What I Saw at the Weed Fair

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What I Saw at the Weed Faireyegelb

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I once attended a trade show for psychiatrists and it couldn’t have been more depressing. I remember slinking back to my dingy convention-center hotel room with a sack of low-grade swag, the highlight of which was a bright yellow Koozie touting an erectile dysfunction drug. Things were different at the Hall of Flowers. Started in 2018, and with more than 120,000 square feet of space, 200-plus vendors, mountain ranges of edibles, skyscrapers of flower, tsunamis of smoke, HoF is now California’s biggest B2B weed trade show, and I walked away from it with samples from two dozen edible-makers, a pocketful of assorted pre-rolls, a fistful of flower, three vapes, four lighters, and a single serving of THC-infused powder to stir into some future drink. For research purposes.

But honestly, the swag was the least interesting part. Over the course of two red-eyed days, I spoke with folks from every subcontinent of the cannabis world—longhaired legacy growers as well as newly minted dispensary owners, glowing wellness women with their infused balms as well as gangster guys selling skull bongs, tech bros with “I’ve got an algorithm for that” vibes, an older cat who swore to me he invented the pre-roll machine, and stunningly unsexy companies providing dispensary-oriented insurance, accounting, and HR services. I’d never seen so much weed, but I’d also never had such a sweeping look at the future of cannabis culture, and the products and ideas that will be shaping it.

Sipping Weed Like Wine

Recently, I had a few friends over for a quiet, middle-aged dinner of salmon and roasted cauliflower. We talked while sipping from wine glasses. But we were not sipping wine: Rising from our glasses, like a scene straight outta The Addams Family, was the thick, white vapor from Northern Lights, an indica-leaning strain. My guests were blown away and, in short order, quite high, too.

I first came upon the Zenco, a sleek tabletop device the size of a respectable candle, late on Day One at the Hall of Flowers. It holds a vape cartridge and fills its glasses with vapor from the bottom up. The glasses are fashioned in such a way that the vapor lingers dramatically just below the rim for a couple of minutes before dissipating. This looks unspeakably cool. The Zenco does not shriek “drug paraphernalia;” rather, it’s designed to make cannabis use, you know, normal, even upscale.

What my dinner guests and I noticed right off the bat was that we could really taste the Northern Lights. There was a depth and uniqueness to the flavor I hadn’t experienced before. I asked cannabis sommelier and educator Tamara Lilien why that was. “When you burn a joint,” she told me, “the high heat can cause you to lose more than half of the terpenes responsible for the taste and smell.” Vaporizers use lower temperatures than combustion so you lose less anyway, but the Zenco, she says, “goes beyond normal vapes because its vapor flows toward your mouth and your nose. And since so much of our perception of taste actually comes through olfaction, the result is a far more intense experience of the terpenes, and a more engaging, layered sensory experience in general.”

As someone used to hitting my weed hard and fast, I must say that slowing down the experience changed the way I enjoy the plant. In the near future, I can see the Zenco not only becoming a staple on classy dining room tables, but at cannabis lounges (coming soon to a recreational state near you) as well. I can also see craft cannabis farmers who geek out on terpene profiles cultivating weed specifically for the Zenco, knowing that the aromas and flavors will really shine. Products like the Zenco will nudge the industry from its focus on dead-stony weed with high THC content to weed that simply tastes incredible.

THC-Infused Foods: Hell, Yeah

Ask your budtender about edibles and she’ll likely point you toward candy-flavored gummies or chocolates. Which is fine; I like chocolate. But at the Hall of Flowers, I discovered It’s All About Choices, a start-up elevating the edibles concept with THC-infused, single-serving portions of everything from matcha shortbread cookies to tomato soup, za’atar to confetti cake mix. (Last night I tried the garlic mashed potatoes. They were tasty and took exactly 26 seconds to prepare.) Yes, now you can take Choices’ fast-food-size packet of infused-chili flakes and sprinkle them on your pre-game slice, or squeeze a packet of Ranch Dressing on your chopped salad. But the real opportunity here, I believe, is in their gift boxes, which are beautifully designed (sophisticated colors, clean lines, Tiffany tones) and a significantly more original, social, and memorable dinner-party present than a bottle of Bordeaux. The themed gift boxes (one for picnics, one for movie nights, etc.) go for $50.

Casey Shea, who cooked at the Four Seasons and Milk Bar, among others, is Choices’ classically trained head chef. She explained to me that their “proprietary technology converts high-end THC oil into pharma-grade powder,” which allows for precise dosing with zero impact on taste. Most of the packets contain 10mg of THC but a few, like the genius ice cubes, clock in at 2.5mg, allowing you to stack your dose, cube by cube. Choices are now available at MedMen stores in California; plans to expand to other states are, yep, on the front burner.

THC-Infused Drinks: Nah

At the event, I found myself most interested in trying to ferret out the next hot “form factor,” the industry term for a new, innovative way to ingest weed beyond, you know: joint, vape, and edible. Not long after the show, for instance, I discovered the fantastic—and fast onset—Halo “breath-freshener” spray from the Rebelle dispensary. (Five quick pumps from the pocket-size dispenser and you’re on.) But at the show itself? Unfortunately, the cannabis industry seems stubbornly set on having you drink your TCH in a fruit-flavored infused seltzer. I just didn’t see a lot of interest bubbling up at the event.

