Judging the World’s Best Cannabis Flower with a Volcano at the 2019 Emerald Cup

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All photos courtesy of Swami Select

The first Flower Judges meeting for this year’s Emerald Cup took place on December 4th, and it’s a good thing I’d been training with the Volcano vaporizer for a couple of months prior. Due to my recent diagnosis of moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it had been a full six months since I’d smoked a joint. To make sure my THC levels didn’t significantly drop, I initially indulged in edibles, but I knew I had to master vaping flower to be a judge for The Emerald Cup. No one had ever judged with this method before as far as I knew, but I had faith it could work.

So, I set about testing it out. At first, I hardly felt high after a steady diet of thick Swami joints for so many decades. But finally, I began to understand how similar it was to smoking weed for the first time — all the way back in 1969. Clearly, the flower today is far superior to what we had then, but I noticed that sense of “catching on” to what was happening in my body and brain. It was subtle at first, a general lightening of spirit — rather akin to hearing elevator music as compared to a full, live symphony that sends shivers into your very bones. It’s an awareness and acceptance of mystery. Once I tapped into it, I could feel fully high at last.

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As detailed in our last column, I began practicing at home with our own Swami Select flower, studying the differences in terpene flavors and how it affected me. I learned that at the 314.6 degrees Fahrenheit setting on the Volcano, I was mostly inhaling delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, which is, among other things, both euphoric and pain-relieving, as well as an anti-inflammatory. That sounded good to me. Also, 314 is not so high a temperature that it would aggravate my lungs. I decided that would be the temperature I’d test all the Cup’s entries at, to be fair and consistent, although it would offer a narrower range of terpenes. 

Very shortly, I discovered that smoking two balloons off of one full Volcano bowl (about 0.7 to 1.0 grams of flower) got me buzzed enough to judge the sample, although for personal “just get high” use, I prefer two full bowls to get me to where I want to go. Swami’s joints, by comparison, usually come in at around 2.5 to 3 grams, depending on the density of the bud.

Now I felt ready to tackle the 267 entries that were submitted to The Emerald Cup this year. For the three flower categories, the number of entrants were: 130 for Licensed Full Sun, 52 for Licensed Mixed Light, and 85 from Personal Gardens, which included both full sun and mixed light. They also threw in a new category this year: Pre-rolled joints, of which there were eleven entries. However, I must admit I personally did not smoke them, and left that experience up to Swami and his healthy lungs. 

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Twelve eager judges gathered at Area 101, the infamous Emerald Triangle destination and home of The Emerald Cup, for that first meeting of the judges. A few were new to the judging experience, and most were on their second or third year, but Swami and I were definitely the OGs in the group. We have been judges since the inception of The Emerald Cup, so this was to be our 16th year. 

We were greeted by display cases with an array of jars, and then we got down to work by inspecting the flowers right away. Over time it has become obvious that there are certain qualities an entry must have to be considered a serious contender. On first inspection upon opening the jar, pungent aroma and well-tended looks are the passport to the second round. Our first chore was to sort through all the jars in search of those qualities, and there were many that demonstrated wonderful fragrance, beautiful color, defined bud structure, and sparkly trichomes. This season’s harvest is another testament to the fact that the caliber of cannabis cultivated in California has been rising steadily over time.

My primary concern about judging with my lung condition was being in a smoky room at meetings where everyone else was puffing away on fat joints. But I decided I could take one for the team and endure the smoke for a few days for the sake of The Emerald Cup. I brought along my friend Etna (the name of my Volcano) and set her up in a corner of the large judges’ table that we all sat around. I felt like I was going to work, and Etna was my briefcase, but instead of paperwork, I pulled out the hefty device and all its paraphernalia. 

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The other judges checked it out, and we all agreed it was good someone was judging this way, as there are so many would-be smokers out there who are in a similar situation with lung issues. As we sorted through to find the best-looking buds, judges would roll them up and pass joints around the table while I filled Etna’s bowl with fragrant, ground-up nuggets. Unlike previous years, everything was pre-tested by SC Labs, so there was no need to worry about inhaling pesticides and pathogens. 

At first, I felt like the lightweight in the group, but after a while it became evident I was having my own party in that corner of the table. Each judge would take a few hits off every joint, while I was quietly smoking entire bowls to myself. 

When we found particularly tasty entries, I would offer the balloon to certain other judges who expressed an interest. The terpenes really came through so sweetly, especially the fruity flavors. There seemed to be lots of fruit and fuel flavors this year, as always, but there were also the new dessert-like cultivars such as Wedding Cake, Gelato, Sherbert, and more. It was like the dessert table at a grand buffet!

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We had to work fast to get through it all, as we only had six days to judge the entries. Granted, we had fewer submissions than last year, which was about 400, but still, six days is not much time. The short time window was due to the new state regulations, which only allow limited amounts of product to be transferred each day from the drop-off point at Seed2Soul in Cloverdale to Area 101, north of Laytonville, for judging. Every year there is something new to take into account, as the laws change constantly. Plus, the entry date had been extended so farmers could finish curing and trimming their entries to perfection.

That first meeting of the judges is always a little slow going, as we need a minute to settle into a pattern. Being stoners also meant it took us a little while to even remember the evaluation system we had established over the years, and to then make minor adaptations for this year’s crop. 

