By David Hua, CEO & Co-Founder of Meadow

In the early spring of 2021, I was given the honor of helping judge The Emerald Cup, which is Northern California's destination for cannabis, and the largest cannabis competition in the world. This event has become a sought-after annual celebration that honors the finest sungrown cannabis harvests of California. Shoutout to the farmers; The Golden State is truly home to the best cannabis in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2021 cup to become a digital event with safety protocols that were unlike previous years — we were not able to gather in person to smoke and sample all of the products — but I was honored to be a part of the historic gathering (even if it meant we were gathering on Zoom and tasting our own, sanitized supply of products — there would be no communal puff, puff, pass this year).

I received my Emerald Cup judges kit for the 2021 vape cartridges category in early February, which included six CO2 cartridges, 17 distillate cartridges, and 44 live resin cartridges—I had a total of 67 vape cartridges to score. My team consisted of 7 other vape cart judges, all fellow cannabis entrepreneurs, advocates and operators:

  • Eliza Maroney, Co-Founder, Lucky Box Club
  • Amit 'Bamboo' Vachher-Gnanathurai, Nursery & Plant Breeding Manager, Posibl Project
  • Arian Roman, CEO/Founder, Alysida Health, KushQueen, MyCanna
  • Del Potter, Chief Science Officer, Leef Labs/Aya Biosciences
  • El Rock, NorCal Territory Executive, Phinest Cannabis
  • Etienne Fontan, Vice President and Co-Owner of Berkeley Patients Group
  • Nicole Powell, Head of Procurement

We each had our work cut out for us. Each judge was asked to submit our top 3 favorite products for the CO2 and Distillate category, and the top 10 for Live Resin since there were so many. Our combined scores would then be added up and analyzed to find the collective winners for this year's Emerald Cup.

What's the difference between a cannabis cartridge containing C02, Distillate and Live Resin?

In short: These are the three most common extraction techniques that cannabis manufacturers use to extract cannabis oil.

C02: Extracted from dried and cured plants using cooled CO2; often, food-grade terpenes or terpenes derived from cannabis are added back into the oil to create flavored pens.

Distillate: Similar to CO2 extraction, just with more refinement and processing, using pressure, steam and heat to separate components through distillation. Color is often light yellow to golden honey colored. Sometimes terpenes are added to create a thinner product (easier to vape).

Live Resin: After harvest, cannabis plants are flash frozen and kept in subcritical temperatures throughout the extraction process, preserving their flavorful profiles, cannabinoids and natural terpenes. Includes concentrates, budders, waxes.

Scoring for The Emerald Cup is based on a number of factors: we were to give each product a number based on the experience, oil appearance, onset, vaporization, effect, and "uniqueness" which encompassed things like packaging, hardware and any other standout features.

I had my scoring spreadsheet ready to fill in for each product; it was time to create a strategy for how I was going to make my way through the pile of cannabis packages. I had just a little over a month to judge the category, which meant I needed to be tasting and judging a least 2 carts a day; I knew I wanted to have time at the end of the month to compare notes and re-taste standout products.

Emerald Cup 2021 vape cartridges judging

Before starting the judging, I completed a 30-day cannabis detox, something I do every year to clean out my endocannabinoid system. (Fun fact: most of the time people call me "Hua," my last name, but it's a joke around the office that I become "David" when I go that long without weed. I become another person; cannabis helps me be calm and patient and I am less of both of those things when I'm fully sober).

Eager to get cannabis back into my body, I dumped all of the products on a big table in the backyard of Meadow HQ. At first glance, I saw several brands I recognized: Alien Labs, Flow Kana, Jetty, Raw Garden, Heavy Hitters, Legion of Bloom, Chemistry, and Beezle. There were also some new brands in the mix that I was excited to get to know. I compared the physical inventory on hand with my spreadsheet of products; I added dates on the spreadsheet next to the products I would taste each day throughout the coming month, and organized the physical inventory of products into C02, distillate, and live resin piles to make it easy to grab a new pen for each tasting session. I was to start with the C02 pens and taste them all in a row, then move to distillate, and wrap up with live resin, so that I could compare the pens to the others in their category before moving on to the next type of product.

For the next five weeks, I tried to sample each vape cartridge on it's own (most days I tasted one cart each morning and one each afternoon); I wanted to be able to judge how each concentrate affected me, both the onset of the high and how long the experience lasted, which required giving each product its own time and space to linger and the experience to unfold. As I began to taste different products, I began to get a better sense of the subtle differences between each cart—some of the distillates overdid it with syrupy fruit flavors that covered up the actual taste of cannabis; some live resins were so terpy, I sneezed as if I'd just stuck my nose in a field of spring flowers. I liked to see the variance in color—some were golden yellow syrups while others were like thick brown molasses. The Bloomfield vape carts (both Notorious THC Live Terpene and Sauce Distillate Cartridge and Pineapple Muffin Live Terpene and Sauce Distillate Cartridge) got extra points in my 'uniqueness' category for listing the full cannabinoid content on the packaging; I'd like to see more concentrates brands give consumers this kind of fuller picture of what's actually inside to help them understand more about the subtle nuances of the plant. We should encourage consumers to think about more than just the THC content.

