popularity grows.
Organigram’s most successful concentrate is hash, especially from their brands Edison, Tremblant, and Shred. “Our Cherry Limelight Bubble Hash Joints is one of our popular extract products,” writes Borna Zlamalik, Organigram’s senior vice president of R&D and innovation. The bubble hash and the dried flower are the same cultivar, which was specifically pheno-hunted for its unique aroma.
The mix of Black Cherry Punch and Limelight produces a pungent cherry and lime scent reminiscent of convenience store slushies. “When you open the pack, it’s like a slushy hitting you in the face,” he says. “It is so aromatic that people believe we add [terpenes]; which is absolutely not true.”
While Tremblant is the company’s OG hash brand, Organigram also released a new spin on an old classic with ‘rip-strip’ hash through Shred, a brand that is known for its milled flower and pre-roll products. Instead of the more traditional brick or ball-shaped hash, this product is pressed into perforated strips for easy tearing.
“Hash has traditionally had a difficult adoption curve among new cannabis consumers. Our Rip Strips were designed with the new consumer in mind – this is a product that is super convenient, designed to fit in any pre-roll, and with the ability to easily be portioned.”
This one-of-a-kind product was created by considering the best way to reinvent the hash experience.
“Given its millennia of history, hash has very loyal and very passionate legacy consumers, so we made sure that whatever we created would live in a distinctly different space so that we don’t alienate our connoisseurs,” shares Zlamalik, innovater for Canada’s No. 1 player in hash and concentrate markets.
Mera Cannabis is also well-known for creating cannabis concentrates geared towards legacy consumers, at scale, which can be tricky for aspiring extractors. Mera products are formulated by an “awesome mix of legacy cannabis extractors, enthusiasts and scientists,” says Abi Roach, head of marketing and merchandising at Mera Cannabis.
“One of the first brands we launched in the concentrate space was through our partners, Shatterizer,” shares Roach. “The Shatterizer portfolio is all about shatter and shatter-based infusions, from the ‘pull-and-snap’ classic shatter texture to shatter-infused pre-rolls and vapes. This portfolio has been a huge hit in Ontario and is building momentum in western Canada.”
Mera is also behind bringing a legacy market extract into the legal space. Under their medical brand Ellevia, they launched the first legal RSO to market. “It is a beautiful full-spectrum phoenix tears; a multi-use extract focused on wellness that can be inhaled or ingested.
“Although the industry has been slow to ramp up, and has historically lacked appealing offerings for the consumer, the category is now growing quickly,” writes Roach.
Extract products among the hardest to transition to the legal market
The burgeoning cannabis industry isn’t without its difficulties, of course. And the concentrate category in particular has seen its fair share of challenges. The steep learning curve, regulatory challenges and burdensome excise taxes are significant barriers for extract producers.
“The concentrate category was the toughest to transition to the legal market. Many legacy extractors were resistant to sharing their knowledge or converting their operations,” says Roach. “We are lucky at Mera to have such a great group of legacy extractors with a wealth of knowledge who we have been able to build our business around.”
In addition to finding the right growers and extractors, Roach explains how excise taxes are particularly burdensome for concentrate products. “While concentrates are already a costly product to produce, particularly in the legal market, excise tax and provincial markups make legal concentrates a hard category to compete against illegal sellers.”
However, Roach notes that these barriers will ease as consumers’ understanding of the category deepens and the government addresses regulatory and tax burdens.
Recently, Health Canada sent out a letter that changed the game for certain extract products, stating they had been incorrectly categorized as concentrates when they were, in fact, edible cannabis products. Organigram was one of many companies affected, their popular product Edison Jolts has been for sale in retail stores as an ingestible extract.
Health Canada didn’t ask these products to be pulled from retail stores but has given companies the deadline of May 31, 2023, to cease manufacturing and distributing products like Jolts. However, Organigram maintains that these products aren’t edibles but ingestible extracts correctly labelled.
Jolts by Edison were created intentionally and strategically, using ingredients that they assert satisfy the strict requirements for extracts under the Cannabis Act and Regulations, says Zlamalik. While the company will be complying with the Health Canada notice, Organigram isn’t ready to give up on the popular product. “We are rooted in our strong scientific process and at the core, our extreme dedication to creating compliant products with no shortcuts,” writes Zlamalik. “We disagree with Health Canada’s determination that Jolts are improperly classified as an extract, and we are pursuing a Judicial Review to challenge their decision.”
The future of cannabis concentrates is a blend of art and science
The next big thing in the extracts category has yet to be discovered, but whatever product or trend it might be will likely be highly influenced by the consumer, according to our experts.
“Concentrates are a really amazing yet underdeveloped space in Canada,” says Zlamalik. “The way we will re-invent this category is to really listen to consumers – why they use concentrates,” as well as what makes them apprehensive about the product category.
“The next big thing in concentrates is going to be about hitting the right potency and cannabinoid profile. I am bullish on having concentrates deliver a full spectrum stack of cannabinoids as this category is used not just for recreation but also heavily for therapy/medical needs,” writes Zlamalik.
“I believe by striking the balance between art and science we can change the trajectory and prominence of this category. It’s about simple consumer unmet needs – both emotional and functional. And most of all the love of how concentrates can highlight the best characteristics of great flower.”
Concentrate lovers are notoriously hard to please. Connoisseurs often come from the legacy space and expect the same quality and potency from pre-legalization, and new consumers are hard to capture as the format can be daunting due to its complexity of use and vast range of products.
“I see the potential for growth in two sub-categories: ready-to-use formats like vapes and infused pre-rolls, as well as high-quality cannabinoid-rich extractions,” writes Roach. She notes that newer consumers, as well as younger consumers, are all about easy and effective – propelling the popularity of disposables vapes, pre-rolls, beverages, and edibles.
“The cannabis connoisseur will always look for aesthetics and effect, and as we perfect the ancient art of hash making, you will see evolutions to classic techniques with incredible results full of rich flavours and beautiful colours that will entice a small but enthusiastic segment of the market,” she concludes.
Ashley Keenan is a journalist, consultant, and patient advocate who uses reporting and storytelling to educate, entertain, and empower folks curious about cannabis.
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