At one (noticeably uncrowded) infused-seltzer booth, an enthusiastic rep rattled off her spiel: The drinks, she gushed, are “amazing for the canna-curious crowd,” which in this case is pretty much the same people who reach for a Vizzy over a Martini. I can also see the attraction for people who are off alcohol but still want the social buzz, and for those who seeking to linger and chat rather than suck a bong and cough. But despite the industry froth, adoption has been underwhelming.

According to recent report from Headset, the Seattle-based cannabis analytics firm, THC drink sales in the 10 states it studied increased by 22 percent compared to last year. Which sounds brag-worthy until you learn that infused drinks made up a barely visible 1.3 percent of total sales in the U.S. I don’t really see the industry giving up on this so watch for all sorts of experiments with flavors (you all gotta get more creative than kiwi watermelon), branding, celeb endorsements, design, and other gimmicks, as they try to goose sales by any means necessary.

A New Vape for a New Day

Every time I walked by the Storz & Bickel booth, it was mobbed. In part, that’s because their Volcano was on display, and the Volcano is, of course, the high-drama granddaddy of big-ass tabletop vapes that grabbed the market by the lapels two decades ago and never let go. But S&B had a newer product which, from a “where is cannabis culture heading?” perspective, I found intriguing: The Mighty+ vape is the size of a small hard drive, which is to say a wee large to slide into your pocket but perfect for your home: compact enough to fit into a drawer yet too big to get lost.

There was a moment, of course, before widespread legalization, when vapes—covert, convenient, pocketable—were king, allowing one to inhale, anywhere, on the DL. But now that cannabis is mostly mainstream, slyly sneaking a puff is no longer really a thing. So the Mighty reflects our evolving relationship with weed, offering a highly engineered device (you can select your desired temperature to the degree) that allows you to heat your flower (through a combo of conduction and hot-air convection) rather than cartridge-based oils that can feel chemical-y going down. In short, now that being stealth is less important, the focus can shift to a premium experience. The Mighty is pricey (retailing for $339) but has a rugged Black & Decker look, uses medical-grade parts, and is designed to be easy to load, heat, charge, clean, not to mention smoother on the lungs.

The Invasion of Big Alcohol

“What’d you do before you got into the weed business?” I asked that of just about everyone I spoke with, and the answers ranged from Google and Goldman to poet and pilot. But a surprising number came from “the adult beverage industry.” Like Andrew Osterman, who was the senior brand manager of the celebrated Goose Island craft beer before becoming brand director at Republic Brands rolling papers (makers of JOB and EZ Wider, among others). Like Lisa Weser, who was the U.S. senior director of marketing communications at AB InBev (brewers of Budweiser, Stella, etc.) before starting the cannabis-focused Trailblaze PR firm. Later, I learned that Malini Patel, CEO of the company that makes Wynk THC-infused seltzers, came directly from Jim Beam, and Ryan Martin, who’d previously worked at Gallo wines, was now the chief commercial officer Sunburn Cannabis. There are many, many more.

Why the rush to weed? “The Venn Diagram between the two industries,” Osterman told me, “has a ton of crossover. Both involve selling a product in a regulated industry to those over 21, and have state-specific regulations in terms of marketing, promotion, and advertising. These are highly specific skills.” But beyond that, he says, some segments of the alcohol industry have experienced a “belt tightening” whereas cannabis, on the other hand, “is like the wild west. For the people who want to experience a challenge and build new brands, cannabis is a unique place to be right now.”

Of course, when folks with a more traditional corporate background move into the cannabis industry, they bring their white boards, sales decks, and general corporatosity to a space previously inhabited by guys with names like Cornbread Ricky, Sam the Skunkman, and Mean Gene. Meaning that we can expect packaging, branding, and messaging to get way slicker.

But it may not be long before people working in Big Alcohol don’t have to switch industries to dive into cannabis. At the Hall of Flowers, Pabst Blue Ribbon was promoting its new cannabis-infused PBR High Seltzer (with flavors like Daytime Guava), and people were also buzzing about California brewer Lagunitas’ non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused sparkling Hi-Fi Sessions. All of which may make “This Bud’s for you” the most prescient slogan ever.

Bonus Notes

•The Hall of Flowers is known for its nearly free samples (no lie: $3 for a box of edibles) and I tested—allow me to be modest and say—“a shitload” of edibles. The winner: Space Gems, free of solvents and made from “ice water hash,” was strong and clean.

•Three “words” I heard way too often at Hall of Flowers that I never want to hear again but almost certainly will: canna-curious, canna-connoisseur, canna-preneur. These are not cute. These are not clever. Canna we please stop this trends before it starts.

•Cannabis packaging has gone from baggies with Sharpie-scrawled labels to designs fit for wallpaper. The most memorable packaging I saw came from Erykah Badu’s new line of flower, pre-rolls, and edibles—called “That Badu”—for the Cookies company. The weed space needs more sophisticated packaging like this.

•Greg Welch makes whimsical weed art—he calls them cannabiscapes—using bud, shake, and the occasional leaf. His portraits of Willie Nelson and Tupac are, well, dope, but the piece that caught my eye carried this message: “No one should be in prison for weed.” Check out his site or IG.

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