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The Craft of Extraction: Like Beer Making, It’s All About Control

By Jeremy Diehl
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Any brewmaster from the more than 7,000 U.S. craft breweries will tell you one of two things: That their art is a science, or that their science is an art. The answer might depend upon the brewer’s individual approach, but a combination of experience, process, precise measurement and intuition is exactly what’s required to create great beer. In a very similar way, the cannabis industry has its own version of the brewmaster: Extraction technicians.

A cannabis extraction technician deploys knowledge from multiple science disciplines to apply industrial solvents, heat and pressure to plant matter through a variety of methods with the aim to chemically extract pure compounds. Extraction techs use their passion for the cannabis and hemp plants, combined with chemistry, physics, phytobiology and chemical engineering to help create a result that’s not quite art, but not quite completely science. By manipulating plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables, the extraction technician crafts the building block for what will become an edible, tincture or extract.

Similarly, brewmasters use their knowledge of multiple science disciplines like chemistry and microbiology, as well as different brewing processes and a variety of ingredients to develop creative recipes that result in consistent, interesting beers. The brewmaster’s work is both science and art, as well. And they also manipulate plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables to achieve their desired results.

Author Jeremy Diehl collects cannabis extract from equipment for testing

“I would certainly consider brewing to be an art and a science, but it takes a very disciplined approach to create consistent, yet ever evolving beers for today’s craft market,” says Marshall Ligare, PhD. Research Scientist at John I. Haas, a leading supplier of hops, hop products and brewing innovations. “We work to ensure brewers can create something different with every new beer, as well as something that helps create an experience as well as a feeling.”

In both brewing and extraction, the art comes in the subjective experience of the craftsman and his or her ability to curate the infinite possibilities inherent in each process. However, both are a science in their requirement of establishing production methodologies that guarantee a consistent, reliable product experience every time to win customer loyalty (and regulatory compliance). In the same way hops determine recipes for beer flavors, the cannabis plant determines extraction recipes, especially considering the role that terpenoids play in the quality, flavor and effects of the end product.

The development of new and appealing cannabis products is beginning to mimic the vast variety of craft beers now found all over the world. In the same way beer connoisseurs seek out the perfect stout, lager or IPA, discriminating cannabis consumers now search for that gem of a single-origin, specialty-strain vaporizer oil or irresistible dab extract.

“I see an exciting new day for quality-focused, craft extraction that tells a story, not only of where the cannabis plant might have been grown and how, but also the care that was taken in the processing of that strain into smokable or edible oil,” says John Lynch, Founder of TradeCraft. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”

In the same way hops determine recipes for beer flavors, the cannabis plant determines extraction recipes

In either process, you’re essentially creating art with science. Each process works with different strains. Each is concerned with chemical and flavor profiles. Each has its own challenges. In both worlds, quality depends upon consistency. You’re creating art, but you need to replicate that art over and over – which can only occur with strict control of the process. Brewmasters seek control of things like yeast quantity and health, oxygen input, wort nutritional status and temperature, among other things. In their pursuit, extraction technicians seek to control temperature, pressure and flow rate–as well as all the ways these variables interact with each other. What enables this control in both efforts is the equipment used to achieve results.

“A modern brewhouse is very much like a scientific laboratory,” Ligare says. “Brewers treat their setup with the same care and attention a scientist gives to their lab equipment, and are equally concerned with precision, cleanliness and the purity of the result. With each new beer, they want to develop a process that can be controlled and replicated.”

The key to creating a precise process is to use instrument-grade machinery that performs to specifications – and allows you to repeat the process again and again. The value of using high-quality instrumentation to manage and monitor either the brewing or extraction process cannot be overstated. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is where the “craft” comes into play for both brewing and cannabis extraction. Precise instrumentation is what allows the brewer or extraction “artist” to manipulate and monitor the conditions required to meet recipe standards. Along with the quality of the ingredients (hops, cannabis, hemp, etc.), the quality of the equipment utilized to create the product is one critical element impacting the end result. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”

In cannabis extraction, a second crucial decision is determining which solvent is the best solution for the recipe you’re using and the end result you’re hoping to achieve. This decision is a part of the “craft” of extraction, and determined according to a combination of criteria. There’s no question that each solvent has a business case it serves best, and there is ongoing debate about which approach is best. But overwhelmingly, the solvent that best serves the most business needs is CO2 due to its inherent versatility and ability to have its density tuned to target specific compounds.

“Control is what makes or breaks any craft product,” says Karen Devereux, Vice President of Northeast Kingdom Hemp. “We’re based in Vermont and love how Vermont is known for its quality craft beer, cheese and maple syrup. We wanted to bring that craft approach to hemp extraction, and everyone knows that any craft endeavor is focused on the details and getting them right again and again. You can’t do that without controlling every aspect of the process.”

Greater control of the process can also open up worlds of discovery. The inherent “tunability” of CO₂ enables the extraction technician to target specific compounds, enhancing the potential for experimentation and even whimsy. This can lead to entirely new products much in the way a brewer can control his process to create new, interesting beers.

