Cannabis Marketing: What Can the Industry Learn from Hops?

Columns - Growing Pains

Characteristic fragrances and flavors drive brand recognition for hops. Can a similar approach benefit the cannabis industry?

Photos courtesy of Robert C. Clarke

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a special series, “What the Cannabis Industry Can Learn From The Hop Market” by Robert C. Clarke and Mojave Richmond. Read Part I of this special series here: Part II: And Part III:

In our first three articles exploring sinsemilla and hops, we emphasized that sinsemilla is more similar to hops than most other crops in terms of botany, breeding, cultivation and processing. Do parallels also exist in the branding and marketing of hops, sinsemilla and their respective products?

Hop cones are a dry flower commodity used as one key ingredient among four that define beer—sprouted and toasted barley grains, water, yeast and hops—a standard equation from which a multitude of permutations have evolved. Hop cones also supply the raw material for the bitter extracts used in brewing. Sinsemilla buds are also a dry flower commodity, but unlike hops, buds are often consumed in their dried form, in addition to their use as raw material for making solvent extract products such as vape pens and edibles.

Despite differences in end use, the branding and marketing of hop and sinsemilla products share common concerns. Companies strive to raise brand awareness, maintain consistency, establish points of difference, and balance their offerings within a range of choices by focusing on select products, all the while trying to stay light on their feet in a turbulent sea of changing consumer preferences.

Tastes Change

As recently as the 1970s, a handful of traditional European hop varieties dominated the brewing industry. Today, these industry standards are outsold by New World aroma hops largely grown in expanding production regions such as Australia and the Northwest of the U.S. where they can be introduced without replacing established cultivars.

In the late 1990s, well-known and widely accepted high-alpha-acid bittering hop varieties, such as ‘Nugget’ and ‘Willamette,’ dominated North American production. By 2010, ‘Nugget’ was still the most produced, while acreage of more aromatic ‘Cascade’ had increased greatly in response to market demand for hoppy ales. By 2020, ‘Cascade’ production peaked, although it remains among the top-five cultivars in the U.S., while space devoted to newer aroma cultivars increases yearly.

Beer drinkers’ tastes can change quickly, and the hop market must constantly evolve to keep apace. Breeders strive to stay relevant by developing new and improved cultivars, while farmers grow the hop varieties brewers want to buy to make the beer their customers like to drink. At the same time, hop companies introduce new varieties that may change drinkers’ tastes and influence the choices they make.

The nascent sinsemilla market is even more volatile. While perennial hop cultivars require more time for trait selection and ramping up commercial production, many new annual sinsemilla cultivars are selected each year and are quickly brought into commercial production. Although classics such as ‘OG Kush’ and ‘Blue Dream’ maintain their market shares, presently sales are eclipsed by the plethora of floral and fruity varieties chasing a common theme—the sweet dessert flavor of the month.

Hops growers have long supplied the world market with high-alpha-acid extracts used to bitter beers. Consumer preferences are shifting toward more aromatic ales, and the market for cultivars and concentrates used in hoppy beers is booming. Farmers cooperate with local brewers to raise consumer awareness of a hop’s varietal attributes and thereby increase the value of their harvest. We predict high-aroma varietal hops extracts will also find their place in creating novel hoppy brews as aromatic sinsemilla extracts have in high-end cannabis products.

Essential Oil Aromatics

Hop cultivars are characterized by their aromatic compounds, and like sinsemilla cultivars, their aromas are heritable. “Intensive” hops aromas are akin to “loud” sinsemilla aromas. Total essential oil content is important to hop breeders and brewers, but increasingly, so too is the individual aromatic profile—the ratio of the characteristic aromatic compounds produced by each hop cultivar—which will become the same for sinsemilla. Ultimately, beer drinkers’ tastes drive hop breeders’ search for novel fragrances and flavors, much like sinsemilla smokers’ preferences direct cannabis breeding.

Hops and sinsemilla synthesize dozens of highly diverse terpenes and other aromatic compounds, each with unique fragrances and flavors. That said, often only one major terpene (or at times, a few) establishes the recognizable aroma impact of a particular variety. Variations in minor terpenes contribute to the individual nuances and overall impression of each cultivar, as well as to differing batches of flowers of the same cultivar. Complex blending of terpenes changes their individual and collective thresholds of perception, often making some more readily apparent to the nose while obscuring others. Effective branding and marketing rely on customers’ often subconscious perceptions of these aromatic nuances. Fragrances attract customers and stimulate sales, and unique, consistently expressed aromas essentially become the brand.

