BY ERICA BUEHLER AND STEVE LYSAKER
Since Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana and the subsequent boom in retail marijuana sales, cannabis-driven creativity has also skyrocketed. With concepts like puff-and-paint classes and cannabis-infused massages lifting off, it was only a matter of time before culinary cannabis experiments took flight.
Of course, cooking with cannabis is not new. Marijuana has been used for centuries as an ingredient (sometimes a secret one) in a variety of foods and beverages. But with the widening sweep of recreational legalization, cannabis is basking in the spotlight and being employed on a broader scope than ever before.
Most dispensaries today stock a veritable cornucopia of cannabis-imbued snacks and beverages, and events that match meals with complementary marijuana strains are proving popular. Cannabis retailers are also devoting increased attention to educating their budtenders about aroma and flavor profiles, so they in turn can share that knowledge with consumers seeking to pair marijuana with their favorite foods or drinks.
In fact, Denver boasts a growing number of high-profile, cannabis-focused chefs who combine their passion for cooking with their desire to destigmatize recreational marijuana use. Often, these chefs work for or with top dispensaries in various capacities, including advising on cannabis-food pairings and creating edibles.
ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE
Many dispensaries report that escalating numbers of customers are showing interest in and asking questions about the aroma and flavor profiles of cannabis strains, as well as how those strains may partner with particular foods and drinks, and what effects they may produce.
“We have seen an increase in consumers who are looking to get a great strain to complement their meals or [as a] night cap before bed,” says Daniel Medina of Denver’s Peak Dispensary. “A tasty sativa like Lemon Tree can give the consumer an amazing taste and a burst of energy to have with a cup of coffee or with breakfast in the morning. An indica strain that is a favorite before bed is Skywalker 600. With a cup of tea or before a hot shower, [it] will get the consumer blissful, relaxed, and off to sleep.”
“Cannabis strains have such varying flavor profiles that you can find one to go with just about any dish or drink,” explains Alyssa Moore of High Level Health, which operates a number of dispensaries in Colorado and Michigan. Moore has also noted a surge in customers asking about food-and-drink matches, and she remarks that recommendations often tend toward the sweet because many cannabis strains have fruit-forward notes that lend themselves to desserts. “Our strain Passion Orange Guava paired with vanilla ice cream is a delight.”
This movement toward taste and fragrance is based largely on consumers’ evolving knowledge about marijuana and elevated sophistication concerning how a strain’s scent and flavor interact with those of foods and drinks. The foundation of this progressive shift away from the conventional indica-sativa-hybrid focus toward an emphasis on flavor and aroma profiles is rooted in terpenes, organic compounds that give each cannabis strain its unique smell and taste, and help determine its resulting high.
Terpenes are not limited to cannabis. They are present in numerous plants—notably in citrus—as well as a handful of insects. Unlike the relatively restricted—and scientifically shaky—method of selecting a cannabis strain from the indica-sativa-hybrid model for its perceived effects (a sativa doesn’t always stimulate any more than an indica always puts you “in da couch”) choosing a strain for its terpenes opens up a broader spectrum of what one can expect from a product. And when it comes to appealing food-and-drink pairings, terpenes are the determining factor.
“Each [cannabis] strain has a very unique combination of terpenes that make up the flavor profile, so it is much more difficult to generalize with cannabis than it is, say, with red wine,” says Moore of High Level Health. “Where you can generalize is with the families of strains, for example Haze, Kush, and OG. These strain families tend to have similar terpene profiles, although each is still unique in its own right.”
“The terpene conversation is still pretty new,” acknowledges Aaron Rosenbluth of Denver-based Hybrid Marketing, which works with an array of cannabis-centric businesses, including dispensaries like Lightshade. “They’re more of an indicator of how something will affect you and are the reason a particular strain might be better paired with a certain food.”
To that end, Chef Dave Hadley, who works with Lightshade dispensaries and appeared on the Food Network’s popular series “Chopped,” points out that when a cannabis strain with a certain terpene is paired with a food that contains the same terpene, both the flavor and the high are enhanced. Limonene, for example, is a common cannabis terpene with a citrusy edge that also occurs in lemons, oranges, rosemary, and oregano among other plants familiar in food and drink preparation. Myrcene, which has notes of fruit and cloves, is another terpene that is abundant in cannabis and is also found in consumable plants including thyme, hops, mango, lemongrass, and cardamom.
