Cannabis is most commonly consumed by smoking a joint or bowl. Of course, nowadays even joints have become the base for creative toking. Customers may add some kief, hash, or concentrate in their joints, allowing patients with higher tolerances to obtain relief by smoking their high-octane twax. One of the concentrates many customers enjoy using is bubble hash or ice wax – a premium product made using a process called ice water extraction.
Competing for the Cannabis-Savvy Customer
Enhanced joints and pre-rolls are not the only products to see modern upgrades. There is far more to cannabis than the flower’s THC content. Medicinal and recreational customers are becoming more educated about the additional benefits offered by full-spectrum concentrates.
And like all industries, cannabis processors continue to look for new ways to differentiate their brand of products to remain relevant. Often, this can be accomplished in three ways:
- Consistently manufacture a pure, stable product.
- Capture the full essence of the strain’s cannabinoid and terpene profile.
- Offer a variety of concentrates to cover a wider user base.
It just so happens, that a cannabis manufacturer can achieve all three by means of ice water extraction. At the end of the day, cannabis processors and customers alike are after one thing – the cannabinoid and terpene-rich resin found inside the trichomes. This solventless extraction method is descended from old techniques and modernized for commercial trichome harvesting.
You’re probably thinking, “Trichomes are those little, sticky things that grow on the cannabis plant, right?” — and you are correct! However, there is a lot more than meets the eye to these tiny glands and there’s a good reason why cannabis manufacturers are starting to take notice. Trichomes can be defined as both part of cannabis biology, as well as a popular solventless concentrate.
What Are Trichomes? (I’m Asking for a Friend)
Commercial ice water extraction equipment can make quick work of harvesting trichomes, but what are they, exactly? Those beautiful, glistening crystals filled with liquid gold. Kief, hash, and dust are all names for the tiny, amber-oil-filled capitate-stalked trichomes. Although they seem to be a medicinal gift to humans, in fact, they exist as a biological self-defense system for the cannabis plant. These botanical glands provide defense against:
- Insects – Cannabis has a knack for synthesizing compounds that repel insects that would damage the plant while attracting other insects that assist with pollination
- UV Rays – Trichomes help shield the plant from excessive UV rays
- Cold and Frost – The hair-like structures help to insulate leaves and buds from the elements. This helps reduce damage to the plant’s leaf cells.
- Heat and Arid Weather – Trichomes help maintain moisture close to the leaves and flowers, protecting them from dry conditions. This can also make it more difficult to dry harvest cannabis without trimming the sugar leaves.
These advanced epidermal glands are one of the reasons cannabis sativa L. can survive in a wide range of environments and terrain. This is also why it is nicknamed “weed.”
As we mentioned, they create a combination of terpenes, phenols, and other natural repellents. If a particular strain of cannabis smells like skunk, it’s intentional – the plant is warding off herbivores.
Advanced, Solar-Powered Metabolite Biofactories
Trichomes are also known as “biofactories,” due to the vast number of compounds they produce. These hair and gland-like structures can be found across many plant species, and most contain oils and compounds that improve our daily lives in more ways than we had imagined. The compounds found within the trichomes of Artemisia annua (also called wormwood) are still widely used to treat patients suffering from malaria.
And as many of us know, the cannabinoids and terpenes within cannabis trichomes treat far more than pain:
- Myrcene can treat insomnia.
- Pinene is a natural antibiotic.
- Caryophyllene can alleviate inflammation.
- Cannabidiol (CBD) also has strong, anti-inflammatory applications.
So as you can see, plants have been providing us the blueprints and medicinal compounds to improve our health and quality of life for quite some time. It should come as no surprise, that the trichomes harvested from marijuana plants contain compounds observed to have a multitude of health benefits. When these compounds are used in unison, via a full-spectrum cannabis product, these benefits work in unison. This is often referred to as the entourage effect.
