Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Tao of Terpenes


When I moved to Colorado a few years ago I got interested in the aroma of marijuana. I founded a start-up called Headspace Sensory LLC and began a series of consumer research sniff studies. Three of these have been published so far, and they constitute the nucleus of the brand new field of cannabis psychophysics. You can find them here, here, and here

Along the way I’ve met many people and read a lot about the subject. My impression of the scientific and commercial “cannabis space” is that it is a mixed bag. There are some very talented, very focused people doing excellent work in areas like chemical analysis, plant genetics, and product development. On the other hand, there are lots of people whose hot air to solid content ratio tilts rather heavily toward HA. 

One thing that gets the alarm on the FirstNerve bogosity meter bleeping the loudest is the topic of terpenes. Terpenes are a chemical class of volatile molecules and they are responsible in large part for making weed smelly weedy. That much is true. But one doesn’t have to follow the online terpene trail very far to find perfumey punditry of the most egregious kind. [Take pity and refrain from naming names.—Ed.] [Okay, if you insist.]

So I was pleased when the editor of Terpenes and Testing magazine invited me to write a short article on the chemistry and perception of cannabis terpenes. It gave me the chance to describe some fundamental principles of odor perception and how they apply to the bouquet of terpenes found in cannabis flower. One important lesson: the sheer abundance of a given terpene doesn’t tell us much about its contribution to a flower’s overall aroma. 

In the article I also describe my dream of creating a cannabis aroma map on which individual cultivars are arranged according to smell similarity, and my belief that sensory evaluation—sniff testing—has a major role to play in segmenting the cannabis consumer market. 

If you would like to read it, you can download at this link.

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