The diverse California cannabis culture is deeply rooted in legacy and tradition. For generations, cultivators, breeders, and product makers throughout the state have worked to continually raise the bar for what the plant can do.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Emerald Cup.

A celebration of innovation, community, and of course, great weed, the Emerald Cup honors the best and brightest from across the California industry. From sun-grown flower to edibles, concentrates to pre-rolls, retailers to social justice warriors—and everything in between—the Emerald Cup is often referred to as the “Academy Awards of Cannabis” thanks to its revered status and highly sought-after trophies.

Now in its 19th year, the storied cannabis contest held its awards last weekend overlooking the San Francisco Bay at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. Emerald Cup 2023 was one for the ages, featuring a red-carpet entry, live music, the always fun Guild Extracts boat offering multiple cruises throughout the all-night soiree, and of course, the awards show itself. Hundreds of contestants, judges, sponsors, press, and other esteemed guests gathered from dusk ‘til dawn for a night of jubilant revelry—and a nonstop sesh.

Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake was in awe of the transformation his event has experienced. What started as a small gathering in Mendocino has grown into one of the most revered and well-respected competitions in this space.

“We started off just wanting to get away with a contest and have nobody go to jail,” Blake told GreenState. “I was an old outlaw. I never had any clue we’d evolve to this.”

The contest is a massive feat, with anywhere from 12-20 expert judges in each category. Products are scored on a variety of criteria, from appearance to aroma to packaging. The judges meet weekly on Zoom for over a month to discuss their individual qualitative results, eventually working out quantitative perspectives to decide who will receive a coveted trophy.

Placing at the Emerald Cup is an honor hundreds of contestants seek to earn annually, as a win is both an immense honor—and a unique selling point, something that brands in the struggling California market so desperately desire.

“When you see a seal on a product in a dispensary that says Emerald Cup-approved, that’s our version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” explained Luna Stower, chief impact officer at Ispire and a two-time Emerald Cup cartridge category judge. “It’s a consumer report. Because the judges are consumers.”

Winners inspire and captivate the crowd

The Emerald Cup 2023 awards winners were a lively and inspiring group, representing the entire state of California—and beyond. The first accolade of the night was given to photographer and cultivator Ryan Gageby, aka Freegrow8, who received the “Best Photo-Amateur” award. Gageby, who flew in from Michigan to accept his trophy, told GreenState the honor was one of the biggest moments of his life so far.

“There has to be a higher power looking over me,” he said. “This has been a lifetime of trials and tribulations. I just want people to know that no matter how hard life gets, never  just give up. My goal for my life now is to inspire others and to follow their dreams.”

In addition to the photography trophies given at the beginning of the show, several other non-product specific and “honorary” awards were handed out throughout the night. Cornerstone Wellness in Los Angeles, Big Sur Canna+Botanicals in Carmel-By-The-Sea, and The Bright Spot in Fairfield all won “Best Dispensary” for their respective regions.

The “Visionary Award” was given to Supernova Women co-founder Amber E. Senter, while longtime event producer Alex Aquino took home the “Trailblazer Award.” Weldon Angelos, founder of The Weldon Project, a non-profit supporting cannabis prisoners, was tapped as the winner of the “Social Justice Award.” His trophy was accepted by Luke Scarmazzo, who was celebrating 100 days of freedom from incarceration on the night of the Emerald Cup.

Cannabis genetics icon Soma, founder of Soma Seeds, was inducted into the Breeders Hall of Fame. Soma is credited with creating some of the most cherished cannabis varieties in history, including Amnesia Haze, Lavender #1, and New York City Diesel.

Hash queen Mila Jansen, inventor of the revolutionary Pollinator trichome sifting machine, traveled from Amsterdam to receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Nearly 80 years old, Jansen is clearly young at heart, dancing across the stage to collect her trophy.

“It’s very special,” Jansen said of the award in a conversation with GreenState. When asked what message she wanted to share with the Emerald Cup attendees, Jansen implored others to “get out the staple gun and staple on that smile.”

Another incredibly inspiring moment came when Wendy Baker, founder of popular gummy brand Space Gem, took first place in two categories after years of entering. The brand won the Alternative Cannabinoid Edible category for Sleepy Fig 1:1 CBN:THC Mind Expanding Belt and the coveted Edibles-Gummies category for Sour Spacedrops.

Along with her trophies, Baker was also celebrating ten years of Space Gem, a true feat for longstanding legacy operators like herself.

“This is like a miracle moment for me,” she told the cheering crowd. “I started in my home kitchen.”

In the cartridge and concentrates categories, Holy WaterJetty ExtractsArcata FireFullyMelted, and Heritage Hash Co. were some of the big winners with Huckleberry Hill Farms’ Whitethorn Rose strain earning multiple accolades. Both Blake and Stower noted an increase in live resin and rosin entries, another reflection of the overall market.

Flower category sees NorCal triumph

Last but certainly not least, the flower category is always among the most prestigious of the trophies handed out at the Emerald Cup. Individual awards are given to the top placing sun-grown, indoor, mixed light, sun-grown greenhouse, 3rd party-certified, and personal use (aka homegrown) bud; pre-rolls are given their own category altogether.