Cannabis Trichomes: An Organic, All-Natural Pharmacy
Long ago, humans discovered that the plant held tremendous medicinal properties and was used both medicinally, as well as part of several religious rituals. Outside of religious ceremonies, cannabis was used to treat pain associated with earaches and childbirth throughout Asia and eventually the West. The cocktail of cannabinoids and terpenes inside these tiny glands reduces inflammation and stress, helps protect your cells, and can send you to the moon without the help of SpaceX.
Although the benefits of consuming the cannabinoids residing in cannabis trichomes have been experienced for thousands of years, we have only begun to understand why since the 1940s. It was this research that led humans to discover their own endocannabinoid system, and how the contents of trichomes could not only provide psychoactive entertainment, but also a myriad of physical relief from a multitude of ailments.
As we mentioned, several of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis are due to the terpenes found in the oil. If you haven’t discovered the benefits of these compounds, be sure to check out Terpene University, where we dive into these biosynthesized hydrocarbons.
Solvent-Based Extraction: The Hero We Needed
As the old saying goes, you have to walk before you can run. Politics and ideology created a legal and taboo rift between the medicinal and health benefits of cannabinoids and the people that could gain therapeutic relief from them. The journey back to leveraging cannabis to enhance our quality of life was not an easy one. However, the benefits of marijuana were undeniable, and so advocates continued to educate the public and their leaders alike.
Breaking Free From Cannabis Prohibition
In 1996, California forged the path to bring cannabis back into the forefront of modern medicine. A long journey always begins with a first step, and California had taken it by legalizing medical marijuana for the relief of patients with severe illness or disease. They discovered THC was not the only cannabinoid to provide relief to various ailments.
By using varying concentrations of THC to create a legally different species of cannabis, the Agriculture Improvement Act was born. This legalized the extraction and use of CBD, so long as it was manufactured from low-THC hemp. The beginnings of cannabis legalization were in play, and solvent-based extraction provided cannabis processors the opportunity to extract CBD from cannabis plants categorized as hemp.
Solvent-based extraction provided the means for commercial cannabis processors to reintroduce specific cannabinoids into the public medicinal market while maneuvering around complicated and diverse state-by-state legislature. Once CBD oils and tinctures hit the public market, everyone had questions. Does it really work? Who can benefit from CBD? A newsletter from Harvard Medical School chimed in and stated,
There is moderate evidence that CBD can improve sleep disorders, fibromyalgia pain, muscle spasticity related to multiple sclerosis, and anxiety.www.health.harvard.edu, December 14th, 2021
The cannabis cat is out of the bag. If one cannabinoid can show so much potential, with another (synthetic THC, Marinol) being FDA approved and prescribed to treat appetite loss, nausea, and pain for several illnesses (AIDS, cancer) scientists and cannabis processors knew the potential for lesser-known cannabinoids and compounds was too great to ignore.
From Isolates to Distillates to Full Spectrum
As individual states began to legalize cannabis giving us access to all of its entourage-effect glory, the need to distill cannabinoid isolates began to soften. Cannabis processors became less concerned if extra cannabinoids or terpenes slipped into their concentrates. In fact, it opened the way to product diversity. Rather than just offering a THC or CBD isolate, they could offer “broad spectrum” products.
Note: Isolates remain a profitable market. Many cannabis kitchen chefs prefer to work with the individual cannabinoid, without having the terpenes and flavonoids alter the aroma or flavor of their dishes. Isolates are also used in a plethora of edibles and drinkables.
With the enhanced therapeutic benefits of combined cannabinoids and terpenes on our endocannabinoid system, cannabis manufacturers took aim at concentrates that represented the whole plant’s chemical profile. One of the reasons prerolls are still popular and profitable is that many claim they still enjoy a fuller, more potent experience, even compared to THC concentrates that are several times more potent than flower itself. And there’s a reason for this.