Both hop and sinsemilla aromatic profiles change markedly in the final few weeks before harvest, and then again during drying and storage. The monoterpene myrcene is the aromatic compound found at the highest level in nearly all hop cultivars and many popular sinsemilla varieties. Myrcene is particularly volatile and fleeting at room temperature and degrades during drying and curing, resulting in aroma changes over time. A freshly opened package of high-myrcene hops should have a citrusy floral aroma, but even when refrigerated may soon develop a “catty” litter box odor.

The more volatile monoterpenes in sinsemilla and hops are lost during drying, transport and storage, leaving behind the less volatile sesquiterpenes, such as caryophyllene and humulene, that persist in both fresh beer and stale weed. Humulene is the dominant sesquiterpene in Humulus for which it is named, while structurally similar caryophyllene is more abundant in Cannabis plants. Although farnesene is found in relatively low amounts in sinsemilla, it can reach 20% of the aroma content in ‘Saaz’ hop lineages. Citronellol and linalool add to the citrusy flavors of beer as they do in buds. These are just a few of the many terpenes present in sinsemilla.

Additional Aromatic Compounds

As important as the terpenes are to determining the fragrance and flavor profiles of both sinsemilla and hop flowers, other aromatic compounds are also involved. And the deeper researchers look, the more they discover.

Highly aromatic sulfur compounds called thiols are responsible in part for the skunky dankness of sinsemilla buds, hop cones and beer. “Skunkiness” was once considered the iconic aroma of the imported European bottled beers available to North Americans, but we now know that skunky odors often result from degradation by light. More recently, a wide range of naturally occurring thiol compounds have been identified in hop cones, and rather than smelling “skunky,” several impart intense fruity highlights to the increasingly popular “hop-forward” ales. Additional sinsemilla thiols and other classes of highly aromatic compounds await discovery, and there may well be surprises ahead.

Skunkiness is also a trademark aroma of traditional Afghan hashish landraces, but many years ago was bred out of many hybrid cultivars, such as the unfortunately named ‘Skunk No. 1.’ Consumers initially found unique sulfurous odors interesting, but they eventually proved unpopular to smoke. More spicy, flowery and fruity selections won the day, yet some smokers still yearn for the dank “roadkill skunk” of the past.

Aromas are the key brand identifiers of modern sinsemilla. Consumers often favor certain aroma classes over others, and aromas some consumers find desirable, others dislike. Our understanding grows with science, and as times change, tastes evolve.

The Significance of Terroir

Many economically valuable traits, such as secondary metabolite formation, are genetically controlled, but expression of a plant’s genetic potential can be strongly influenced by local environmental factors including air movements, temperature, light, rainfall, water quality, soil condition and surrounding vegetation. Individually and in concert, they induce epigenetic effects influencing the plant’s development, and the sum of these interactions with the surrounding ecosystem forms the basis of terroir.

Terroir gives regional products their sense of place in our increasingly uniform and monotonous markets. Terroir effects become most apparent when comparing a genetically identical clone (e.g., a single grape, hop or sinsemilla cultivar) grown in several different regions.

The terroir of each region imparts its own unique spin on fragrances and flavors. Aroma characteristics can even vary between the microclimates of neighboring farms. Hop and sinsemilla aromas vary widely, reflecting both the cultivar’s genome and the influences of terroir, making both cultivar recognition and the terroir concept effective in marketing the crops.

Terroir also plays an important role in shaping the distinctive aromas and flavors of sinsemilla grown outdoors or even indoors. A genetically identical sinsemilla clone grown in myriad locations under widely ranging conditions presents a golden opportunity to further understand the complexities of terroir. Hop and sinsemilla cultivar names are simply convenient identifiers, while their characteristic fragrances and flavors underpin true brand recognition. Variation based on terroir is to be expected—sinsemilla smokers increasingly appreciate these subtle differences, and cannabis distributors are beginning to take note by featuring products from specific growers.

Cultivar Dominance

Agribusiness generally favors a relatively small assortment of plant varieties on which the bulk of production is based. Although estimates vary, at least 100 hop cultivars are available for commercial production. However, more than 50% of America’s more than 60,000 acres of hop cultivation is now dominated by four cultivars—traditional ‘Cascade’ accompanied by the proprietary cultivars ‘Citra,’ ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Simcoe.’ Growers favor these more recently available varieties because of their increased vigor and yields, improved disease resistance, and higher content of secondary metabolites including aroma constituents.

Three of these popular hop cultivars are protected by Plant Breeder’s Rights, sell under registered trademarks, and are licensed to commercial growers worldwide on a royalty basis. Variety protection through Plant Breeder’s Rights forms a cornerstone of agribusiness and is increasingly pertinent to the rapidly normalizing sinsemilla industry.

