Cannabis Concentrates: What You Need to Know

By Gooey Rabinski | September 21, 2015

The days of cannabis consumers being relegated to dropping flowers into glass bowls and rolling joints for smoking are long gone. While this option is certainly still available to fans of the culture, today’s fans of the culture are focusing on vaporizing concentrates, which are special extractions that strive to isolate the plant’s resin-bearing trichomes from the leaf matter and other undesirable matter. The trichomes contain all cannabinoids and terpenes and, thus, are the essence of the plant, providing all medical and recreational (psychoactive) value.

Concentrates are created through a process called extraction. Extraction is simply the removal of the resin from the buds and leaf matter. The more effectively that as much resin as possible can be extracted — while discarding all non-resin matter, such as parts of the leaves and bud (like the calyx and pistils) — the higher the purity, quality, and medical efficacy of the concentrate.

Efficient, Healthy Alternative

Of course, those who refuse to recognize the medical efficacy of cannabis — such as the federal government and many conservative organizations — are opposed to concentrates based on their perception that they are even more “dangerous” than smoking marijuana. For those who are offended by the euphoria delivered by cannabis, concentrates are public enemy number one and labeled as a detriment to society.

For patients and recreational consumers, however, concentrates are actually a healthy alternative. Despite fear mongering and pervasive ignorance, by eliminating plant matter from the equation, consumers find themselves smoking or vaporizing a more pure substance that is mostly the resin from cannabinoid-loaded trichomes. While cannabis flowers, or buds, typically contain between 10-20 percent THC (getting as potent as about 30 percent, in rare cases), concentrates can offer between 60-95 percent THC, making for a much more efficient and productive vaping or smoking session, something that is especially important for patients.

Cannabis Oil

Cannabis oil, which has gained plenty of media attention recently for its role in helping epilepsy and cancer patients, especially children, is not a particular extraction method or product. In fact, cannabis oil can be created via a variety of extraction methods, all of which produce concentrate products of varying levels of quality and potency. Of course, one must remember the old computer industry mantra: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If one uses poor-quality, weak cannabis to create a concentrate, the result will never be as good as when leveraging a top-shelf medical strain with a high percentage of THC, CBD, or both.

concentrates dabbing (1)

Solvents

Common extraction methods involve solvents, including butane, CO2, ethanol (grain alcohol), isopropyl alcohol, and propane. Solvents are chemical agents that strip the resin from the plant and leaf matter, collecting and concentrating the cannabinoids and terpenes.

Some extraction methods, especially those involving butane, leave residual solvents in the final product — even if only in trace amounts. This is a health concern and may impact the flavor and aroma of the concentrate.

Depending on the solvent and process employed, concentrates are available in a wide variety of consistencies. Some are gooey, thick oils, while others result in a rigid, hard material (such as shatter). Experience, or the consultation of a dabbing expert, is necessary to determine a preference for which consistency is most pleasing. It is recommended that users experiment with different types of concentrates from various dispensaries and vendors to learn their preference.

What is Dabbing?

Dabbing involves the application of a small amount of a cannabis concentrate to a heated surface, which vaporizes the substance, creating a dense, white vapor that is inhaled. Because it doesn’t involve actual combustion, dabbing is considered a harm reduction strategy that is safer and healthier than smoking.

Dabbing basically combines the act of vaporizing cannabis, which can be achieved with a conventional desktop or pocket vaporizer, with the world of concentrates. Despite its recreational roots and youthful culture, dabbing is an effective route of ingesting cannabis medicine because of potency, quick onset, and minimal consumption. A small amount of a strong concentrate, when vaporized via dabbing, may be equivalent to smoking a joint of mid-shelf herb and spending a considerably greater amount of time medicating.

concentrates dabs

Dab Rigs

Because dabbing necessarily involves vaporizing one’s concentrate, conventional bongs and pipes that accommodate cannabis buds and are designed for smoking them aren’t appropriate for concentrates. Thus the emergence and popularity of specialized glass bongs for consuming concentrates like shatter, wax, and live resin called dab rigs.

The heating surface used in dab rigs are constructed from a variety of materials, including titanium and quartz. These substances are employed because they can achieve and sustain the high temperatures necessary for effective and thorough vaporization of the concentrate. While titanium is impervious to breaking if dropped, it’s the most expensive way to outfit a dab rig. Quartz, however, which is considerably less expensive, can also easily break.