Though it appears in lesser quantities than other terpenes, humulene is also prevalent in cannabis and provides earthy, spicy notes, much as it does to many beers (hops is rich in humulene, as are sage, ginger, and ginseng). Also on the spicier end of terpenes is caryophyllene, which is found in cannabis as well as black pepper, basil, and cinnamon.
MATCHES MADE IN HEAVEN
At Terrapin Care Station, which has a half-dozen locations along the Front Range, Communications Director Peter Marcus observes that “consumers are acquiring a different form of the munchies” and “looking for how to pair cannabis and cuisine to enhance their experience through high-quality food and trusted cannabis products.”
“As legalization spreads, we’re seeing connoisseurs developing a nose for pairing cannabis with their favorite traditional meals,” Marcus adds. “It’s no different than pairing wine over several fine-dining courses, or bourbon and beer with an after-dinner cigar.”
For High Level Health’s resident cannabis cook, Chef Zach Womack, a proper cannabis accompaniment to food and drink is determined by several factors that are subtly influenced by the aforementioned terpenes.
“The fragrance of the cannabis should be a complement to the dish, a perfect dancing partner in harmony,” says Womack, a contestant on season 11 of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” “There needs to be a balance that makes sense. For example, a cannabis [strain] with a lemon undertone will pair up perfectly with any seafood dish.”
The flavor of the cannabis as it relates to the dish is also key. By way of illustration, Womack explains that if he prepares an Asian-style duck breast he would pair the dish with a cannabis strain that has an orange undercurrent.
Though there is science behind why certain strains accentuate certain foods, marijuana-meal pairings—like food-and-wine pairings—are largely a matter of personal preference. This is one reason why top dispensaries carry dozens of cannabis strains of wildly varying flavors and scents.
Peak Dispensary, for example, carries more than 65 strains, which Medina says allows consumers to “find aromas to fit their taste and curiosity, from sweet to skunky, piney and fresh.” Lest the choices seem overwhelming, budtenders can guide customers to the right strain based on an individual’s personal preferences and sensory desires.
“We’ve found consumers enjoy pairing limonene terpene-based strains with breakfast foods like pancakes and orange juice,” says Terrapin’s Marcus. “We’ve also found people enjoy pairing limonene with salad to add a citrus taste, such as with a strawberry salad. On the dessert side, we’ve found earthy strains, like a Sour Diesel, go extremely well with something like apple pie.”
From the chefs’ perspective, Hadley and Womack recommend using cannabis to augment specific food flavors (a lemony strain to accompany salmon with lemon butter, for example) or enrich contrasting tastes (such as a berry-noted strain with dark chocolate). Sweet, citrusy strains often pair well with desserts and sugary breakfast foods; earthy, spicy strains tend to complement cheeses and heartier fare.
The pace of the cannabis-food matching movement has been accelerated by the proliferation of vaporizers, which retain a strain’s unique flavor profile without the burny aftertaste or strong smoke of joints and many types of pipes.
“We don’t recommend consumers use cannabis rolled in paper material when pairing with food, as that can impact flavor profiles,” advises Marcus. “Instead, use a vaporization product or pack a traditional ‘bowl’ with flower, but don’t smoke it to the very end. This will avoid leaving a burnt taste.”
Rosenbluth agrees: “If the goal is to taste cannabis and have it interact with your palate, a vape pen or flower in a pipe is the best. You can taste the cannabis in some infused foods, but it’s a different approach—with a vape pen or full flower, you get the whole sensation of flavor immediately.”
Of course, many marijuana consumers prefer not to smoke before or during meals and opt instead for cannabis-infused foods and drinks. Hadley is one: “The best way I like to use cannabis is probably through my own edibles.”
“Some people simply don’t like consuming cannabis and eating concurrently, as they believe it ruins food flavors,” Marcus affirms. “It’s a very personal decision, which is why we encourage people to explore, but to do so responsibly.”