Terpenes Take Center Stage at California State Fair Cannabis Competition

At the California State Fair this year, attendees will find a new crop sitting alongside cheese, berries and heirloom tomatoes of vibrant hues: cannabis flower, also boasting its many vibrant hues. The fair hosts its first cannabis competition this year, with Cultivar Brands producing the highly visible event before the world’s largest legal marketplace. The California State Fair runs through July 31 in Sacramento.  

Winners were categorized within indoor, outdoor and mixed light environments, and from there, the competition broke down the different cannabis flower entries into various chemical constituents. Greenshock Farms, for instance, won the gold award for its outdoor ocimene-dominant cultivar, Passion Orange Guava. High Grade Farms won the gold award for its indoor caryophyllene-dominant cultivar, and Peanut Butter Cup. Esensia won the Best of California “Golden Bear” award in the caryophyllene category for its Lemon OG. 

Each entrant was tested by SC Labs, which produced a detailed chemometric report for the flower. (See an example below.)

SC Labs launched its terpene testing in 2013, according to co-founder Alec Dixon. Since then, the team has honed the process over hundreds of thousands of tests across California and Oregon.

“We’ve been doing a bunch of research into our data and sorting everything by terpene content and learning a lot about how cannabis is classified by potential oil content,” Dixon says. “We’re working to further separate things out from the historic indica-and-sativa conversation—to know more about the terpene-cannabinoid makeups possible within the plant.”

Entrants into the California State Fair competition provided their cannabis flower to the event producers, which was later slotted into specific categories by SC Labs’ testing data. In the future, however, Dixon says he hopes to see entrants identify which terpene or cannabinoid category they’d like to pursue upfront. This may have the effect of encouraging more specific terpene-based breeding plans. A grower may spend a season dialing in a pinene-dominant cultivar—not only for the prestige of the Golden Bears, but also for the subtly shifting demand trends in the California market, perhaps.

SC Labs’ terpene-forward testing process became the foundation of the Emerald Cup, where judges sift through anonymized cannabis cultivar entrants to determine the winners. Now, the state of California and Cultivar Brands are picking up the plan for this competition at the fairgrounds.

Most of the awards at the California State Fair are terpene-based, along with several that involve cannabinoids. This is one way, Dixon says, to provide a counterpoint narrative to the tremendous demand for high-THC cannabis flower across California (and most other markets). By centering the terpene profile, business teams and customers may glean a more nuanced understanding of what separates one cultivar from another, both in the field (or the grow room) and on shelves.

“From our understanding and perspective, terpene content is much more an indicator of what defines quality than THC percentage itself,” Dixon says. “We’re really thrilled for this opportunity with the California State Fair not only to contribute to the range of diversity that this great plant offers, but also to highlight the role that terpene content has in helping distinguish or differentiate quality within the categories.”

Generally speaking, the West Coast cannabis markets have lately favored “dessert strains,” Dixon says, referring to the Gelato family of cultivars, Wedding Cake crosses and other sweet-leaning varieties. Given that, events like the state fair competition still garner a lot of entries from that corner of the cannabis market.

And yet the terpene-forward classification led to a broader spectrum of cultivars in the spotlight.

With regard to terpene content in general, all state fair winners came in above market averages, according to Dixon. He says that the average terpene content across all the samples SC Labs has tested over the years is right around 1.4%. The potential, he points out, is around 3 to 5.5% total terpene content.

In this competition, winning cultivars clocked in at a rate of 3 to 4.5% total terpene content.

Two terpenes stood out as particularly notable to Dixon: pinene and ocimene. These aren’t often seen on dispensary shelves, at least in notable concentrations, but they’re both represented at the state fair.

In all of SC Labs’ testing data, pinene dominance represents about 3% of all cultivars in the market. Ocimene dominance is only 1% of the market. Dixon says it was refreshing to see contending cultivars in those categories, like Tropical Sleigh Ride (Greenshock Farms), Motorhead (Harborside) and Mendo Crumble (Silver Dragon Cannabis), lending some visibility to otherwise lesser-known terpenes.

Terpinolene is another category that Dixon cites as an exciting place to look in cannabis bred for terpene content. This category also saw a greater level of activity than what one might see in the market at large. Terpinolene-dominant cultivars are what might be known as those classic “sativa strains,” the Jacks and Trainwrecks and Durban Poisons of the world.

One question that Dixon thinks growers might walk away from this competition asking themselves is, “Does a terpinolene-dominant strain sell?” Put another way, will customers soon ask for a terpinolene-dominant product at their local dispensary? Will the visibility of the state fair lend support for a lexicon like that?

The state fair will draw a wide range of residents to Sacramento this month, ranging from cannabis connoisseurs to newcomers. Placing the scientific frame of cannabis on a pedestal before such an audience is a powerful tool for the industry, Dixon says, and it can provide a good foothold for the level of education that many growers profess to wanting to spread in the market.

“In many ways, it’s just such an honor to have this opportunity,” Dixon says. “The California State Fair has been happening for a hundred-plus years, and this is the first year they’re honoring cannabis as a cherished agricultural crop of the state. This is a beautiful opportunity to help tell the story of the science of cannabis—and the range and diversity that this great plant offers.”