The Entourage Effect: Myth or Reality
The term “entourage effect” is frequently tossed around the cannabis community and remains shrouded in some mystery. However, scientists have been slowly pulling back the curtain, revealing how it works. As explained in the article “Overcoming the bell-shaped dose-response of cannabidiol (CBD) by using cannabis extract enriched in cannabidiol” published by Pharmacology & Pharmacy in 2015,
Our findings that CBD in the presence of other plant constituents improve the dose-response are supported by some recent reports showing that CBD in a standardized Cannabis sativa extract is more potent or efficacious than pure CBD.Gallily, 2015
CBD may have a profound, therapeutic effect on one person, and appear to have no effect on another. This is because of the bell-curve effect a CBD isolate demonstrates when taken on its own. In other words, the dose has to be precise because consuming more CBD may take you away from the “therapeutic-zone” located at the top of the efficacy bell curve.
Still, CBD isolates can be very beneficial to many. For others, mileage may vary. It’s also worth noting, that CBD isolates are generally legal in locations where THC is strictly prohibited. This provides a means for customers to experience some relief offered by the plant. This study demonstrates that when used along with other cannabinoids, the benefits of CBD no longer appear to have a hard ceiling, allowing a higher dose to be administered with increased relief.
With research ongoing, if this holds true across other cannabinoids, then we’ve only scratched the surface of marijuana’s medicinal potential when used with its fellow compounds biosynthesized together within the plant’s trichomes. And one of the best ways to experience the high and benefits of the entourage effect is by using a full-spectrum concentrate.
Manufacturing Full-Spectrum Cannabis Concentrates
A cannabis processor can create full-spectrum products one of two ways; by means of solvent-based extraction or solventless extraction. And the choice won’t always be easy, especially if you already have both feet deep into ethanol, hydrocarbon or CO2 extraction. To be fair, let’s take a quick look at both your options.
Option 1: Solvent-Based Extraction
If you have already invested in distillation equipment, it’s not completely necessary to purchase a solventless extraction machine. You will, however, want to ensure you have the necessary add-ons and equipment to preserve your terpenes. Here are a couple additional details to consider:
- Depending on your initial extraction method, be sure to properly winterize your crude oil. A clean, full-spectrum product should include as little plant matter as possible.
- Don’t take any shortcuts when purging or reclaiming your solvents as you’d be aiming for the purest oil possible. Trace amounts of solvent are accepted, however not ideal for inhalation. Unless you are manufacturing an isolate, you will almost always have trace solvents in your final product.
- Be sure to capture and then reintroduce the terpenes. These play a significant role in the entourage effect and aroma. Without the terpenes, you’re creating a broad-spectrum product rather than one that mimics the original plant.
Solvent-based extraction can be used to recreate the cannabis plant’s original chemical profile to varying degrees of accuracy. However, they cannot come as close as a solventless extraction system.
Although distillation equipment is essential to create CBD and THC isolates which are used in a wide range of products, it’s rarely used to try and capture every cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid. That said, with some extra labor and love, it can get close enough to manufacture a qualified, full-spectrum product.
Option 2: Solventless Extraction
This method of cannabinoid extraction is nearly as old as our ancient relationship with cannabis. Solventless extraction focuses on processing a concentrate that contains all the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids without expensive, explosive, or highly pressurized extraction equipment. Solventless extraction also does not require winterization or advanced lab equipment to purify and distill the desired cannabinoids from post-extraction crude oil.
What Is Solventless Extraction?
All solventless extraction techniques aim to achieve the same thing — “separate the chaff from the wheat,” or rather, the plant from the kief. That’s right, we’ve made it full circle and are back where we started – the goal of harvesting trichomes to create potent concentrates consisting of pure resin. There are two popular methods used in solventless extraction.
- Dry Sift Method: If you are using dried flower, then you can use the sift method. This involves placing your flower on large sifting screens, stacked with higher micron screens at the top, and lower micron screens at the bottom. Next, the flower is manually agitated, separating the trichomes from the plant material. Periodically, each screen is emptied and lifted away to start the process again using the lower micron screen below.