Jason Beck, an Emerald Cup flower judge and the longest-continuous retail operator of cannabis in the United States, asserted that the contest’s thorough and dynamic vetting process is one that ultimately sets the standard for the global industry.

“The flower judging is probably one of the most contentious competitions in the Emerald Cup, and for that matter, in the world, because I do revere the Emerald Cup as being the premier cannabis competition,” Beck proclaimed. “I truly think that the format that they have for judging really adds extra layers to that type of credibility in regard to that type of competition.”

Beck added that he would like to see more craft cultivators enter the personal use category thanks to the diverse range of winners the flower contest saw overall. Brandy Schneider of Sierra Living Organics took first place in personal use this year for the farm’s innovative Terp Blendz, which blends different cannabis varieties to create new and unique flavor profiles and effects.

“We are truly honored to be recognized in the largest stage in cannabis,” Schneider exclaimed. “Our unique terroir, love, and all-natural homegrown inputs allow our plants to show amazing expressions. To see it translate and be chosen just solidifies that we are on the right path!”

Regenerative agriculture darlings Sol Spirit Farm from Trinity County took home first place in the 3rd-party certified category for their Element strain (a variety GreenState tried at Hall of Flowers). The award is given to cultivators who go above and beyond the California licensing requirements for cannabis; Sol Spirit Farm’s flower is Sun+Earth certified, meaning the growers adhere to strict environmental standards throughout the plant’s life cycle.

“Regenerative farming could help us solve our current climate crisis, and regenerative cannabis farming is an important part of that,” explained Judi Nelson, co-owner of Sol Spirit Farm.

Nearly all of the flower winners paid homage to their Emerald Triangle roots in their acceptance speeches, taking time to honor and reflect on the struggles facing legacy cultivators and their communities.

“Getting recognized in one of the biggest contests in the world, the Emerald Cup, helped solidify our hard work and dedication to the plant while spreading a message that the small craft farmers are still here and quality always will win over quantity,” said Jason Gellman, owner of Ridgeline Farms, whose LANTZ flower took top honors in the Mixed Light category along with Breeder’s Cup. “It’s not a job. It’s our way of life.”

Dan Pomerantz, owner and founder of Rebel Grown, echoed Gellman’s sentiments. Rebel Grown’s Double OG Chem #15 won the sun-grown category as well as the Breeder’s Cup, two of the top prizes at the Emerald Cup overall.

“There are a lot of cannabis events and cannabis awards. But this one is the one that has the most impact and the most meaning, being that it really comes from the Emerald Triangle,” Pomerantz told GreenState via phone.

“Our farmers in Southern Humboldt were one of the few still standing with licensing in our neighborhood. It’s a big deal for us and for other Humboldt County farms and companies to be taking these first-place awards because it solidifies that we represent the pinnacle of the culture.”

“Best in Show” stirs spirited debate among judges

The Emerald Cup added the “Best in Show” award a few years ago, and up until now, the honor was always given to sun-grown flower. But all that changed in 2023.

Blue Face by Fig Farms took the top spot for indoor flower, the Breeder’s Cup, and Best in Show, a hat trick pretty much no one saw coming.

“To be completely honest with you, it’s the last flower I’d want to win with,” Keith Healy, co-owner and CEO of Fig Farms, admitted. “Numerous times, we’ve discussed taking it out of rotation because of how low the yields are, but it always stays in our lineup because of its one-of-a-kind terpene profile and its absurdly potent effects.”

According to several firsthand accounts, the final judges’ deliberation around the Best in Show winner was remarkably difficult as the group worked to decide between the top sun-grown and indoor entries. Passionate arguments were made on both sides, making the race too close to call at many moments.

“The flower meeting was definitely very lively,” said Emerald Cup associate producer Taylor Blake, in a call with GreenState. “That’s the great part about how we conduct our judging process: it’s not just points—it’s points and conversation.”

Jeff Levers, a two-time edibles judge and co-founder of Beard Bros Pharms, was not surprised to see Fig Farms take home top honors at Emerald Cup 2023 given the quality of the product, seeing it as an evolution of the market and the contest as a whole.

“It’s definitely interesting to see an indoor flower win ‘Best in Show’ for the Emerald Cup with its sun-grown roots, but it just further illustrates the point that the judges are looking for the best flower, regardless of cultivation method.”

“The ride of a lifetime…”

While the white ash settles on this year’s awards, the Emerald Cup team is already looking ahead. 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the event, promising to be the biggest one yet. The Emerald Cup has grown from humble beginnings to being known around the world as one of the preeminent cannabis competitions.

“We have some major plans,” teased Tim Blake. “In my mind, it’s just become bigger than I ever could have dreamed.”

His daughter and predecessor Taylor Blake was also struck by how far the Emerald Cup has come and expressed excitement about the future.

“To see it grow and evolve into where it is now is truly the ride of a lifetime,” she  pronounced. “To see the community come together is by far our favorite part, and to see the influence that the winners have in the industry and to see the impact that the Emerald Cup has had on the industry is truly humbling. I’m really excited to see it usher itself into the 20th year and see where it goes from there.”

By Rachelle Gordon