The Importance of Curing Cannabis
The importance of properly curing cannabis cannot be overstated, especially for craft growers. Daniel Hayden explains why curing takes your marijuana from being like cheap boxed wine to a vintage bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
It was 1999, and as I entered Dr. Richard Mandshart’s lab to ask him to be on my graduate advisory committee, I was met with a man holding a spoon surrounded by 250 half-cut papayas. He greeted me and explained, “I have to grade every one of these today for taste, texture, and sweetness.” It was an incredible sight to behold.
Thus began my education in plant biology right there, as he explained that shoppers would not choose papaya with a ringspot on its skin, and those would be left to rot. In fact, every piece of produce in the supermarket was specifically designed to show consistency in color and size. This was viewed as a positive sales attribute. Those that matched this and lasted the longest from farm to shelf to the fridge were the winners of our agricultural revolution. Flavor, it seems, ranked much further down on the consumer’s list.
Getting products on the biggest and busiest sales shelves (or supermarket aisles) is the priority for producers and cultivators (despite numerous studies citing intermediaries connecting creators and customers to each other have an outsized influence on markets, seemingly to be engaged in collusion to ensure they collect the largest profits).
Responding directly to the demand for products deemed more enticing to the senses, by both consumers and retailers, the cultivators and producers turn to the longstanding traditions of curing, aging, and ripening.
The near-universal demand for attractive produce extends to other cultivated products as well, including cannabis.
The practice of hanging and dry-curing cannabis originally came from the fact that for most of human history, we have hung and dried all spices upside down in a cool, humid place. The goal of this is to allow the plants to specifically express their essential oils from the stems to the leaves, which creates the majority of the spice.
Cannabis doesn't express essential oils in the same way. Still, the concept of curing is critical, and our ancestors learned this early on, without having to know anything about the science of trichomes. They quickly learned that cannabis piled in the field, once dried, makes a quick-sieved and desirable hash. Cannabis is grown long in season until amber trichomes set and then is cut and stored for a long cure. Techniques used today like bagging and burping are historical.
For my Ph.D. I studied the concept of senescence, which is often accused of apoptosis (cell death). Senescence is a molecular genetic program that is initiated when an organ such as a leaf starts to die (often because it consumes more energy than it produces). This process results in the remobilization of nutrients to the plant’s neediest parts, storage organs, and flowers. A cannabis flower (inflorescence) is among these needy parts — a combination of a sugar leaf and a calyx at cultivar-specific ratios. On these leaves and calyxes of the inflorescence are trichomes. These organs are the true fruits. If seeds were to develop inside the calyx, this would become a more needy fruit, but until this process begins, the trichomes remain neediest.
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This is where cultivated seedless cannabis takes a turn. For the most part, the plant remains green throughout its life cycle, although trichomes go from clear to cloudy to amber. But it is mostly remaining in the cloudy trichome stage for the harvesting of good-colored oleoresin end products. This plant has not moved into the curing or senescence stage of its life cycle. After cutting and hanging, the plant consolidates its energy into a molecular end process that removes moisture while pushing the final results of its energy into the highest energy sink, the flower. In seedless cannabis, this result ends up in the trichome.
As this energy is thrusting into the flower, metabolism slows to a crawl, and fast-moving molecules like monoterpenes (C10H16), H2O, CO2, 02, N2, and other plant-based hydrocarbons continue to gas off. This is happening on the plant leaf, trichome stalk, and trichome surface and interior. The gassing off of these volatiles hardens leaves’ surfaces and hardens them against solubilization, like the difference between wet paint and dry paint. Water washes away wet paint, whereas dry paint is resistant. When a fresh living leaf surface is moist with volatiles and living waxes, these products are more likely to remain in the final extraction.
As these surfaces harden, the interiors draw up the remaining nutrients, and the cells feeding the trichome create their final products. Products remaining inside the bulb during final curing consolidate in physical location and interact with enzymes floating on membranes that have higher chances of making more and more complex molecules or ornamentations on existing complex molecules. Thus, furthering the qualities of the resin in both medical effect and molecular diversity.
Preserving the bulb on the plant is pretty essential as well. A dislodged bulb usually occurs when the cells desiccate to the point where it becomes an abscission zone (nothing suggests disc cells or stipe cells are abscission zones, which would be hormonally regulated). A bulb without its protection would be exposed to further degradation almost instantaneously, which is why great care must be taken to keep them as fresh as possible.
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In that same way, a dislodged bulb from a living tissue is a chaotic event at the disc cell location that would be the equivalent of pulling an antler off a deer’s head. The bulb is compromised from that moment. If the bulb is gone, there is no traditional chance of the plant relocating nutrients through the disc cells and into the trichome and the true ripening process taking place.
What does this all mean? Curing, aging, fermenting, and drying are pervasive practices already in the food and beverage industry. The practice/art/craft becomes more ultra-rare, specifically in commodities where rare and complex fragrance and flavors are well defined and valuable. Cannabis, on the other hand, contains one of the most complex storage organelles found in nature, the glandular stalked trichome. Along with the sessile trichome, it produces some of the rarest phytocompounds on Earth, and most certainly the rarest oleoresin charted to date.
Cannabis has evolved us, and we have evolved it. Do we pick grapes and tomatoes early and cure them on a tray in a freezer? Do we prefer the flavor of grape juice or perhaps wait a moment longer and enjoy some wine? Why wait for cheese when we can just drink a bunch of milk? Curing, aging, and ripening brings out the best qualities in flavor and experience and this holds true for cannabis oleoresins. The best cannabis is cured.
Written by Dr. Daniel Hayden