Skillets, Nails, and Bangers

Three of the most common forms of dab rigs are skillets, nails, and bangers. Skillets, the oldest and least popular of the three, involve a pad that is heated with a torch or other device. After it achieves a high enough temperature, a very small sample of concentrate (about one-third the size of a pea) is placed on the pad, at which time the user inhales the vapor using a plastic or glass straw. The timing of this process is critical to avoid the loss of the cannabinoid- and terpene-rich vapor that’s created at the instant that the concentrate touches the skillet.

cannabis-concentrates

Nails, which were the norm a few years ago when dabbing was gaining popularity, are more sophisticated and convenient than skillets. They are typically titanium, glass, or quartz and designed to slip into the downtube of a bong-like dab rig, replacing what would traditionally be the herb bowl. Like skillets, nails require a heat source, such as a torch. While considered superior to skillets by many users, nails have waned in popularity, having been replaced by today’s most popular dabbing surface, the banger.

Despite its swanky name, a banger is simply a titanium, glass, ceramic, or quartz bowl. Common sizes for bangers are 10, 14, and 18 mm. Available in a wide variety of form factors and sizes, bangers are arguably the most convenient and attractive of the dab rig “input devices.”

Some dab rigs involving nails employ coiled electronic heating elements called e-nails. Many consumers prefer e-nails due to their ease-of-use and the decreased danger of catching one’s cat on fire. E-nails also prevent overheating one’s concentrate, a common problem that will decrease the quality of one’s dabbing experience.

Dab rigs also require dabbing utensils, appropriately called “dabbers.” While one has the option of purchasing expensive and exotic utensils, many dabbing fans use something as simple as a crochet hook or dental probe to get the job done. For the dab rig itself, borosilicate glass is highly recommended due to its ability to expand and contract and handle the high levels of heat necessary to properly vaporize a concentrate. Dab rigs that increase the diffusion of the vapor (with indentations and special formations in the glass) result in smoother, more enjoyable hits.

cannabis-concentrates-2

The temperature of the nail or banger is critical. Some experts recommend beginning at about 650 degrees F (343 C), while others will advise a target temp of 600 to 700 degrees F (315-371 C). Higher temperatures can result in a degradation of the terpenes in the concentrate, affecting flavor, aroma, and even medicinal efficacy (many terpenes act in a similar manner to cannabinoids and synergistically interact with them, so as many should be preserved as possible). Using a torch as a heat source can be tricky and requires some practice to get the temperature right. Electronic nails, of course, can be dialed into an exact temperature, just like many conventional desktop vaporizers intended for bud.

Kief

Also known as “dry sieve,” “dry sift,” or “pollen,” kief is one of the oldest forms of cannabis concentrates, dating back thousands of years. In its most pure form, kief is only trichomes, with no plant matter. Connoisseur-grade kief is comprised of only the heads of the trichomes, with none of the near-microscopic stems. The emergence of markedly more potent — and arguably more exotic — solvent-based extracts has made kief harder to find, even in legal states like Colorado and Oregon. Cultivators and processors simply make more money from concentrates like wax and shatter, which are also more potent.

Kief is the most simple of the concentrates. It is easily and safely produced at home and involves no solvents, heat, complex procedures, or chemical reactions. It can vary in color from yellow and green to gray and brown, depending on how much non-trichome plant matter is in the mix.

cannabis concentrates kief

Kief is typically created by separating the trichomes from the plant matter using a kiefing board or other device comprised of a special filtering screen. It can also be collected using a three-chamber bud grinder that employs a similar screen. The screens allow trichomes to fall thru to a collection plate or chamber, below, theoretically preventing any leaf matter, pistils, or other material that’s not a trichome to pass through. Because of its powdery nature, kief isn’t appropriate for dabbing.

Kief can be smoked or vaporized directly or used as a “garnish” for cannabis buds to enhance their flavor and potency. Depending on the quality of the cannabis flowers used to create kief, the equipment employed, and the competency of the person doing it, kief can vary in potency from about 20 percent THC to more than 60 percent.

Classic Hash

Classic hash, also called “pressed hash,” is when the trichomes of the plant are separated and compressed, often by hand. This creates a mass of resin resulting from the crushed trichomes. Depending on the collection technique employed and quality of the cannabis used, hash can result in a variety of colors, ranging from dark yellow to brown to even black (depending on the amount of plant and foreign matter in the final product). Examples of top-shelf hash and modern interpretations of this millennia-old concentrate include “bubble hash” and “full-melt hash.” To this day, some of the best old-school pressed hash hails from Afghanistan, Lebanon, and India.

cannabis concentrates pressed hash (1)

Water Hash

Also known as bubble hash, water hash involves soaking buds or, more typically, leaf trim in ice water. This causes the trichomes to become brittle and, upon the application of a bit of physical agitation, to fall off. Optimally, only the heads fall to the bottom of the ice water reservoir, where they are collected and dried. While typically not considered as high quality as solvent-based extraction processes, water hash can definitely be potent. Technically, the ice water acts as the solvent.

