The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Concentrates

Cannabis concentrates and all the nicknames, explained.

Cannabis Concentrates
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Cannabis is a complex plant. Despite our advances in terpene science and understanding the endo-cannabinoid system, we have really only figured a fraction of how this plant interacts with our bodies and why. Combine that multilayered power plant with the vast array of modern technological capabilities—and add in an adventurous consumer base—and you’ve got one elaborate, confusing world of cannabis concentrates. A world that every cannabis and hemp enthusiast is a part of, whether they dab or not.

That’s because shatter, bubble hash, rosin, CO2, sauce—these varieties of concentrates are what fill vape pens and infuse topicals, tinctures, and edibles, too. This realm is a tricky, sticky mess of categories, largely because of the method of processing, the source material, and colloquial slang. So we’ve written out the ultimate guide to all of it, breaking down each type of concentrate, what sets it apart, where you can find it, and any pertinent current nicknames. You’ll be shopping those honey-colored shelves confidently in no time.

The basics of cannabis concentrates

Canna-butter
First off, please don’t ever try to dab canna-butter. This is not typically considered a part of the category of concentrates, but technically, it is, and it’s a helpful foundation for understanding what happens when cannabis is processed.

Canna-butter refers to the classic method of slow cooking weed and butter in order to pull the cannabinoids and other plant compounds from the leaves. Those fatty compounds bind with the fats of the butter, so that once you remove the excess plant material, the remaining butter is ready to be prepared in a batch of very special brownies or infused chai tea. The ways edible companies are regulated have resulted in processed cannabis oil being a more convenient ingredient than time-consuming canna-butter, which can also be harder to keep consistent. But many crave the nostalgic, full-bodied high that it brings, and there are companies out there still doing things the old school way.

What to try: Elbe’s Edibles in Oregon have made canna-butter recipes a pillar of its beloved baked good brand.

Hash
Now we’re stretching further back than college-era brownies, as in thousands of years. Hashish is the OG concentrate, traditionally made by rubbing buds together in your hands and rolling the residual resin into a sticky little wad. Hash in 2021 looks very different, made much more efficiently via a mechanized sieve or a pressurized process using ice. Traditional methods of hash making involve packing the plant’s resin to create compressed, smokable chunks that typically sport THC contents between 40-60%. For comparison, cannabis flowers generally express 15-25% THC.

Technological advancements have largely changed how hash is produced today. There are mechanized dry sieves that separate the good stuff from the plant and filter it through a fine mesh screen, creating what we know as “kief” or “dry sift.” (It’s also what gathers at the bottom of your grinder.) That can be sprinkled atop a bowl, rolled in with flower in an “infused joint.” Or it can be pressed to create rosin, which we’ll get to later.

What to try: Another hash making method involves ice water and mechanical pressure, creating “ice water hash” aka “bubble hash,” which is often pressed into rosin, vaporized in cartridges like Nevada brand CAMP’s ice water hash offerings, or used inside infusions. High grade, premium ice water hash often goes by names like “full melt” or “ice wax,” and it’s a potent, sought after form for many daily dabbers.

Rosin
If we think of hash like the results of hand-squeezing an orange, rosin is what you get with a precise, mechanized juice press. Hash is made from gathering the outer compounds clinging to leaves and buds, but the combination of heat and pressure further breaks down compounds that are further sieved one more time, resulting in a more pure, potent, botanically-rich concentrate.

What to try: One can press whole flower to create flower rosin, like what’s inside Rose Delights or use hash to create hash rosin like the delicious Oregon-based rosin grams made with Nelson & Co. Organics flower.

Cannabis concentrate oils

Everything we just went through can fall under the category of “solventless” concentrates. Nothing other than gravity, heat, pressure, water or elbow grease is required to produce the consumable concentrate. But that’s only the tip of this iceberg.

CO2 Oil
The most common concentrate used in vape cartridges is CO2 oil. This is cannabis that has been run through an industrial extraction machine that uses pressure and carbon dioxide to separate and isolate cannabinoids and other essential compounds. Carbon dioxide is a common solvent used for pharmaceutical extraction and other processes like decaffeinating coffee.

