Cashing in on the Terpene Trend

Terp sauce is produced inside a Medicine Man facility in Denver. The product is a concentrate that contains terpenes and, sometimes, THC. Photo by Matthew Staver

Cannabis companies hoping to capitalize on consumer interest in terpenes need to consider a host of factors – the product they want to offer, the type of terpenes they plan to use (cannabis versus botanical) and the effect the product will deliver to consumers.

Consumers who want more flavor, aroma and plant-based effects are looking for vape cartridges and infused products with terpenes added back in.

Typical marijuana extraction processes are geared toward separating out common cannabinoids like THC and CBD from raw plant material.

But as the more discerning cannabis consumer knows, something is missing when you vape or eat marijuana that lacks terpenes. For craft beer geeks, it would be like quaffing an India Pale Ale without hops.

Vape or edibles companies aiming to capture that consumer looking for the whole-plant experience should seek out firms that extract cannabis terpenes. A more limited, but less expensive, option is a botanically derived version.

At True Terpenes in Portland, Oregon, co-founder Ben Cassiday said his business, which caters to marijuana companies, has started to take off as consumers become more aware of the plant-based chemicals.

“I used to have to convince people that terpenes existed,” he said. “Now I have to convince them we’re the best option.”

Botanical Versus Cannabis

True Terpenes offers both types of terpenes – botanical and cannabis-derived – for marijuana companies. The botanical terps are much cheaper to process and formulate, but they are limited in what they can achieve.

Cassiday’s company offers about 30-50 different botanically derived terpenes. By using scientific methods such as gas chromatography mass spectrometry, Cassiday and others can isolate the terpenes found in cannabis strains, then produce similar combinations from botanicals, including cloves, lavender and citrus fruits.

For example, alpha-pinene, a terpene commonly found in pine trees, also exists in cannabis strains such as Jack Herer. If a vape cartridge company wants to create an oil that re-creates the specific taste and smell of Jack Herer, True Terpenes can source alpha-pinene and other terpenes from common plants or trees to build that flavor and aroma profile.

Linda Hurley, senior president of sales and marketing for Ricca Chemical Co. in Arlington, Texas, said the botanically derived terpenes her company formulates are the same as the cannabis variety.

She hasn’t found any cannabis terpenes that don’t exist in other plants as well.

“A molecule’s a molecule,” she said. “If a molecule comes from cannabis or from clove oil, it’s the same terpene.”

But why not just extract the terps straight from the cannabis plant?

It’s possible, and it’s arguably better to do it that way, but it’s far more expensive.

According to Cassiday, if you compare a Sour Diesel terpene profile that comes from botanicals to one from cannabis extraction, the extracted profile will have many more terpenes. “Literally 200 more terpenes in it,” he said. But it’s cost prohibitive.

True Terpenes sells botanical terpenes for $5 per milliliter wholesale and cannabis terps for $100 per milliliter for top-shelf quality.

Ricca Chemical sells its botanically derived terpenes for about $2.50-$3 per gram.

Consistency is King

So why go through the trouble and spend the money at all?

“The point is having a consistent chemical profile within your product,” Cassiday said.

Hurley echoed that statement.

“Consistency is really important, so your customer gets the same experience every time they use your product,” she said.

Cannabis strains can be fickle, Hurley said, and it’s difficult to create an exact, reliable terpene profile from the marijuana plant every harvest. That’s where her company’s terpenes come in.

“Your brand has to be very consistent in order for people to become loyal to it,” she added.

Some people think of terpenes as simply flavoring or added aroma, but they also create a reproducible effect.

“Part of why customers are using cannabis is for the medicinal effects,” Hurley said. “Terpenes give you that calming effect. Or anti-inflammatory or pain management.”

If you purchase a terpene additive, manufacture a vape pen with it and the product gives your customer a specific, positive effect, then you can re-create that effect for them every time.

“Because we’re not able to identify everything that’s in the cannabis flower, it’s really for us to then identify what’s beneficial to somebody,” Cassiday said. “If we can separate those out, and give them to somebody in a specific formula, and we can tweak that formula until it gets to a point that they’re receiving relief,” then the company feels as if it’s achieved something.

Terpenes Build Brands

Most of the companies Cassiday works with are blending terpenes with THC distillate. But he said smoking raw distillate by itself is a limited experience. It won’t help you become creative or inspired.

“Terpenes are like lighter fluid,” he added. “They really accelerate the whole process.”

Cannabis companies can use terpenes to produce a specific, effects-based brand.

For example, if your company hopes to appeal to millennials who want an after-work relaxation product, you can find a terpene profile that creates a calming effect.

Aside from the aforementioned benefits, adding terpenes to vape cartridges can reduce the viscosity of distillate or cannabis oil, giving vape pens a smoother smoke.

Typically, companies will use about 3%-10% terpenes in their oil or distillate mixture, so the terpenes also can help stretch out and make your raw product go further.

“As a product manufacturer, adding terpenes to your product saves you money,” Cassiday noted.

Bart Schaneman