Understanding Cannabis Concentrates
As cannabis becomes more available and mainstream, more and more customers are finding a whole new world of products. You might find yourself confused at the dispensary – apparently your cannabis can come in many forms, not just dried flower! So let’s talk about cannabis concentrates and the forms they come in.
If you’re finding yourself confused at the litany of terms – what is the difference between budder and butter? Concentrates and extracts? What about oils, hash, and resin? – You’ve come to the right place.
What are cannabis concentrates?
Cannabis concentrates are created by distilling the cannabis plant down to its most effective parts, the cannabinoids and terpenes, with none of the extra plant material that houses them.
This makes concentrates significantly stronger and more effective than smoking the dried bud. While the plant matter can average around 10-25% THC, concentrates can get up to 90%. For this reason, concentrates should be used with caution: start with a smaller dose than you think you’ll need, and see how it affects you before proceeding (A good rule of thumb, if you’re new to concentrates, is to start with a piece about half the size of a grain of rice and adjust accordingly).
Concentrates come in many different forms, and can be used in a variety of ways.
There are two main subgroups of cannabis concentrates which comes down to how they are prepared. All concentrates work by extracting the trichomes from the plant material - trichomes are the shiny, sticky little “hairs” you see on cannabis flower, commonly called “crystal”. While they may look like a dust or powder on the plant, they’re actually hairlike strands that create the cannabinoids that make cannabis so effective.
Solvent-based vs. Physical extraction methods
Solvent-based extractions use a solvent, like alcohol or butane, to dissolve the plant matter while maintaining the cannabinoids and terpenes. If that sounds scary, consider baking: the vanilla extract that goes into your favourite cookies uses alcohol (the solvent) to extract the vanilla flavour from the plant. The end result is a delicious taste and aroma far more potent and cost-effective than purchasing actual vanilla pods.
Solvent-based extractions are typically referred to as extracts, which is why many people use “extracts” and “concentrates” interchangeably, but while all extracts are concentrates, not all concentrates are actually extracts.
Physical or solventless extraction methods use the application of a physical force, like heat or pressure, to extract the concentrate from the plant material. Solvent based extractions are easier to produce on a commercial scale - making them more common and easier to find in dispensaries - solventless concentrates are rising in popularity.
Currently, there’s no research to support claims that either method is “better” than the other - and with a wealth of concentrates to choose from, it’s ultimately a personal choice which you prefer.
How to Use Cannabis Concentrates
While concentrates vary in texture and form, most of them can be used in the same ways. Probably the most popular way of consuming many concentrates is dabbing.
A dab rig is a device very similar to a bong, except it will have a “dab nail” where you place a small amount of the concentrate, instead of the bowl you would typically see on a bong. Because concentrates are far more potent than smoking dried flower, a much smaller amount is needed each time, making the dab rig more efficient and safer than a bong.
Many concentrates can also be added directly to a rolled joint or blunt, or in the case of oils, added to foods or otherwise consumed.
If you’re new to concentrates, it can’t be overstated to start with a much smaller amount than you think you’ll need and see how it affects you before adding more. As with any product, follow the advice of the manufacturer if you’re unsure how to use it.
Our Top Concentrates:
Below we’ve listed some of the most common concentrates you might see, with a little information about each one. While this guide can’t cover every possible concentrate, many of them are very similar, and this will help give you a brief overview.
Kief refers to the powdered trichomes that come off of dried bud, usually when it’s ground or cut up. Many hand grinders have a compartment designed to collect the kief, so it might even be something you already have at home.
While kief doesn’t require a manufacturing process like other concentrates, it’s also often mixed with shreds of plant material, so it’s not considered as pure. However, it is usually very potent, as the trichomes of the plant are where the majority of the cannabinoids and terpenes come from.
It is possible to create kief through a process known as “dry sifting”, where traditionally the kief is sifted through many layers of fine-woven silks to isolate the finest powder. It’s a time-consuming process, so the end product is more expensive than other concentrations. The end result is a super-fine powder with a very high concentration of cannabinoids and terpenes, highly regarded by cannabis connoisseurs.
Hashish, or hash, may be the oldest surviving method of concentrating cannabis that’s still used today, with the earliest dated mention of it in texts originating in Cairo in the 1100’s.
There are many methods used to make various forms of hash, from ice water extractions to solvent-based extractions. Most commonly, hash is made by forming kief into bricks or slabs using heat and pressure to create a solid mass.
Bubble hash is created by using ice water to separate the trichomes from the plant material. The trichomes are sieved through a series of mesh bags, each a finer mesh than the last. Each bag collects its own grade of hash, as only the smallest particles pass through to the finest bag.