American portrait photographer Richard Avedon famously declared that art is “about control,” describing the artistic process as “the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” The same can be said for beer making and cannabis extraction. The more precisely you can control variables, the more options you’ll have for yourself and your customers. The more choices you’ll have with regard to different recipes and products. And the more loyalty you’ll ultimately generate among fans of your products.

Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 2

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the second article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands. Click here to see Part 1.

In this week’s article we talk with Matthew Elmes, director of product development at Cannacraft. After cutting his teeth in academic and industry research, Matthew was approached by Cannacraft leadership to bring a new perspective to their product development efforts. The interview with Matthew was conducted on July 22, 2020.

Next week, we’ll interview Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operating officer at GenX BioTech. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Hi Matthew, and thank you for taking the time to chat today, I understand you have a busy schedule!

Matthew Elmes: Thanks – yeah, last week was pretty insane!

Aaron: Well, I’m happy we found a chance to put this together. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved at Cannacraft?

Matthew Elmes, director of product development at Cannacraft

Matthew: I did my Ph.D in biochemistry at Stony Brook University on cannabinoid intracellular transport and metabolism. I then did a post-doc with Artelo Biosciences in endocannabinoid system modulation. While I was doing my post-doctoral research, Dennis Hunter, co-founder of Cannacraft, had learned about my work and reached out to offer me a position.

Aaron: Awesome, that’s a great feeling when people are reaching out to you! The next questions here will be focused on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for launching a new product?

Matthew: We do our best to anticipate what the market will want. A lot of our new product development comes from improving our current products. Things like improving stability, shelf-life and reducing bitterness. For brand-new products and technologies, we first get a lot of feedback from the marketing and sales teams and will then go into a planning session to decide what is feasible and what is not prior to moving forward.

Aaron: Do you personally get involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process there.

Matthew: I do get involved in manufacturing. My main inputs are figuring out how much cannabis oil to use to hit a target potency around the size of a batch. This is the type of thing I do for all our beverage products like HiFi Hops, our Satori line of infused edibles, and the various gummy products sold under our brands Absolute Xtracts and Care By Design.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?

Matthew: For the most part we develop everything internally. We are very vertically integrated here at Cannacraft and we extract all of our oil in house. I don’t do the oil extractions myself. Most of our stuff is supercritical carbon dioxide extraction, but we have hydrocarbon and cryoethanol extraction facilities opening soon. For our gummies, we use distillate oils for the best flavor and for our droppers/vapes we use full-spectrum oils for a more sophisticated array of effects.

Aaron: In product development, what does getting stuck look like for you?

Matthew: Getting stuck happens a lot! You know, strict regulations make it challenging to source ingredients. Foods we’d like to source for a product are often too high in pesticides or heavy metals for the cannabis regulations. What’s good enough for the grocery store is very often not good enough to be compliant in the California cannabis industry. Fruits that are totally free from pesticides are hard to find. Our edibles brand Satori Chocolates actually might be the only player in the entire California cannabis industry that uses real whole fruit in our products rather than something artificial or a processed fruit paste. We actually had to source our strawberries from Italy to find ones that were both compliant in metals/pesticides and tasted good enough to meet our high standards! The same sort of challenges apply to sourcing biomass for oils.

Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?

Matthew: We’re so diversified. We have lots of different products. The process for each one can have its own issues. The problems you encounter with cannabis beverages are not the same ones that you’ll encounter with vapes, edibles, topicals or sublinguals, etc. We are one of the oldest players in the California cannabis industry (CannaCraft was founded in 2014, well before regulated recreational cannabis was a thing) so we have the advantage of working on all these issues for years longer than most of our competitors and we have largely figured out all the major ‘kinks’ already. A big part of it is also that we have assembled a great team of food scientists, chemical engineers, chemists, legal and regulatory experts, all with diverse specialties that allows us to quickly address any new ‘stucks’ and be fully confident in all of our products.

Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. What does your magic helper look like?

Matthew: I would love a magic helper! What would a magic helper look like to me? I think my magic helper is a recent undergrad with lab experience. I would have them take care of a lot of the quality and lab day to day activities. My responsibilities often make me too stuck to the computer screen where I don’t have time to get to all the experiments that I’d like to do…a trained magic helper could physically perform those experiments for me!

Aaron: OK, and now for our final question! What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?

Matthew: I am personally really interested in yeast grows and cannabinoid synthesis from biological organisms. We stick to only natural plant-derived cannabinoids for all our products, but it’s a new field that’s just fascinating to me. I also think that minor cannabinoids will have a bigger place in coming years. In particular I have my eye on THCV, ∆8-THC, CBG and THCP. THCP is a phytocannabinoid that was just discovered a year ago and exhibited very potent effects in preclinical models, but no one has been able to produce and purify it in appreciable amounts yet. We already manufacture and sell a ∆8-THC vape cart under our ABX brand, but for the others keep an eye out for new product announcements from us that are on the horizon.

Aaron: Well, that brings us to the end of the interview Matthew, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for your time and insights into product development in the cannabis industry.

Matthew: Thanks, take care!