- Bubble Bag Method: If you are using freshly harvested cannabis (wet), then it’s common to use a combination of water and agitation. Much like the dry sift method, bubble bags or hash-washing bags are placed inside one another, with each bag inserted having a higher micron rating than the previous. Plant material is placed in the bag along with water and then the flower is agitated, causing the trichomes to break away from the biomass. Then each bag is lifted out, one by one, allowing as much kief as possible to be collected down to the smallest trichomes. In addition, bubble bags are diverse enough to harvest trichomes from both wet or dry flower!
Of the two, bubble hash is becoming the preferred solventless concentrate. This is because the dry sift method normally requires your plant material to be dried and cured before sifting. Using fresh plant material on a dry sift screen will result in an epically sticky mess, as well as a great deal of lost time and labor while the equipment is cleaned after the resin that can be salvaged is scraped off.
The Cannabis Processor Safety Dance
Another alluring aspect of solventless extraction is that you will not require a license. Solvent-based extraction often requires a type 7 license for volatile solvents or a type 6 license for non-volatile solvents. These are required due to the safety concerns that have risen from solvent-based operation accidents. Hydrocarbons like butane, hexane, and propane are highly explosive and require the utmost care when handling. Cannabis lab explosions have occurred around the world, including an explosion in Italy that killed two employees.
And although CO2 is not explosive in itself, a supercritical CO2 system operates at pressures around 1000 psi. As a frame of reference, a standard car tire is often inflated to around 32 – 40 psi on average. While a flaming explosion may not be an issue, structural failure could turn your CO2 extraction equipment into dangerous shrapnel.
Solventless extraction simply uses some form of agitation and screen filtering (and water if you’re making bubble hash.) No explosive chemicals and no highly pressurized systems are needed. As a bonus, not only is solventless safer; it also eliminates the costs associated with expensive lab equipment, solvent chemicals, and license fees.
Note: Operating a solvent-based extraction business without a license can result in expensive fines and even criminal charges.
Common Solventless Cannabis Concentrates
Let’s get to the fun part. What type of concentrate products can be processed using solventless extraction? Well hang on to your ganja, because there are several, including:
- Kief – This is pure, unmelted trichomes. The color of kief depends on when the trichomes were harvested. The more mature (ripe) the buds, the darker the kief will appear. In general, kief will have a tan color. Greenish kief is often an indicator that too much plant material made it through the extraction process. This can be avoided by using the ice water extraction method, explained further down.
- Hashish – Blocks of hashish are made by applying just enough heat and pressure to meld the trichomes together into a solid block. Hashish is easier and more convenient to transport than kief and has been popular for thousands of years.
- Budder, Crumble, and Wax – These products are often manufactured using water-based bubble and hash-washing bags. The trichomes form a smooth, almost icing texture. Depending on the manufacturing process, the texture can vary. Budder, crumble, and wax are different terms to help identify the texture of your bubble hash.
- Ice Water Hash (Bubble Hash) – Ice water hash is different from standard hash in that it is made from fresh-frozen cannabis material. This creates a significantly, higher-quality concentrate. Dabbing or smoking ice wax provides customers the full flavor and aroma of the source strain, with a significantly higher potency, yet without the smoke and carcinogens that are accompanied by lighting up cured flower.
- Live Rosin – When cannabis oil is extracted from fresh-frozen cannabis trichomes, it’s considered “Live Rosin.” This is much like ice water hash in that it is a top-shelf cannabis concentrate. In fact, live rosin is pressed from ice water hash.
Of all the varieties of solventless concentrates, those made from trichomes obtained from ice water extraction are of the highest quality. By freezing your harvested cannabis, you prevent cannabinoid oxidation and terpene burn-off. In essence, you preserve the entirety of the strain’s chemical profile. And as we’ve discussed, this allows customers to experience the maximum benefit and relief a strain has to offer.