A popular product for creating water hash is Bubble Bags and their imitators. This approach involves a series of bags that feature different pore densities, becoming finer as the process proceeds and produces a variety of hash qualities. Water hash can easily be created by home gardeners, with low cost and relatively little effort. It also carries none of the dangers of the creation of butane hash oil, which is optimally created in a professional laboratory under strict conditions.

concentrates water hash

Butane Hash Oil

Butane Hash Oil, or BHO, is arguably the most popular form of cannabis concentrate. Also known as “honey oil” and available in a variety of forms — including crumble, errl, glass, honeycomb, shatter, budder, wax (earwax), and sap — BHO is the standard for many people who want to engage in dabbing. Typically, a BHO concentrate that resembles taffy or peanut butter is an inferior example of the art (and probably an accident on the part of its creator).

There are two primary concerns with BHO: First, the process by which it is made involves a highly volatile and potentially explosive substance (butane). Amateur BHO makers have gained widespread media attention after explosions have resulted in property destruction and even lost lives. Second, any residual butane left in the final product is not healthy. Patients considering BHO as a form of medicine must carefully choose the right brand or manufacturer. Facilities and labs that employ professional equipment operated by trained technicians are highly recommended to ensure a product that features as little residual solvent as possible.

concentrates butane hash oil

CO2 Oil

CO2 oil, typically of an amber color, is a healthier alternative to BHO, but can be produced using only expensive botanical extraction equipment found in professional laboratories. As the name implies, CO2 oil creation involves the use of carbon dioxide and very high pressure, a process called supercritical fluid extraction, or SFE. Supercritical fluids are unique because they exhibit properties of both a gas and a liquid. Thus, CO2 diffuses through solids (like a gas) but also dissolves compounds (like a liquid). This means that it easily permeates the cuticle, or “skin,” of trichomes, allowing it to very thoroughly extract all resin.

CO2 oil is perfect for use in vape pens and other applications. While less common than BHO, CO2 oil is healthier and easier to control. It also contains a larger number of terpenes than BHO, giving it a more impressive “terpene profile” and better realizing the potential of a particular strain of cannabis. For example, BHO typically features 0.5-3.5 percent terpenes (by mass). CO2 oil, on the contrary, contains 8-10 percent terpenes.

cannabis concentrates co2 oil

Tinctures

Tinctures, along with classic hash, are the oldest form of cannabis concentrate available. Until the prohibition of cannabis in 1937 by the United States federal government, cannabis tinctures were common on the walls of pharmacies throughout North America. A tincture is simply a liquid concentrate derived from alcohol extraction. Tinctures offer ease of consumption that doesn’t involve heat, can be flavored, and can be administered to children or pets for medicinal purposes.

Because they are concentrated, only a few drops of a good tincture placed under one’s tongue are necessary to gain a full dose. While more common for medical than recreational use, tinctures can safely be created by laypeople using the buds or trim from a home garden and simply soaking them in grain alcohol for a period of one to four weeks, depending on desired results and bud quality.

cannabis tincture

Live Resin

Live resin, one of the newest connoisseur-grade marijuana products, is a concentrate that has been extracted directly from a freshly harvested cannabis plant that has been cryogenically frozen (meaning the instant application of very low temperatures). Live resin is unique because it completely eliminates the drying process. With conventional bud, drying and curing can consume between 30 and 70 days, depending on strain and environment. Live resin offers a “fresh” alternative to conventional herb and a novel twist on the typical concentrate.

cannabis concentrates live resin

When harvesting marijuana, the drying process wreaks havoc on the beloved terpenes and cannabinoids found in cannabis, adversely affecting flavor and aroma. Live resin provides a unique way to enjoy the full flavor of cannabinoids and terpenes. According to DabTek, a concentrate manufacturer in Denver:

“Through a precise extraction process, a truly world-class concentrate can be produced. The effect and taste of properly prepared live resin are utterly unparalleled and give a true representation of a connoisseur’s delicacy.”

Live resin offers two primary benefits: Better flavors and a more complete terpene profile. Because terpenes do more than provide aroma, this process is arguably superior for capturing and delivering the maximum medical efficacy for a particular cannabis strain. The only downside of live resin is that it is relatively rare and costly. However, some dispensaries and retail stores in legal states like Oregon and Colorado offer live resin, with many more beginning to stock this novel, bleeding edge concentrate.

Whether one wants to consume BHO, CO2 oil, tinctures, kief, old school hash, water hash, or go exotic with the latest live resin, a wide variety of exciting concentrates are available that employ a wide range of technologies. If done right, all of these cannabis extractions provide uber-strong potency, sometimes wonderful flavors, and the ability to get a joint’s worth of THC in just one or two dab rips.

Photo credit: Mat Lee from HotBoxPodcast

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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