Sourcing Ingredients

Start with good suppliers and be sure your ingredients are readily available for the day you ramp up production

by Bart Schaneman

Finding high-quality, reliable suppliers is crucial when it comes to sourcing ingredients for marijuana-infused edibles, drinks and other products.

So says Andy Brassington, CFO of Seattle-based Evergreen Herbal. He should know: Evergreen Herbal produces more than 50,000 units per month of cannabis-infused beverages, chocolates, teas, hard candies and pre-rolls – among other products.

While sugar, chocolate and teas are easy to buy in bulk, Brassington noted, Evergreen Herbal scours the globe to find the right suppliers for distinct flavors.

“We find the best vendors and suppliers that match what we’re looking for,” he said.

High-quality suppliers aren’t the only factor fueling the success of Evergreen Herbal, which began in 2013 under Washington’s medical marijuana program and later transitioned into the recreational market after the legalization of adult-use cannabis.

The company strives to maintain good business relationships with its suppliers by paying them on time and sharing market information. Evergreen Herbal, which employs more than 35 full-time workers, also plans ahead to ensure ingredients for new recipes are easily sourced on the assumption that production eventually will be ramped up.

And Brassington offered one other piece of advice: It’s crucial not to take the wrong approach and focus too much on the marijuana side of things when it comes to infused products.

“We’re really in the food and beverage manufacturing industry,” he said of Evergreen Herbal, which has more than 200 customers in Washington. “We just happen to have this ingredient called cannabis.”

Choose Suppliers Wisely

Brassington has three tips for finding the right supplier:

  • Seek out the leaders in a particular food category. Evergreen Herbal’s team has traveled extensively to Europe, Asia and across North America to find product manufacturers from across the food and beverage industry as well as ingredients, equipment and packaging suppliers.
  • Do your homework and get on the phone. “Finding the ideal flavor house takes time and that’s a very important part of the ingredient supply chain when you’re manufacturing a food or beverage product,” Brassington said. Evergreen Herbal talks with a potential supplier’s product development, manufacturing and quality assurance teams. It also follows up with references and tries to understand a supplier’s strengths before cementing a contract.
  • Trade shows are good for someone starting up a business or product line or just getting familiar with the industry. “Trade shows are a great resource for business owners to learn from the leaders in the industry,” he said. “In one venue you can meet a handful of ingredient manufacturers or ingredient suppliers.” Brassington recommends attending the shows that attract the leading suppliers in your desired category. Do online research well in advance to find the appropriate event, and use the show as a learning experience. Another way to find a good show is to ask your current suppliers which ones they attend.

Evergreen also has third-party labs test all of the raw products it purchases, which range from chocolate to mango puree. Those ingredients must pass an internal product-quality program as well.

Brassington said it isn’t that difficult to strike a balance between high quality and large quantities.

“We’re not buying from middlemen and third parties and brokers,” he said. “We’re buying from food-ingredient specialists.” Evergreen Herbal buys sugar directly from a sugar manufacturer, for example.

In addition, Evergreen Herbal buys its chocolate ingredients from a fifth-generation, family owned chocolate manufacturing company in the United States.

“They didn’t find us,” Brassington said. “We found them.”

Sourcing Cannabis

Evergreen Herbal can’t source every ingredient from outside its home state, however. All of its cannabis is grown in Washington. Federal law doesn’t allow cannabis to be shipped across state lines.

The company chooses its growers carefully from the state’s hundreds of licensed cultivators. Its employees called around, fanned out across the state and found growers. A few even approached Evergreen Herbal.

Brassington said when the company wants to create low-odor, flavorless distillate it seeks out raw marijuana with easily removable terpenes. For wax and shatter products, it seeks high-terpene strains and selects marijuana based on freshness and harvest dates.

In general, he and his team work with growers who have good agricultural practices and are stewards of the land. In short: They want farmers who take farming seriously.

“We’re very selective of who we work with,” Brassington said. “We want people who are committed, that have a good business plan, who don’t take shortcuts and produce high-quality, consistent product. We work with people who have been committed, professional growers.”

Consistency Wins Out

When it comes to suppliers, becoming a desirable customer isn’t that complicated.

“We pay our bills on time,” he said. “We’re consistent buyers. We provide (market) forecasts. We become a good customer to these people, and they become good suppliers to us.”

Consistency in food and beverage manufacturing is very important, Brassington added.

“Once consumers like a product, they want it to be the same tomorrow, next week, six months from now,” he said. “Once we have good suppliers, we’re pretty loyal.”

When approaching potential mainstream business partners in the food and beverage industry such as fruit juice manufacturers and sugar companies, overcoming the stigma associated with marijuana can be a challenge. To get past that, Brassington points to the number of states that have some form of legalization.

“I say that we are fully licensed and credentialed by every governing authority in the state of Washington,” he said. “And that we’ve been in business for more than four years. And the state of Washington has the most transparent regulatory framework in the U.S. We’re very happy to be doing business in the state of Washington.”

Plan Ahead

For infused businesses developing a new product, it’s important to create recipes with easily sourced ingredients. The ingredients should be available in bulk, even for a small-batch recipe. Ideally, the day will come when production of that small-batch recipe must be boosted to meet consumer demand.

“We would not put ourselves in a position to be hamstrung by not being able to get the necessary ingredient,” Brassington said. “It is the challenge of any food or beverage company, whether you’re Nestle or General Mills or us. Lab testing of new products and formulas is where it starts, of course, but you always have to plan ahead. If you can’t replicate it in a production environment, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

He also emphasized that sourcing ingredients isn’t a static process.

“The proper blending of ingredients, batch after batch, time after time, is an opportunity for continuous improvement in product quality,” Brassington said. “We want our consumers to enjoy the best flavors and experience possible. It starts with ingredients, but at the end of the day you want the customer to be pulling your product off the shelf and being happy that they did.”