Enter the Terpene Tournament

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Terpestival Producer and Social Science Research Director

Example Certificate of Analysis from Medicine Creek Analytics, including full range of terpenes that will be analyzed by the lab (and thus included in “Total Terpenes” award).

Eventbrite tickets to the event here.


This year’s Terpene Tournament (TM) has been carefully designed to maximize entries and minimize costs to entrants. Let’s review the logic of our unique, entrant-friendly competition!

Many categories instead of few

The emergence and prevalence of terpene testing for Washington’s legal cannabis market allows us to diversify our award categories without diluting the value of each award. The whole cannabis plant is incredibly diverse, thanks to several decades of highly decentralized experimentation within North American cannabis markets; with a relatively common gene pool that was distributed historically through Amsterdam-based seed banks and breeders. That sentence itself would be the subject of a whole other essay (or series of books, really), and the geography of cannabis hybridization has certainly decentralized in the last ten years. The point I want to drive home is that while breeders focused especially on potency, they were also  focused on finding different, overpowering smells and tastes.

What consumers demanded was not only high THC, but “loud” cannabis. At our first Terpestival, Wonderland Nursery’s Kevin Jodrey remarked that he now understood his own market-making journey as primarily a practice of “hunting for terps.” There are more complex layers to what this means besides looking for loud and unique terpene expressions for national and global markets, but perhaps most importantly this insight complicates the dominant narrative of black market cannabis as one strictly focused on maximizing THC. THC-maximization, prior to the widespread availability of actual testing results, really refers to potency maximization.

And potency maximization isn’t just about THC quantities and/or minimizing CBD presence, which also complicates the question of what potency is or does. Terpenes are the delivery vehicles for cannabinoids: potency expression and type vary greatly by the ensemble/entourage of terpenes that “carry” cannabinoids to receptors. So, on the one hand, potency maximization (how much cannabis hits you) depends on terpene quantity and quality. And potency type also varies by terpene quality, of which “uplifting” and “couchlock” are two common examples.

This observation unsettles a basic foundation upon which cannabis markets — or marketing, really — have been founded for quite some time. Cannabis doesn’t come in two types, “indica” and “sativa,” commonly associated with “couchlock” and “uplifting” in every legal retail store and medical dispensary up and down the West Coast for the last decade. Briefly: the uplifting tone of “sativa”-branded cannabis primarily comes from the dominance of pinene; and the “couchlock” tone of “indica”-branded cannabis comes from the dominance of myrcene. And there’s way more to it than those two terpenes and those two effect qualities. We know about this in no small part through the work of Dr. Ethan Russo, our keynote speaker, and his extension of aromatherapy research principles to cannabis.

Which is why we don’t just have two categories, myrcene and pinene. Our categories reflect the available resources and capabilities of our lab partner, Medicine Creek Analytics. Different labs have different capabilities with respect to detecting and measuring terpenes, which undoubtedly will be a factor in how the legal market accommodates and standardizes terpene diversity in the years to come. We have chosen 8 terpenes that are fairly common across lab testing capabilities as our foundational award categories: alpha-Pinene, Myrcene, Limonene, Linalool, Beta-caryophyllene, Terpinolene, Ocimene, and Humulene.

There are five more categories: Total Terpenes, THC and total terpenes, CBD and total terpenes, Most Broadly Therapeutic (closest to 1 THC: 1 CBD plus total terpenes), and Judges’ Choice. In the next section, I describe how all these categories follow an objective and transparent methodology involving quantitative and qualitative stages.

The Path to Winning a Category

The path to winning a category starts with Medicine Creek Analytics‘ quantitative results. The top three “quant” scorers in each category are grouped as a competition field, after which they are evaluated by our Subject Matter Experts qualitatively to establish a winner. The judging process, coordinated by seasoned global cannabis competition expert Alison Draisin, does not try to judge entries based on what terpene is their category.

The subjective, qualitative aspect of the process takes over once the objective, quantitative aspect establishes the field. This is because cannabis quality is inherently subjective, given not only material variation in the cannabis itself but variation in each consumer’s individual biology and psychology. This fact challenges efforts to standardize how cannabis is marketed and branded, considerably. We aim to help the industry evolve not only by establishing quantitative methods for branding purposes, but for understanding variance and diversity of cannabis consumer markets — all of which can be captured by focusing on subjective consumer experience, as well as objective terpene presence.

So: each entry gets a terp test from our sponsoring lab, the Puyallup Tribe’s Medicine Creek Analytics. The top three alpha-Pinene scorers, for example, then go to our judges, who have been carefully curated by our judge coordinator, Alison Draisin, for their palate expertise. This doesn’t mean they will all taste and smell the same thing. It means they are qualified by experience and vetted by Alison, who is a veteran of numerous cannabis competitions around the world and locally due to her historical participation and flourishing medical cannabis business, Ettalew’s Medibles.

Each entry may qualify for multiple categories. A top-three Myrcene scorer, for example, is highly likely to be a top-three Total Terpene scorer, given the predominance of Myrcene in contemporary cannabis cultivars. Having lots of categories opens up space for entrants with unique or less-common terpenes to win, too. And we have created categories that combine Total Terpenes with cannabinoid ratios, because although cannabinoids are de-emphasized in our Tournament they are still part of the Whole Plant and important to recognize.

The last category, Judges’ Choice, isn’t just a consolation category for entrants that don’t make a quantitative cut. The fact is, quantitative testing can’t 100% confirm or correlate with terpene volume or quality. There are a lot of reasons for this, but perhaps most obviously, trace terpenes — those minute amounts that labs don’t test for because they are so small — can make an enormous difference. And sometimes cannabis that doesn’t test well, for whatever reason, can smell and taste incredible. That’s a limit to establishing an objective methodology to evaluate a subjective experience. The numbers never tell the whole story, because they represent an incredibly complex plant interacting with incredibly complex human biologies and psychologies. That’s the story of the Judges’ Choice, and perhaps the story of learning how to reach markets with quantitatively modest cannabis.

User-friendly Tournament Entries

The I-502 legal cannabis system allows us to do something most competitions can’t, fairly easily: reduce and minimize the actual cost of entering the competition. Many don’t realize that the cost of entering a cannabis competition includes not only the entry fee, but the opportunity cost of handing over a quantity of product sufficient to be judged, usually a few hundred dollars’ worth of product that could otherwise be sold. That opportunity cost is minimized in our competition because we only require QA samples to be submitted before the three-product field is established — at which point entries have a 1 in 3 chance of winning, rather than a 1 in 100 chance of winning.

Once the Tournament fields are established, entrants will submit one ounce of flower or 14 grams of extract manifested legally through the 502 system for qualitative judging. Those entries must correspond with the lot or batch number associated with the State’s seed-to-sale system, or they will be disqualified. Once they have qualified for 12 of our categories, entrants will receive instructions on how to proceed. The thirteenth category is optional and open to all entrants who have not qualified based on test results. This allows entrants to decide for themselves whether to part with the market value of their entries.

The Terpene Tournament (TM)

That’s it! We hope this description of our Tournament provides transparency and education for interested parties. Over the next month or so, we will be accepting flower and solventless extract submissions, the total of which are capped at 100. To enter, simply provide a QA sample with a Terpestival Entry Form to Medicine Creek Analytics in Puyallup; and your $250 per entry in either cash or check made out to CASP. For more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Dominic Corva, at my email address dominic@caspcenter.org. Thank you, and good luck!



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