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Over the six days, we had three meetings together — the first two were eight hours each full of non-stop smoking. The final session, where the winners are decided, was an epic day of 11 very full hours. From time to time, we had to open the doors and bring in a large fan to clear the smoke from the room. That meant I was breathing a whole lot of smoke, but I frequently ducked outside for a gulp of fresh air and kept squirting echinacea spray into my throat between sucks on Etna’s balloon. This worked, more or less, and I was able to keep up with everyone else in the judging process. 

After the first and second meetings, the judges were given bags full of tiny snap top plastic containers with one gram samples — with only a number on the top — to take home for full evaluation. Swami and I devoted a couple of eight- to nine-hour days on our couch testing them, followed by one 12-hour marathon on the last day before the final judges’ meeting. You gotta do what you gotta do. 

We had friends stop by to help us out, but mostly it was Swami smoking lots of mini-joints, while I took copious notes and evaluated the possible winners with the Volcano. We bought a powerful air filter for the living/smoking room, and that kept the air clean enough. The new Volcano Hybrid also has a hose attachment which offers quite a strong flow, but I prefer the balloon for personal reasons. Plus, at the meetings, it was easier to pass the balloon around the table when necessary.

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On the final day of judging at Area 101, everyone brought in lists of their personal Top 20 Licensed Full Sun entries, and their Top 10 of the other two categories (Mixed Light and Personal). Then the haggling began. 

We sorted through the personal entries first, which had a wide variety of delicious offerings. The first-place winner rose to the top without question, #49, a number that was only known to us judges since the flower contest is completely blind — all we know is the number on the top of the lid. It turned out to be LA Kush Cake, grown by Paula Jobe-Hudgens, from Nevada County. 

A few women have placed in the Top 20 at The Emerald Cup, and back when the contest was still held at Area 101, there was a female first-place winner with Sugaree. So, it was an extra honor for me to announce Paula’s name as the winner of the Personal category at the eventual awards show. Her flowers were such a happy and social high that we just wanted to smoke them over and over, both in joints and in the Volcano. 

We moved on to the Licensed Mixed Light next, and again found a clear winner. Josh D. from Santa Barbara County took the prize with his Ice Cream Cake — clearly desserts were on the menu for this Emerald Cup. The frosty buds were lip-smacking good and kept us going for a few more hours with smiles on our faces. We managed to cruise through sorting out the next nine winners, three of which also went to Josh D., who is definitely on a roll. 

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Now came time for the top tier, Licensed Full Sun, the heart of the competition since its birth in 2003. This category always has the most entries, and we award the Top 20, so it took some extra time finalizing the winners. 

The hardest part is deciding the actual placement of winners, particularly for #1 and #2. It was a heated contest, and we needed to smoke both of them over and over again to come to the final decision. My Volcano was buzzing by now with all this excellent weed! After much debate and discussion, we took a vote in a democratic way. #87 was voted into first place, although we would have all been happy with #89, as well. 

It turned out that it was the second year in a row that Ridgeline Farms, from Humboldt County, took first place, this time with their Ridgeline Runtz cultivar. The flower had dark, sticky buds with a complicated aroma and a taste of fuel and tamarind fruit, leading to a lighthearted, full-body relaxation. She was dubbed by one judge as “The Grinmaker.” #89, the close second-place, was a full-on tropical fruit delight cultivar called Passion Orange Guava, grown by Greyshock Farms in Mendocino. Let’s just say Etna would be happy to burn either one of those winners at any time.

By the end of the judging process, I had truly mastered the technique of vaporizing and enjoying the Volcano. I was certainly as high as any other judge at that table, and my lungs felt just fine. 

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After all the judging came the weekend of the Emerald Cup, where Swami and I co-hosted the Area 101 Lounge in conjunction with Tim Blake and the Emerald Cup family. It was an elegant, cozy, chill space that we opened Saturday morning with a crystal bowl sound healing and a group om chant led by Swami. 

The space was constantly rocking with Swami rolling joints getting passed around, as well as Frenchy Cannoli sharing a hookah full of his finest hashish. It was a continual hug and love fest for two full days, seeing old friends and everyone chatting up a storm. For all of us, the most important thing is to bring the old Emerald Triangle vibrations to the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds and share them with the rest of the world.

I brought Etna along with me to our hotel at the Emerald Cup, and was glad I did for a surprising reason. After all that talking, luckily I still had enough voice left in me to announce the awards on Sunday afternoon. But by Sunday night, I was practically mute.

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On Sunday night, the big party was at our hotel, The Flamingo, and I really wanted to join the crew to celebrate yet another fantastic Emerald Cup. We went up to our room for Swami to prepare some joints, and while there I thought, Why not try the Volcano? Normally, I would never have chosen to smoke a joint with such a sore throat as I had by then, but my inner voice spoke to me. So, I filled the bowl with some In The Pines given to me by previous Emerald Cup winner Derek from Boonville, and took my balloon out onto the balcony. 

It worked! Instead of making my voice worse, it actually relaxed my vocal cords, and the cool vapors soothed by raw throat. Plus, I got high! Then off we went to join the celebrants. And thanks to Etna, I danced and partied until late that night.

When we open our minds to new experiences — instead of just saying, “I guess I’ll never be able to do that again” — magic can happen. Vaping flower has entered my life at just the right time, so I can stay close with my sister, Cannabis, forever. And now we have a new playmate, as well — Etna! Good news for cannabis lovers with lung conditions. We’re quite the happy family. 

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