The steady drizzle of rain didn’t do much to deter thousands of enthusiasts and industry operators from attending 2018’s The Emerald Cup, the iconic cannabis festival and competition.
One notable difference from years past was the emphasis on marketing and branding. Even the smallest craft farms put their best foot forward with sharp new logos and placards designed to tell the stories behind their brands. Likewise, distribution companies were more prominent players this year. At the Flow Kana market, Chief Executive Officer Michael Steinmetz marveled at the crowded room, filled with mostly small-farmer brands and a few larger operators like Willie’s Reserve, which had its own saloon shack out front with budtenders offering sample bowls.
“The regulations in California have been a heavy burden for everyone in the industry here to process, but to see the state working to keep this event alive is really incredible,” said Steinmetz. “This year really shows the evolution of the industry, from farmers selling products in [plastic baggies] and mason jars to the marketing campaigns that speak to customers about the heritage and authenticity of the Emerald Triangle.”
Every year The Emerald Cup draws a healthy mix of old-school and newbie consumers, cannabis activists, farmers, and extractors, and a growing group of business executives to the weed hub of Santa Rosa for networking and shopping — sun-grown bud, extracts, edibles, tinctures, and the usual array of art and merch were on display. With adult recreational consumption legal for the first time in The Emerald Cup’s history, some new rules caused hiccups as vendors were required to track and report all purchases. Unless they possess a retail license, farmers aren’t able to sell directly to consumers anymore, so this year they turned to distribution companies and retail partners to handle the flow of goods. The same companies were major sponsors of the event, hosting big-top tents with many of their brands folded under their umbrellas.
In the PacEx Pavilion, Pacific Expeditors CEO Chris Coulombe pointed to the Urban Pharm and Capitola Healing Association booths and explained how the retail partners supported the twenty-three Emerald Cup vendors who use Pacific Expeditors for distribution, allowing them to sell flowers, extracts and other products to consumers. Based in Santa Rosa, Pacific Expeditors primarily serves smaller craft farms and distributes for forty companies.
“We want to make sure craft brands can survive in this new market, and it’s an educational process to help consumers make informed decisions,” he said. “In the beer industry, the big three are now competing against all these craft brewers, but in cannabis it’s just the reverse. We have all these small farmers now, with the bigger companies starting to emerge.”
Now a major networking event for cannabis operators across the U.S., The Emerald Cup has its roots in northern Mendocino County. An annual post-harvest festival for NorCal growers for fifteen years the event always offers a few hundred farmers and friends a welcoming environment to compare notes, evaluate new strains, and cast votes for the best new cultivars.
One of the most notable developments at this year’s Cup was the emergence of large, well-funded brands that sponsored the major vendor pavilions and tents. In the Elyon market, the Sonoma-based brand built an elegant lounge complete with leather couches and free dabs. Glitzy, gold “ELYON” logos were scattered about the room. The company’s slick image was created by SixAbove Studios, a Connecticut-based design firm, which describes Elyon’s logomark as a combination of “a cannabis leaf with the iconic aMll-seeing eye of God, an image often associated with the Illuminati.”
Despite the new rules and regulatory requirements, the flow of people and goods was surprisingly smooth. Eager smokers from around the U.S. snapped up seeds, flower, extracts, and other fresh-cut goods cultivated by cream-of-the-crop, sun-grown farmers in the Emerald Triangle, Sonoma, and the central coast. One of the biggest draws every year is the seed companies that present their new strains, hyped through social media channels in the weeks leading up to the event. Commercial farmers and home-growers alike waited in long lines pick up some of this year’s hottest cultivars.
Mario Johnson flew in from Massachusetts to get his hands on some of Cali’s prized genetics to grow back home. He was one of several hundred attendees who lined up early to buy seeds from Capulator, a grower with more than 60,000 followers on Instagram. Decked out with a fake beard, Christmas sweater, gold chain, neon-green sunglasses, and a “CAP” hat, he hawked about a dozen strains. His “MAC” cultivar has been a big hit in the L.A. area, and with ten of those magic beans going for $250, it’s no wonder the “CAP” hats were gratis. In the Fieldz + Cookies Village, Cookies SF founder Berner was on hand to take selfies with his faithful followers, while F/ELD Extracts made a big splash with its Zkittlez goodies.
“People have a lot more money to play with this year, and you have to look good now,” said F/ELD Extracts co-owner Zachary Guilfoyle, who grew up in nearby Willits and remembers The Emerald Cup’s humble beginnings. In the early days, the event was hosted at random offices and houses around the county. “There is no way I could grow this brand the way I operated in the past. Now we are competing with more strategic, corporate groups with [venture capital] investments and people who really know how to build brands.”
With all the new money and out-of-state operators setting up shop in California, veteran farmers from the Emerald Triangle fear the region’s legacy could get lost in the shuffle, or worse, the dustbin of history. With its multi-generational community of farmers, hippies, medicine-makers, and outlaws, the triangle primarily hosts small, craft, sun-grown farms that soon could be overshadowed by the large, commercial greenhouse and indoor operations on the central coast and in Los Angeles and the Coachella region.
Joshua Sweet, a veteran farmer in southern Humboldt County who has attended The Emerald Cup for many years, said he is concerned about the future of the cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle and wants to help preserve the legacy.
“Humboldt and the triangle should be known around the world for cannabis in the same way that France and Italy are known for wine,” he said. “Farmers here have a deep cultural connection and respect for the land, and I hope this model will be preserved and supported both here and around the world.”
See more photos by Mike Rosati below: