How to Win the Flavor Game
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When adding flavoring to cannabis products, it doesn't matter if you're making a small-batch artisan extract or mass-produced infused product. There are similar steps to take for guaranteeing success.
I've seen methodologies evolve with terpene sourcing and product development in my eight-plus years in the distillate and concentrated manufacturing space. There are a few different approaches you can take, depending on your brand's goals.
Today, flavor chemists make many products on the market with botanically-derived ingredients (aka isolated compounds) found naturally in non-cannabis plant sources. Certain plants have specific terpenes in abundance, making them easier to extract and thus more cost-effective to obtain in a purified form.
Take alpha-pinene, a common note in many cannabis strains. This terpene is most often extracted from Caribbean Pine trees, a commercial lumber staple. The benefits of this type of ingredient are in its price, consistency, and potency.
Chemically, there is no difference between isolated terpenes from cannabis or other plant sources. Molecules of limonene in citrus fruit are identical to molecules of limonene in the strain Lemon Haze. However, because it is an isolated compound, it is essential to know how to mix it properly into a product, as one may discern that individual top notes are missing in a crude plant extract.
It is common for a product with botanical terpenes to have anywhere from 10 to 50 different ingredients to create a well-rounded flavor. This takes a skilled flavorist or flavor chemist's experience to properly match compounds together, which can mean longer lead times in product development.
Alternatively, if your brand chooses to use pre-formulated flavoring blends, multiple companies producing flavors developed for use in cannabis products; however, your product may not be as unique because other brands utilize the same blends. It also may be more expensive to reorder as it comes premade, but it will take less time and financial investment upfront.
Whichever path you take, the result is very desirable as you will have a cost-effective, all-natural, consistent, and scalable product.
The development process
When formulating custom flavors, there are two phases of development: quantitative and qualitative testing.
Quantitative data collection can quickly narrow your focus for any specific flavor. Companies can do this via testing lab analysis. Whether you are testing a particular phenotype developed by your company or collecting data from previously tested flowers or extract, there is a significant amount of data available on common terpene profiles. The only limiting factor is that most terpene analyses focus on the ten most common terpenes present in cannabis varieties.
This is where qualitative testing comes into play. There are over 100 organic compounds present in cannabis oil that contribute to its scent and effects. A skilled flavor chemist can predict various interactions with different compounds and build out profiles that match cannabis or novel fruit flavors' subtleties. Qualitative testing often takes months to perfect a taste, with multiple rounds of sampling, surveys, and adjustment. It ultimately leads to the last phase of testing, pairing the flavoring with the cannabis extract and adjusting the flavoring to mask or complement the cannabis oil used.
The final step, flavoring concentration, can be tricky. When flavors are added in higher concentrations to mask undesirable notes, this can alter the consumer's experience, e.g., changing a floral or fruit flavor into a bitter profile akin to cough medicine. Companies that produce their flavorings or work with third-party flavor companies specializing in cannabis products often succeed as consumer favorites.
What's trending: Flower for flavor
Currently, more companies are seeking to develop completely cannabis-derived flavored products. This could mean that they build manufacturing technologies to capture terpenes in full plant extractions or source cannabis-derived flavorings from third-party manufacturers to infuse into their final products. Both options are desirable from a marketing standpoint but are more expensive than botanically derived ingredients.
When it comes to cultivating flower for flavored products, there are a few key aspects:
- Harvest timing: This may vary from early harvest for specific hash products versus later yield for more sedative effects in an edible product.
- Humidity: Moisture content is essential; allowing harvested flower to become overly dry increases the chance for degradation of flavor compounds in storage and handling. Curing at 55%-65% humidity enables flower to express the strongest cured flavor profile.
- Shelf life: Fresh bud provides the richest and most accurate flavor profiles of a given strain. It is becoming more common for manufacturers to harvest flowers and freeze them immediately for later extraction. Some methods even involve flash-freezing with liquid nitrogen for hash processing, which can cut production time and labor costs but might cost more in equipment upfront.
Ultimately, creating concrete methods of preservation or curing of your flower is critical to producing the highest quality of flavor.
There are often more costs associated with training your staff to handle these types of products and accounting for the difference in storage and shelf life of cannabis ingredients. Cannabis-derived terpene blends often have a larger array of compounds present, making them a more volatile product in terms of degradation when exposed to light, heat, or air. This factor could mean more overhead for environmental storage controls.
When handled properly, these products greatly appeal to consumers, especially regarding the possibilities of entourage effects from specific cannabis strains. This isn't to say that botanically-derived compounds cannot produce similar synergistic effects. Still, with the abundance of different compounds in a cannabis-derived extract, researchers are playing catchup in learning how the human body metabolizes cannabis compounds.
With so many flavoring options, it can become overwhelming to decide what direction you want to take in product development, but using these parameters can guide you to the best quality from mid to top-shelf product lines.