Other traditional forms of hash include hand-rubbed hash, which uses friction to separate the trichomes from the plant, and Afghani hash, which is hand-pressed using water or tea.
Hash Oil (BHO)
Hash oil, sometimes also called butane hash oil, is a concentrated oil made using, you guessed it, butane. In many cases, the process used to create BHO also produces other butane-extracted concentrates, like shatter, budder, crumble, and resin.
Shatter is a cannabis extract that gets its name from glass - it’s a shiny, translucent substance that’s often (but not always) hard and brittle. Some shatter can be manipulated, like taffy, while other types will just snap in pieces. Shatter is popular among dabbers, and many people consider it a top-tier cannabis extract.
Shatter is a solvent-based extract, made with butane (BHO) before undergoing an intensive filtration process to remove impurities and any remaining butane. For this reason it’s more difficult to make at home, so make sure your shatter is coming from a trusted source - the filtration process should not be rushed!
While budder is similar to butter in consistency, it’s not to be confused with cannabis butter - which is typically actual dairy butter that’s been infused with cannabis. Budder is an extract made using butane hash oil extraction, similar to shatter but much softer.
Budder falls under the family of wax extracts, but its terpene retention makes it stand out - it’s usually more aromatic and flavourful than other waxes, without sacrificing cannabinoid content.
Fans of budder rave about its creamy consistency - almost the perfect half-way mark between oils and solids like shatter. But the process to make it is quite involved, and it’s not advised to make it yourself. Like shatter, budder should be purchased from a trusted source, as it requires specialized equipment and a filtration process to remove the butane from the extract.
Sugar wax is another cannabis wax, named for its unique texture. Sugar wax is a wax concentrate that has crystallized, much like honey, that gives it a grainy, sugary appearance.
Sugar wax forms when the cannabis wax is made with high fat concentrates that begin to separate from the cannabinoids during or after extraction. While this process can happen to many waxes over time, often sugar wax is manufactured deliberately to have this appearance.
Crumble is another wax-like concentrate with a different appearance. Instead of having a high fat content, crumble is a wax that’s very dry, almost powdery, which causes it to fall apart easily when handled.
Crumble is made using the same process as shatter, with a few differences. In order to dry out the extract, crumble is processed on a lower temperature for longer than shatter. The end result is a very dry product that’s more shelf-stable than other cannabis concentrates, and therefore stays shelf-stable for longer.
While most concentrates are made with some form of heat, live resin stands out because it’s the opposite: Live resin manufacturing uses freeze-dried cannabis to extract the cannabinoids and terpenes from the plant. The theory behind this process is sound: By freezing, instead of drying, the plant, more of the terpenes and oils are preserved and the end result is more flavourful and more aromatic.
Live resin concentrates differ in texture, from sappy waxes to all the way to drier crumbles, but most often it’s a malleable, sticky wax.
Rosin is a shiny, translucent substance similar to sap. Rosin is a solventless product made by using heat and pressure to isolate the trichomes from the plant.
While commercial or large-scale operations will use an industrial heat press to create rosin, it’s popular among hobbyists because you can make it at home using parchment paper and a flat iron. The resulting product can be compared to shatter, but much more malleable. This makes rosin an ideal product for moulding, and can be consumed by dabbing or wrapped in - or around - a joint.
Since the process of making rosin involves no solvents, it often retains more of its terpenes than some other extracts, making it a flavourful and aromatic choice.
Distillate is an oil extract that has been stripped of absolutely everything except for one specific cannabinoid.
Most edibles and vape oils are made using distillate, as it has no flavour or scent, and no (or very minimal) other cannabinoids. Most distillates are either pure THC oil or CBD oil. Distillates are extremely helpful if you only want the medicinal benefits of CBD without any risk of getting high, or if you’re making potent THC edibles and don’t want any residual cannabis flavour or scent.
While pure THC or CBD distillates are common, many people also choose distillates with varying ratios of both. Each choice has its benefits; it really comes down to what your goals are with the product.
Rick Simpson Oil (RSO)
RSO gets an honourable mention because unlike many of the other extracts, it’s not a product you typically go out and buy. RSO was developed by Rick Simpson, a Canadian medical marijuana activist, in the early 2000s to treat his skin cancer. Rick doesn’t sell the oil - instead, he made his recipe widely available and promotes people making their own.
RSO is made using alcohol - either isopropyl or wood grain - as a solvent, and can be made at home. Check out our guide to making RSO at home here. This is the method we recommend to add cannabis to your DIY gummies, or distillate!