top shelf weed

Top-Shelf Cannabis: What to Look For

by Dan Ketchum

Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that goes doubly for the flower you use to get high. While it’s true that canna-culture is rife with so many buzzwords that they often up feeling meaningless, it’s also true that not all cannabis is created equally – top-shelf weed does stand apart from mid- and bottom-shelf varieties, and your palette, your brain, and your body will all thank you for seeking it out. But first, you’ve got to know what to look for. And that’s exactly why we’re here.

It Starts at Harvest

As is the case with most good things, a quality source makes for top-shelf cannabis. At the end of the day, top-shelf weed is defined by a variety of physical and chemical characteristics; those characteristics are imbued in the flower on the farm. Much of that quality, as we’ve come to believe at Mistifi, is born from tradition. At this point, some of the finest legacy growers in the business tout more than 25 years of experience, and illustrate a dedication to crossbreeding plants dozens of times until they hit upon just the right quality, flavor, and experience.

In May of 2022, The Broccoli Report said it best: “legacy farmers […] are probably best positioned to become the industry’s true luxury brands. The old-school ‘I have a legendary story about how I got this seed’ growers, who have often grown for years simply for the love of the plant, have rich, irreplaceable histories and generations of expertise passed down with care, and those traditions are the rootstock of luxury. For the industry to develop true luxury brands, it’s imperative these craft growers endure.”  Selectively-bred genes from growers like this help enhance both terpene and cannabinoid content, which can make for both stronger flavors and highs, respectively. Those strains are then planted in soil with a high microbe content and typically provided with just the right amounts of phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen at just the right times, then dried and cured in such a way as to preserve the sugary stickiness of the flower’s trichomes (more on that later). That doesn’t discount indoor growers – far from it, as we source our own cannabis from indoor stock, where a controlled environment helps reduce the chance of contamination and more easily ensures the absence of residual solvents, pesticides, or heavy metals.   

Of course, what happens at the farm doesn’t stay at the farm – it makes its way to the dispensary, and then, to you. Luckily for the keen-eyed and sharp-nosed cannabis connoisseur, the results of careful, curated growth practices manifest via very noticeable physical characteristics, provided you know what you’re looking for. 

Breathe It In 

Fortunately, the easiest way to identify top-shelf weed is also the most dependable way. When it comes to cannabis quality, it’s (almost) all in the nose. Distinct, robust scents with identifiable terpene profiles are a key factor here.

But what should you look for? Channel your inner Ganjier and start by giving the flower a small pinch to release some of those scent-defining terpenes. While there’s not one particular scent that defines top-shelf weed, you’re looking for something immediately pungent, rich and “loud.” Speaking to High Times, Trichome Institute President Max Montrose says, “Pungency comes first. You’re determining quality based on smell first.” After pugency, complex aromas are typically another indicator of quality. If you’re sniffing like mad only to take in weak top notes or picking up on smells that have hints of mold, straw or must, you’re not dealing with top-shelf cannabis. 

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Know Your Terps 

As Cannador points out, specific noses (scents) can also indicate the presence of particular terpenoids that will define the sensory flavor profile of your smoke. Pay attention to these notes:

  • Piney with rosemary tones indicates alpha-pinene terps
  • Orangey citrus scents cue you in to beta-caryophyllene terps
  • Hints of pepper or cloves mean caryophyllene oxide is present
  • Lemony scents with a bright hint of mint indicate limonene
  • Linalool gives itself away with flowery, candy-like notes
  • Fruity scents with an acrid feel are often associated with mycrene
  • An earthy, creamy vanilla profile might bely phytol
  • Woody blueberry notes are sometimes a sign of nerolidol 

Those scent notes don’t just indicate terpenoids, many of which offer a variety of potential health effects ranging from day-to-day pain relief to anti-inflammatory properties; the characteristic smells that you’re picking up on will affect the taste and overall sensory experience of the smoke. 

Like the journal Flavour reminds us, “most researchers do seem happy to agree that the pleasure, all the interesting dimensions of what is commonly called taste, the meaty, the floral, the fruity, the herbal, the citrus, the burnt, all derive primarily from the contribution of olfaction.”   

Top-Shelf Color and Texture 

Scent is crucial, but it’s also true that some of the best cannabis is also among the best-looking cannabis. It’s simple: think of top-shelf weed as a healthy-looking plant, because that’s exactly what it is. As a rule of thumb, bright, potent, vibrant colors – particularly of a green and purple hue, sometimes with hints of bright orange – indicate top-shelf cannabis. 

Look for dense or thick buds on the indica side and robust fluffy texture on the sativa side, both of which are often the result of advanced CO2 levels during the growth cycle. On the other end of the spectrum, lower-quality weed usually sports more brownish, yellow, or rust-colored hues and light, crumply or a too-fluffy, weakly airy texture. High-quality weed should be dense and almost feel like a golf ball when you give it a squeeze, and it should be sticky enough that if you were to grab a big handful of flower and squeeze it, you’d feel it all sticking together.

Look for Trichomes

But where does that stickiness come from? If you’re able to examine the flower with a magnifying glass, you’ll notice crystalline hairs on the nug, which are called trichomes. These tiny, fur-like appendages not only lend good weed its celebrated stickiness, they help prevent the plant from drying out – and top-shelf weed is not withered weed. The best cannabis will almost look like the nug was dropped in sugar, with noticeable crystals inside even when broken apart.

Upon inspection, the trichomes themselves should be a sugary white, orange or red color to indicate freshness, while amber or brownish colors are a sign that the weed is no longer fresh. That stickiness – not moisture or wetness – is an additional sign of top-shelf status. Similarly, Leafly notes that a high concentration of trichomes usually points to a more potent high.

A Premium High 

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice top-shelf characteristics well after you’ve left the dispensary. When you break up or grind top-shelf weed, it doesn’t crumble into dry sawdust. When you burn it, it leaves behind a lighter colored ash than the black char of low- or mid-shelf cannabis.

But it’s those moments in between breaking and burning that we’re most interested in. Like Will Hyde of Leafly says, “advanced potency and flavor profiles provide a diverse range of effects and individual experiences that amplify the consumer’s connection to the cannabis plant.” That “diverse range of effects” often comes to roost by way of one key phenomenon: the entourage effect.

Your body’s built-in system of cannabinoid receptors (collectively known as the endocannabinoid system) react to more than 85 different cannabinoids, sending the signals to your brain that ultimately make you feel high or enable you to experience beneficial effects like stress relief or easier sleep. 

When a variety of cannabinoids and cannabis compounds work in tandem to create more deeply felt highs, that’s the entourage effect at work. Because careful growth cycles enrich the potency and presence of key cannabinoids like THC and CBD – as well as minor cannabinoids like CBN, CBC, and CBG, and important compounds like terpenes – top-shelf cannabis is more likely to benefit from that synergistic tandem. That means it will hit you more powerfully, more cleanly, and more quickly, even when consumed in lesser amounts than low- or mid-tier weed.

Final Thoughts

When you know how to identify quality cannabis, you free yourself from having to trust the often misleading labels and marketing you’ll see at the dispensary. You learn to trust your senses, and when it comes to cannabis, that just feels right.

From the meticulous curation of legacy growers, you’ll find cannabis that has a strong nose, hearty density, satisfying stickiness, and clean, deep highs.

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