The Emerald Cup Celebrates Cannabis Industry Excellence
Learn about the Emerald Cup's influence on the evolution of cannabis legislation, public perception, and more.
The Emerald Cup Celebrates Cannabis Industry Excellence
There is a vibrant celebration of cannabis culture and community nestled within the heart of California's lush Emerald Triangle. The Emerald Cup, an annual event like no other, beckons both enthusiasts and newcomers alike to immerse themselves in the captivating world of cannabis cultivation, innovation, and camaraderie.
For over a decade, the Emerald Cup has blossomed into a renowned gathering, drawing attendees from far and wide to honor the rich heritage of cannabis cultivation. From its humble beginnings to its present grandeur, this extraordinary event encapsulates the intersection of artistry, sustainability, and advocacy that defines the California cannabis community.
Work + Money spoke with Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake about the festival's origins, significance and future.
This Competition Is Unlike Any Other in the World
Work + Money: What is the history of the Emerald Cup, and what is its significance within the industry? How and when did it start?
Tim Blake: The Emerald Cup started in 2004. It was simply a contest for personal use flowers among the local community. I grew up on the West Coast. When I was a kid, I went to county fairs, and I loved seeing all the sights, including the animal and food contests. Much like the county fair, we wanted to have a friendly celebration and competition ourselves.
A simple contest evolved into 48 contests and 100 judges from eight countries. The Emerald Cup now has hundreds of entries. It's become not just a friendly competition, but a very serious competition for brands to win. We're unlike any other competition in the world.
We're also unlike any other contest because we take two months to judge. It's not just a day of judging. Our judges get together for three to six weeks. They go through several meetings and get all the entries to go home with. Over the course of that time, they make conclusions on who the winners will be. So we go to great lengths to ensure that the right winners win, and we promote and market the winners.
We were primarily sungrown for many years, but now we've opened up to include mixed light and concentrates (solventless and solvent extracts). Most recently, we've included indoor flower and a best in show head to head between the top in sungrown, mixed light and indoor.
Edibles Have Become Big Business
Work + Money: Right. I saw you had a large edible section too.
Tim Blake: Edibles have become big. This category breaks down into sweet, savory, gummy, health conscious, beverage and beverage enhancers.
There are so many different facets to it. We need to honor and recognize each one of those and the people who spend their time creating these products. We're very proud of what we do.
It's Fascinating to See the Evolution Every Year
Work + Money: Are there any notable milestones or changes that have occurred during the Emerald Cup's history? Does the Emerald Cup cover only Northern California, or do people come from outside of the state?
Tim Blake: We're a statewide competition. We have drop-off locations throughout the state, and our judges come from all over the state. We haven't been focused solely on Northern California for about the past 10 years. We've really opened it up to the full state. But we also accept hemp entries from around the country, so we're on our way to being a national contest and eventually hope to be a worldwide contest.
As far as the changes we've seen over the years — we initially didn't allow concentrates and seeds to be sold the first couple of years because, at that time, it was still a 10- or 15-year prison sentence. Over the first couple of years, we allowed the genetics to come in, and then the concentrates. CBD came in about the sixth or seventh year.
About 10 or 11 years ago, we brought our testing lab, SC Labs, into the competition, and most people couldn't figure out why they were at our show. Back then, people couldn't think of anything other than, "Well, maybe they test for THC." They had no idea how critical testing would become, and the lab now does all of our testing for the contest.
The first year that we judged concentrates, we had a 75 percent failure rate because as you concentrate THC and cannabinoids, you also concentrate pesticides. That was a huge wake-up call for everybody. The next year, we dropped that to a 5 percent failure rate. In just one year, through education and testing, we got all the farmers up here to realize that there was no longer going to be an acceptance of chemicals. We're very proud of that.
Over the last couple of years, pre-rolls started off as a contest that was really just the shake (i.e., leftovers.) But over the last three or four years, pre-rolls have become a preeminent contest in the Cup. We now have about 90 entries.
We've watched the solvent concentrates drop off heavily over the last year, as there's so much good cannabis. People are also doing more and more with live resin, or live rosin, I should say.
Natural, organic processes are now the preference of the people. Brands were initially doing a lot of cheap cartridges with distillate and CO2 processing, and that's dropping off very quickly in favor of the live resin and live rosin carts.
So because we have so much good, cheap cannabis coming out, people are using better methods and higher grade processes for the cartridges and the concentrates. It's really fascinating to see the changes year by year.
All About Education
Work + Money: What criteria are considered when judges are looking at a product?
Tim Blake: We started out in a very basic way. We had a 50-point scoring system, so you got a one to 10 for smell, taste and look, and a double score on one to 10 for effect. Judging is weighted toward the effect, but all those characteristics come into play.
It hasn't changed that much really, but with legalization, everything started coming in packaging and with branding. Now these also come into play, along with sustainability.
We don't like to see the end results being settled because of packaging, but it definitely plays a part because we encourage people to create sustainable, quality packaging and include all the information on it very clearly. Also, different categories have different qualifications.
But in the end, it's still pretty much all the same. We have a good scoring system, but we've evolved to where we realized that, in the past, it was just everything against everything.
In wine, it would be like a merlot going up against cabernet or chardonnay. That doesn't really make sense. So, Alec Dixon, my good friend from SC labs, encouraged me to break everything down into terpene profiles. All of a sudden, everything was being judged against itself, so an OG was going up against an OG rather than a blue dream or a sativa.
We made our own classification system based upon these terpenes, so each of the terpene profiles gets first place, then we put it all together for a top 20 result. In that, it's about educating people because most people in California come into dispensaries looking for the highest THC for the lowest price. We try to teach them that you wouldn't start out with alcohol by drinking 151 rum. You start off with beer or wine, you'd get used to it, then you can start taking shots.
Most people don't need that really high THC, as it can make them anxiety-ridden and a little paranoid. They really should start off with something more balanced. Also, the highest THC has never won the Emerald Cup.
I had a friend come to me with a 28.5 THC flower who said, "I'm gonna win the Emerald Cup." And I said, "I'll bet you 100 bucks you don't." The highest THC flowers never won the Emerald Cup because our judges are very sophisticated. They're looking for something that has a balanced cannabinoid profile, so that they're getting a very unique effect and high.
Maybe an older person has trouble sleeping and should be smoking purple, which helps them sleep at night, not an OG that's going to keep them up for three hours. It's really important to identify what's good for you. At the end of the day, it's all about education.
Everybody Is Part of the Family and Welcome
Work + Money: Are there networking opportunities at the Emerald Cup, like workshops, panels or activities?
Tim Blake: The Emerald Cup is a cultural event. We are the focus of all West Coast, California cannabis. You've got the whole culture coming in — all the brands, all the OGs, people come in, you get to see everybody there.
We have speaker panels that do very well because people want to learn. You get to really talk to the farmers and the brands in a relaxed environment. And it's entertaining. We have three stages with lots of music.
Everybody is welcome. They're all part of the family. They all get free samples, and we're all nice. It's just a great moment for networking, for partying, and all of the above.
A Community of Shared Fellowship and Passion
Work + Money: How many people come to the Emerald Cup each year?
Tim Blake: We had almost 40,000 people in 2017 and 2018, then COVID hit, and everything stopped.
A year ago, we had dropped down to about 15,000. And I think this year it was about 12,000. The weather also really hurt us. We've had two really tough years of rain.
Waiting for Los Angeles to Open Up to Cannabis
Work + Money: Are you going to expand to other California regions in the near future?
Tim Blake: We were one public hearing away from moving the Emerald Cup to Long Beach and the Queen Mary. All the city councils had approved us. We were about to have a public hearing, then COVID hit.
Our intention was to move the cup to Los Angeles because that's the biggest cannabis market in the biggest media market in the world, and it's where our contestants and our brands need to be. That said, we did go last year and plant the flag in Los Angeles with the Montalbán Theatre. We had Woody Harrelson join us as the Willie Nelson recipient.
But Los Angeles is still kind of shut down. We decided that for this year, it'd be better to come back to Northern California for the Emerald Cup ceremony. We're waiting for Los Angeles to open up. It really hasn't opened up to cannabis as of yet.
'I Want to See the World Get Healed'
Work + Money: How has legalization and regulation changed in terms of compliance and requirements in the Emerald Cup?
Tim Blake: It has been a huge process for us to educate the DCC (the Department of Cannabis Control). When we first started, the year before legalization, we had 400 vendors, and there were no problems.
The next year, we were legal, and we had to go to several meetings around the state to get on the agenda for events. When Prop 64 went legal, it had no framework for events, and they didn't realize how critical they were to the cannabis industry.
So we had to go to the meetings to get the DCC to realize how critical we were, and we did this for all the event organizations — Outside Lands, High Times and everyone else.
The BCC (the DCC used to be the Bureau of Cannabis Control) came in for our first year, but their idea was that we would move everything that was put out on the tables back off-site each day. The security issues for moving everything off-site were enormous. The first year, we had to build armed vaults behind our booths and spend a half million dollars showing them that we could protect the product while running the event.
Two years ago, when the DCC came in, they were very heavy-handed. They were telling small farmers that they couldn't show their flowers to people. If somebody was in a booth, and they were sharing a joint, the DCC would tell them that that was illegal, but they didn't have the right to do that. It was a negative experience for everyone.
We've since spent the last year working with the DCC, giving them a speaking panel at our show. We gave them a free booth so everyone could come talk to them. We also collaborated on promotions and marketing with them.
At the end of the event, they came to us and said that it was an amazing experience. They thought they were going to get yelled at, but everybody just wanted to straighten things out. In the end, it was a positive experience for all involved, and the DCC did what we needed. They let the small farmers show their flowers to people, and they didn't hassle consumers.
With this collaboration, we made it possible for other events around the state and country to use us as a model. I want to see the world get healed, and everybody be in a better space. All events need equal access, and we're showing the DCC what's needed for small farmers to survive.
Department of Cannabis Control Experience
Work + Money: Will the DCC return for future events?
Tim Blake: I have a feeling that they'll be with us for forever now.
Good Cannabis Farmers Love What They Do
Work + Money: What advice or insights would you give to anyone interested in participating in the Emerald Cup as a competitor or exhibitor?
TB: If you grew up a B or C grade flower, and you waited till summer and it got dry, you could sell it back East for top dollar. So there was no imperative nature and growing quality cannabis. I've been telling people that those days are coming to an end. It was going to come down to being able to grow great flowers, and that's what's happening.
If you want to be in this industry, you'd better be a good farmer because it's not "I'm going to grow pot for money" anymore. If you love growing vegetables, you're going to be a good cannabis farmer because you're passionate about growing things.
If you look at the winners of the Emerald Cup, they're all people that are passionate. They love what they do, they're committed, and they do great work. People say, "Gosh, sometimes the same people are winning."
That's because they're the most passionate. They love what they do, and passion always rises to the top.
Tim Blaker, The Founder of The Emerald Cup
Tim Blake founded The Emerald Cup to bring together leading experts in the cannabis industry to educate and inspire farmers, patients and patrons. The community celebration has grown to become a global movement honoring the year’s finest consciously grown cannabis harvests and cannabis products.
The Emerald Cup will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2024 and has become a beacon of excellence, symbolizing the resiliency and ingenuity of the cannabis industry.