Pot sommelier classes teach people to smell their perfect strain
The ancients loved wine, but they didn't know jack about the stuff. The Greeks watered theirs down; the Romans used seawater to do it. Columella advised boiling the grapes in lead pots, which poisoned people, and Varros defined old wine as anything older than a year.
Wine was pretty new to them, so you can't blame them if they didn't have much more of a culture surrounding that drink than we have around the different varieties of Red Bull.
Cannabis is, to mainstream Euro-American culture, newer than wine was to the Romans. So you can't blame today's cannabis consumers if they can't really tell the difference between Gorilla Glue and sniffing glue, between Super Skunk and roadkill. The only thing you might do is encourage these vapers and smokers is to take a class on cannabis if they’d like to get to know it better … something that’s actually pretty easy to do now.
Today more than ever, as pot is legal in 26 states, there are experts trained and certified in distinguishing pot. These folks are called pot sommeliers, interpeners or sinsemilists, but whatever the name they pick is, these experts aren't just showing off.
According to teachers, marijuana industry workers and medical doctors, having expertise in pot typology is a actually very important skill to have. Because while being able to tell the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet is a nice party trick and might help bring out the flavor of the Tilapia, to have the ability to distinguish a between a floral bud and a piney one can change a person's health. As cannabis fights for legitimacy in the national consciousness, classes like these — that teach people how to rapidly identify the right strain for themselves — might go a long way.
"It's a problem for our industry how naive our consumers are, and even how naive some of our budtenders are," Nick Mosely, co-founder of the weed rating and education company Confidence Analytics, says by phone. "Even non-novice participants say that they had never considered how diverse marijuana can be."
In LoDo, which is a Denver neighborhood near RiNo and LoHi, there's a gallery called SoHi — get it? SoHi? And, every so often, SoHi hosts a class called "Interpening," from the Trichome Institute, which aims to be an education leader in the cannabis industry. It's one of several similar classes from Clover Leaf University in Colorado and Confidence Analytics in Washington State.
At Interpening, one recent evening, about thirty people attend; about 25 men and five women. They each pay $200, which is a chunk, but the evening is a stoner's dream. A couple dozen examples of cannabis, including live plants and trimmed buds, are displayed like works of art under lights and magnifying glasses. Dudes in beanies and beards who might have once been called stoners and waistoids have come to learn the subtle nuances of a plant that is now letting them call themselves entrepreneurs, business owners, developers and rich as hell.
Buds under magnifying glasses are set out as examples for the students of Interpening. Photo by Reilly Capps
The class is taught by the Institute's president Max Montrose, clearly one of the most obsessive weed students on the planet. He loves it. Montrose says he grew up with ADD and dyslexia, treating it with Ritalin and stims. In college, he switched to sativa and got off the pharmaceuticals.
Montrose gushes about terpene oils that cost $70 a ¼ gram — "that's more expensive than gold" — and peppers his lectures with asides like, "go ahead and smell that with three quick whiffs, just like I taught Julian Marley."
All of these classes emphasize smell. Certain terpenes, they agree, have certain effects: linalool, which smells like lavender, is sedative; pinene, which smells like a pine tree, is energizing. Montrose focuses on those basic smells, plus rooting out rotten buds, buggy buds and other filth. "Your nose is really intelligent," Montrose tells the class. "It knows things before you do."
With a just a whiff, Montrose claims, he can sniff out the biography of a nug, can tell you things like, "This was a citrusy strain, from an outdoor harvest in NorCal or southern Oregon, pulled down two weeks early because of the rain." Don't believe him? Lots of people don't. Montrose says they meet him on the street, shove a bud under his nose, and ask him to I.D. it. Montrose says he can.
The class goers loved it. John Simpson, opening a dispensary on Solomon Island, Maryland, walks away happy.
"This is dope as shit," says Brian Grosso, from upstate New York. He’s looking to change careers, after years selling beer for MillerCoors. "I realized I wanted to sell some medicine, rather than poison," Grosso says.
Brandon Thompson, opening a dispensary in Vail, is so impressed he's considering requiring his budtenders to go through the class. "All that old talk — do you wanna feel sleepy, try an Indica, do you wanna feel up, try a sativa — it just feels tired," Thompson says, "like a trained line, instead of diving deep, which is what this is."
Says class goer Josh Knight, "It's unlocking the medicine."
Among the millions of people who don't yet know how to talk about cannabis, the media is sometimes the worst, and it's no different when the media talks about "pot sommelier" classes. They sometimes act like these classes are just the mirror versions of wine courses from Napa to Palisade, as if there were an exact correlation between the properties of wine and cannabis, as if you could just substitute "terpenes" for "tannins," "flavonoids" for "acidity," and have the exact same classes.
That misses the mark. If wine is a rich bouquet of flowers, cannabis is an entire tropical forest. If a sommelier learns to pick out the individual notes from a string quartet, then cannabis appreciation is like studying the New York philharmonic.
While both wine and cannabis have taste, aftertaste, fragrance and consistency, at a body-effecting level cannabis is infinitely more complex than wine, for one very key reason: wine has one solitary brain-and-body-affecting molecule — EtOH — which has one solitary effect on the brain and body — drunkenness — so the drunkenness from one wine is identical to every other one. Cannabis, meanwhile, has at least two, and probably more like hundreds, brain-and-body-affecting molecules — THC, CBD, CBN, CBG, and terpenes — which have infinitely different effects on the brain and body.
This is especially important for people looking to solve medical issues. That point is driven home to us by Dr. Paul Bregman, a medical doctor and cannabis expert, who sits in the Interpening audience listening attentively. Bregman believes that budtender education should be mandatory because they're handing out a medicine. They should know, say, which medications might interact badly with cannabis, or which allegedly anxiolytic strains might actually make anxiety worse.
"I think this certainly is moving in the right direction," Bregman says of the class.
At the end of the class, in the basement of SoHi, is the Interpening exam.
For the Interpening exam, students grade buds on quality, aroma, trim bud structure and more. Photo by Reilly Capps
It's actually a pretty heartening sight. These are folks who might have been suspended from high school for having trees in their pocket, and they are now laying the foundations for lucrative careers by studying that same plant. They're hunching over jars with loupes and flashlights grading each flower as acceptable or unacceptable, then guessing which terpenes they smell, what type of weed it is, and so on, like the Stoner SAT, with a proctor, a law student named Courtney Barnes, shushing them with "no talking," and "don't share answers." If they pass — and not all of them will — they will become certified as Interpeners. The Trichome Institute hopes such a thing will resemble a Standard of Excellence that dispensaries can advertise to their clients.
This whole discipline is not as advanced as sommeliers. But as more budtenders and enthusiasts go to classes like this, the further we'll get, as a culture, from noob-ness, and the happier our smokers will become. And the less likely future cannabis lovers will be to laugh at us primitive souls.