Unfortunately, ice water extraction can be a bit laborious. Although a couple buckets and some ice may not seem like a big deal, if a cannabis processor wants to commercially produce live rosin or ice water hash, it can be very costly in time and labor costs. Spoiler: a commercial solution is available, and we’ll jump to that soon.
The Origins of Ice Water Extraction
Bubble hash stands on the shoulders of many solventless cannabis innovators, each adding another step towards what we know today as bubble hash or ice water hash. Although India and China have a long history of using cannabis and hash ceremonially, it was modern-day solventless extractors that popularized this solvent-free concentrate.
Cannabis Avengers, Assemble
One might think that names like Skunkman Sam (previously Sadhu Sam), Nevil (or Neville) the Breeder, Reinhard Delph, Mark Rose, the Hash Queen, and Marcus Bubbleman Richardson, represent the newest team of superheroes, and we would have to agree. To the cannabis industry, these are the innovators that fought (literally in the early years) to bring one of the highest quality products to market.
The Legend of Ice Water Extraction
In the 1980s, cannabis breeder David Paul Watson (AKA, Skunkman Sam), was featured in an issue of High Times, where he offered his method of removing trichomes from cannabis flower by means of placing it in water and agitating it. The trichomes turned out to be denser than water, causing them to sink. The rest of the plant matter remained near the surface of the water. Although the concept was planted in David’s mind by a conversation he had with a man named Neville Shoenmakers (AKA, Neville the Breeder) – it was Skunkman Sam and his article in High Times that popularized the solventless method.
Then, in a nuanced collaboration, Mila Jansen (AKA, the Hash Queen), Reinhard, and Mark Rose invented, built, and marketed the first ice-water extractor. Reinhard invented and built the extraction vessel, Mark manufactured the multi-tiered, micron bags, and the Mila became the marketing arm for the equipment. By agitating the cannabis biomass in ice water, the trichomes became more brittle and easier to separate from the plant material.
It was truly a remarkable step forward for solventless extraction, but its size was limited (five gallons) as was its scalability in a blossoming marijuana market.
“Hey Y’all, Prepare Yourself for the Bubble Man”
Impressed with how far ice water extraction had come, Marcus Richardson was excited to bring this new breed of hash to Canada. When he was unable to bring Mark and Mila’s Ice-O-Later bags to Canada, he created his own. Today they are known as the “Bubble Bag.” They were so effective, that the bubble bag could produce ice water hash with almost no contamination or plant matter. To say this is impressive would be an understatement.
Marcus joined the team at Whistler Technologies to help design and build one of the most advanced trichome harvesting machines in the cannabis industry. Using all the knowledge of ice water extraction passed down from one innovator to the next, it became the pinnacle achievement in solventless extraction technology.
Cannabis processors now have a commercial, scalable solution to manufacture premium, full-spectrum concentrates for customers wanting to experience the entourage effect in all its splendor.
And for cannabis manufacturers who are unsure of their local demand for bubble hash — the system is modular. This means you can add additional components to continually scale up your ice water hash production as customer demand increases.
Leveraging Ice Water Extraction to Differentiate Your Brand
If you’re looking to create a concentrate worthy to be associated with your cannabis strain without trace solvents or reduced aroma, solventless extraction just might be an excellent fit for your manufacturing business. If you already specialize in isolates and distillates, adding a commercial ice water extraction system can help diversify your product offerings.
Solventless extraction is safer, lower-cost investment, and does not require the permits and licenses needed to operate solvent-based lab equipment. And you’ll save on labor costs because the machine does the lion’s share of the work for you. The medicinal benefits associated with pure, uncontaminated, full-spectrum concentrates are catching the eyes of customers and manufacturers alike. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that ice water extraction is better for the planet. The solvent-free biomass can be composted, and there is no risk of releasing hydrocarbons into the environment.
Thanks for visiting our blog, and we hope you’ll swing by to see us again. If you’re interested in talking with someone on our team or have any questions, please feel free to reach out – we’re here to help!
*This article is for educational purposes only and should not be used or taken as medical advice.