Presently, each sinsemilla cultivar is marketed as a brand, and the cultivar name can become the de facto brand name for several different products. Until name-brand products become better established, cultivar names will live on as brand representatives. Well-known brewers are shifting toward cultivar recognition as a sales tool by listing hop varieties on their labels, and by promoting single-hop beers that emphasize the varietal characteristics of an individual cultivar. Sometimes beer brands even adopt cultivar names, like ‘Citra,’ which is used in several beer products’ names.

We anticipate a similar scenario as the sinsemilla industry matures, stabilizes and normalizes. Fewer cultivars will be grown on increasing commercial acreage, although there will remain smaller “boutique” farmers in localized markets who will continue to grow a wider variety of specialized cultivars.

Following the trajectory of the hops industry, a system protecting new sinsemilla cultivars and rewarding the dedicated labor of breeders will promote variety development and lead to the licensing of popular cultivars.

While there are at least 100 hop varieties available commercially, the market is dominated by four cultivars. As the cannabis industry matures, it’s possible fewer varieties will be grown commercially, while a boutique market for unusual types emerges.

Sinsemilla Marketing: The Numbers Game, For Now

In today’s sinsemilla market, the paramount factor in making purchase decisions is not aroma or flavor, but potency—simply the THC percentage stated on the label. This limited perception is like buying a beer based solely on its alcohol content. Ethanol levels range in “beers” from alcohol-free to more than 10%, but for most drinkers, the way a beer tastes drives their purchase decision, not how strong it is.

Pleasant aromas as well as offensive odors can induce strong memories that last a lifetime. Our perception of variation in complex aromas is the key to differentiating sinsemilla varieties, and their characteristic aroma profiles are important aspects of their branding and marketing strengths.

In regulated markets, customers are rarely allowed to smell the flowers offered in shops. They can only read the labels and maybe talk to a salesperson. Associations between aroma and effects are realized later as a consumer uses a product, and those olfactory associations return with the customer on their next visit. Cannabis marketing is shifting toward emphasizing aroma and flavor constituents, and terpene levels are starting to appear alongside THC percentage on progressive product labels.

Hops Aroma Descriptors

The hops industry relies on a system for characterizing cultivars based on their aromas and uses generally recognized descriptor classes such as minty, floral, vegetal, citrusy, woodsy and spicy, along with individual comparisons with many fruits. Most aroma traits are considered positive, but even so, they certainly do not account for all personal tastes. Sinsemilla tasters and buyers often use these same terms, as well as many more.

The brewing industry has access to much more sophisticated analytical capabilities than a majority of the sinsemilla industry, and brewery laboratories are better equipped to analyze flowers for a wider range of compounds. Hop varieties are thoroughly analyzed using sophisticated methodologies that detect even traces of fragrance and flavor molecules that could possibly be of interest to brewers and customers.

As consumer aroma awareness increases, comprehensive analyses that can be used to detect popular compounds will prove increasingly important for sinsemilla products.

Points of Difference

Competition for sinsemilla sales is fierce, and every grower searches for a point of difference in their effort to supply the newly popular and most saleable varieties while remaining relevant to the marketplace.

Hop growers struggle as well. Brewers now want aromatic hops, and growers must establish their points of difference based on harvest timing and drying conditions, all the while building bridges to those providing efficient downstream processing, packaging and storage.

Balancing supply of flagship brands with new offerings is a challenge for both markets. The sinsemilla sales chain informs growers of what the market wants. But with almost limitless choices and constantly changing supply, distributors struggle to maintain consistency, often leaving customers unable to find the same flower they bought last week. As the cannabis market matures and normalizes, popular cultivars will become industry standards and their supplies will become more predictable, but until then, inconsistency and overproduction are inevitable.

Where Will We Go From Here?

We have learned there are many parallels in hops and sinsemilla production and that both industries can learn from each other. Although more mature and well-established, the hops industry is poised to accommodate changing tastes and future market trends. Focusing on well-defined goals while remaining flexible and adaptable is an important balance for cannabis businesses to achieve as well.

Shared experiences surround smoking, drinking and thinking. Sinsemilla and hoppy beers will undoubtedly share a symbiotic future—neither needs the other, but they go down well together. Wider acceptance of cannabis clubs and consumption lounges could eventually lead to bars and restaurants setting up sinsemilla smoking areas. Economic rewards are potentially immense. We may soon see what at first glance appears to be competitive industries truly recognize each other, realize their symbiotic potentials and begin to merge along their fringes.

Robert C. Clarke is a freelance writer, photographer, ethnobotanist, plant breeder, textile collector and co-founder of BioAgronomics Group, specializing in smoothing the transition to a wholly legal and normalized cannabis market.

Mojave Richmond is the developer of many award-winning varieties such as S.A.G.E., which served as a springboard for creating many notable cultivars. Richmond is a founding member of international consulting company BioAgronomics Group.