December 3, 2020

Craft vs. Commercial Cannabis

Kenneth Morrow

Columns - Tomorrow in Cannabis

How do you—and the industry—define what is and what is not “craft” cannabis? Subscribe

Periodically, I scan social media sites for posts of large-scale cannabis production facilities, and when I find such a post, inevitably someone has left a comment stating the facility, due to its size, will merely produce average or substandard, low-grade cannabis. The commenter usually follows up such an accusation with a comment that he will only produce and consume the presumably superior “craft” cannabis.

This begs the questions: What is craft cannabis? And how did this notion come to suggest that all large-scale cannabis cultivation operations produce the negatively perceived “commercial-grade cannabis”?

The Craft Beer Model

The Brewer’s Association for small and independent craft brewers, on its website, offers a clear-cut definition of craft brewing:

“An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.”

The Brewers Association also offers concepts related to craft beer and craft brewers:

  • “Craft brewers are small brewers.
  • The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
  • Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
  • Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
  • Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
  • Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.
  • The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer.”

The Search for 'Craft Cannabis' History and Qualifications

In an attempt to find an official “craft” application to cannabis, I paged through many cannabis books, spoke with my mentors and peers, even scoured the internet—yet I could not find any concrete rules that dictate whether a crop or plant can be deemed, certified or considered “craft.” So I still am left with the question: On what is the “craft” cannabis designation based?Could it be:

  • Plant count? If so, how many plants are too many?
  • The number of people who work with the plants?
  • The cultivator(s)’ percentage of ownership vs. outside or investor ownership?
  • The facility’s automated capabilities (or lack thereof)?
  • Nutritional additives? What can be approved for use?
  • Innovation?
  • Limited production and sales?

I completely agree that passion, care and attention to every detail is required to produce superior-quality cannabis with rich cannabinoid and terpene profiles. There cannot be compromises to nutrient-source quality, environmental control nor labor practices.

In cannabis production with supplemental nutrients, for example, one could choose to purchase lower-quality and less-expensive nutrient options, but could never eliminate any of the three major nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) or potassium (K). Doing so would spell disaster for any crop.

In brewing, while some commercial breweries sometimes substitute ingredients like corn and rice to minimize costs, beer is made of basically four ingredients: water, hops, malt (usually from barley) and yeast. (In fact, German beer-purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, adopted in 1516, decrees that only these ingredients must be used for beer making.)

Some breweries choose to follow these rules while others choose to circumvent them. Ultimately, a brewery’s success or failure is, in large part, determined by its ability to sell its product based on the choices it makes regarding sourcing its starting materials and their quality. The customer chooses his brew, in large part, based on flavor and complexity, not (usually) alcohol content. Taste means everything in both beer and cannabis, and there are rules regarding beer making that are respected by the industry. Cannabis should create the same; however, like brewers, obviously not all cultivators will opt to abide by them.

Other Potential Factors in ‘Craft’ Cannabis

In a previous column, I noted that someone could cultivate the world’s best cannabis only to destroy its delicate aromatics in the drying and curing process. I suspect the point at which some craft-grade can become commercial-grade could be determined by the technique used to dry and cure product, not necessarily the scale at which these processes are being performed.

But, it should be noted that it is far easier to dry and cure small amounts of cannabis than large amounts.

The perceived, but still-undefined concept of “commercial” cannabis-as produced by large-scale production and consequentially lower-quality and lower-priced-is similar to less-expensive, lower-quality wine or beer, for which there is still a huge market. Some consumers do not care about complexity; they focus on price, while others select products for quality and/or certain related traits. Again, compare this to the alcohol industry, which offers an almost endless range of selections between light liqueurs and 190-proof Everclear; the latter also can be loosely compared to super-high-THC strains, in that higher alcohol or THC content does not often make for the best consumption experience for the masses, yet it has its market.

© Mitch | Adobe Stock

‘Craft’ and Quality

There are both traditional values and legal guidelines to abide by as a producer. For cannabis consumers to make a blanket statement that large-scale production facilities do and always will produce commercial-grade "substandard" cannabis is a head-in-the-sand mentality. It is naive at best to assume that a company with a legitimate understanding and comprehension of large-scale agriculture, with hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal, contract agreements with the best breeders/genetics and a qualified staff can’t produce quality cannabis with low production costs. I firmly believe those who produce the best cannabis, regardless of scale, will always have customers, and those who do it ethically and sustainably possess even more strategic advantages.

Customers and their specific tastes will decide the success or failure of a company based on its quality, price and behavior.

I recently saw a TV commercial featuring the American actor Danny Trejo as a barkeep, in which a pretentious, finicky hipster approaches the barkeep, and says (continuously interrupting himself):

“Looking for a ‘microbrew’-

No, ‘nano brew’-


Not too fruity-


No, boysenberry-

With hints of chocolate and leather-

Not shoe leather-

Like a belt-

But barrel-aged-

And with a sick label…”

I found this hilarious because cannabis is rapidly heading in the same direction, and I wonder how many cannabis apothecaries have heard the same.

But do these specific traits automatically imply “craft” cannabis? With no clear definition, the industry is subjecting itself to confusion that will be passed down to consumers. So, if you consider yourself to be a craft grower, on what are you basing that? What do you think the true definition of “craft” cannabis should be?

Editor’s Note: This is an important topic the industry would do well to address. Please feel free to share your insights with us at:

Kenneth Morrow is an author, consultant; owner of Trichome Technologies™. Facebook: TrichomeTechnologies Instagram: Trichome Technologies


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