CO2 machines are also used to make concentrates like “live resin.” Resin is made with fresh, whole flower via CO2 extraction or using a solvent like butane. No stems and stalks—real buds and fan leaves only, often flash-frozen to retain the original moisture (freshness of flower is key here—hence the “living” part.)

What to try: CO2 oil can be further refined and then referred to as “distillate,” like what’s inside Leune All-in-One Vaporizers. High quality distillate can test up to 90% or higher in total cannabinoids and is virtually flavorless, making it a common base ingredient in edibles and topicals as well.

RSO Oil
RSO stands for Rick Simpson Oil, named after the Canadian hospital engineer who successfully treated his skin cancer using a homemade cannabis concoction. Simpson figured out that by soaking the cannabis in pure naphtha or isopropyl alcohol, the therapeutic compounds are drawn out of the plant, leaving behind a dark, viscous liquid after the alcohol fully evaporates. Also known as Phoenix Tears, RSO can be applied directly to the skin or orally ingested for effective treatment of an array of chronic issues.

What to try: Last year I provided a multi-month supply of high-CBD RSO from Siskiyou Sungrown to a friend with a degenerative nerve issue. He’d begun to lose some feeling in his thumb and experienced chronic discomfort, but after a couple doses a day for two weeks, the sensation returned and the discomfort waned by the day. RSO is a great choice for those seeking serious, smoke-free cannabis medicine.

Tinctures
A tincture is a liquid concentrate procured through steam alcohol extraction, which pulls out the plant’s beneficial cannabinoids and is concentrated down to a very herbal-flavored liquid. Ethanol extraction can also be used to create certain types of dabbable shatter and pure, isolated cannabinoids like powdery THCA crystals. To be clear—tinctures aren’t the same as every bottle of “CBD oil” online (though they all may come in very similar looking glass dropper bottles). That is a very, very vague term that can mean a variety of formulations and processes.

What to try: Xula sells CBD tinctures, while Dazey sells CBD oil made of CO2 extract and coconut-derived MCT oil.

The next level of cannabis concentrates

BHO Extracts
BHO, or “butane hash oil,” is a concentrate made using pressurized chemical solvents like butane and propane to strip the essential oils of cannabis from plant matter within a closed-loop system. It sounds gnarly, but dabbers love this stuff because of the flavor. The chemical process is more delicate on the plant material, preserving the cannabinoids and terpenes in more sturdy states. THC-heavy BHO extracts can hit 70-90% total cannabinoids.

“Sauce” is another term you’ll hear in this region of solvent-based concentrates. This sticky, goopy extraction (also known as “sugar”) is made up of cannabinoid-rich crystals suspended in terpene-rich oil. There’s also “terp sauce,” which is defined as containing more than 50% terpenes—plus all the other minor compounds from the plant. Terp sauce is sometimes packaged in vape cartridges, making it a little easier to enjoy without an entire dab setup.

Other important terms to know: “live” as in “live resin” means the concentrate is made from fresh, often flash-frozen whole flower. It’ll be richer in flavor, as opposed to “trim runs” which are made with less potent flower bits that are long cured.

What to try: These are the concentrates that go by a variety of names depending on look and feel, from the hardened candy-like appearance of “shatter” to the wetter-looking “wax” (aka budder, badder, frosting—processors like Illinois’s Bedford Grow make a variety) and the chunkier “honeycomb” or “crumble.” Grassroots in Maryland makes a sauce with 83.59% THC. You can actually find those isolated THC crystals on the market as well, referred to as “diamonds,” like Biko’s Juseyo Diamond-filled joints.

The concentrate world may be a dizzying flowchart of science and flavor, but it’s a worthwhile exploration. This is where you’ll find the most interesting parts of cannabis, spotlighted and elevated, amplifying effects and flavor in a way that introduces you to new experiences with familiar strains. Here is where the possibilities of cannabis highs and benefits are being pushed to new limits.

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Lauren Yoshiko is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She writes The Broccoli Report, a bi-weekly newsletter for creative cannabis entrepreneurs.