It was challenging to pick the winners; I've never experienced so many different vape pens in my life, and the subtle (and sometimes bold) differences between all of them was impressive. The experience left me with a deeper respect for the farmers, the manufacturers, the hardware makers, the lab testers, and all of the other hands that go into crafting these clean, high quality cannabis products. At the end of the judging window, I added up the numbers in each category, triple checked my math, tasted and retasted products, and confirmed my scores.

The products that I personally gave the highest scores and was most excited about were the Blue River Chocolate Orange Jelly Sauce Cartridge from fresh baked x Blue River, and the Arcata Fire Live resin Runtz cape from ArcataX x Great Expectations Farm x Lightwork Distributors. I was glad to see they each took first place in their respective categories; the other judges clearly had good taste!

Blue River Chocolate Orange Jelly Sauce Cartridge (2021 Winner of The Emerald Cup Cartridges, Distillate Category)

  • fresh baked x Blue River

  • Category: Cartridges, Distillate

  • Origin: Los Angeles County

My tasting notes: The orange chocolate flavor combination is solid and smooth; it tastes rich and luxe, not like some of the other overly pungent fruity flavors. It would make a great dessert smoke. I also liked the "Draw Indicator" feature on the custom battery to help control the size of the hit (great for those morning tasting sessions before conference calls).

ARCATA FIRE LIVE RESIN VAPE – RUNTZ (2021 Winner of The Emerald Cup Cartridges, Live Resin Category)

  • ArcataX x Great Expectations Farm x Lightwork Distributors

  • Category: Cartridges, Live Resin

  • Origin: Humboldt County

My tasting notes: In addition to having a great taste, oil appearance, taste, effect and experience, this product got bonus points from me in the uniqueness category for the following reasons:

  • They use a ceramic (not plastic) cartridge made by AVD which helped with flavor and temperature control. In addition to being a better experience for the consumer, in general I like to see the industry move away from single-use plastic and find ways to create more sustainable products.

  • Local SunGrown Packaging, made in Oakland. I like to see California cannabis companies supporting other homegrown California businesses.

I actually liked the Arcata House of Extracts carts so much that I reached out to ArcataX on Instagram; they said Sonoma Patient's Group was the closest dispensary to me that carried their products. I used their online menu to place an order for several different types of their cartridges, and picked it up several days later. When something is this good, it's worth the 60-minute drive from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, and you want to have extras to share with fellow cannaisseurs.

Arcata Fire House of Extracts

I loved learning more about the different types of extractions and having this opportunity to taste California's best cannabis oils, and find new things to enjoy and share with my community.

Below are the top 3 winners in each category; view the full list of the 2021 award winners at The Emerald Cup website.

Emerald Cup Top 3 Distillate Cartridges

Emerald Cup Top 3 Co2 Cartridges

2021 Emerald Cup Top 3 Live Resin Cartridges

Below is the full top 10 winners for the Live Resin cartridges:

1st place: ARCATA FIRE LIVE RESIN VAPE – RUNTZ, ArcataX x Great Expectations Farm x Lightwork Distributors

2nd place: URSA LIQUID DIAMOND SAUCE CARTRIDGE “TAR HILL PINK LEMONADE” URSA EXTRACTS, Bear Extraction House x Tar Hill Cannabis

3rd place: URSA NOVA BLUEBERRY MUFFIN CARTRIDGE, URSA Extracts

4th place: BANANA CREME – SOLVENTLESS VAPE, Jetty Extracts

5th place: KRYPTOCHRONIC – LIVE RESIN PEN, Alien Labs

6th place: LEMONATTI – LIVE RESIN PEN, Connected Cannabis

7th place: URSA EXTRACTS LEMON SUPER GLUE LIQUID DIAMOND SAUCE, URSA Extracts

8th place: ALIEN MINTS – LIVE RESIN PEN, Alien Labs

9th place: COLLINS AVE – PINK ROZAY 0.5G CARTRIDGE, ArcataX x 1L Garden Supply

10th place: CRESCO X FLORACAL MENTHOLOTTI – LIQUID LIVE RESIN, SLO Cultivation Inc. dba Cresco Labs x Floracal Farms


Shout out to the Taylor, Vicki, Tim; The Emerald Cup team worked so hard to organize everything remotely, safely delivering judges kits and making sure this historic event continued, despite the chaos of a global pandemic. It was a bright spot in my COVID quarantine and I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate and get to know more brands and products in our California cannabis community.

>> Learn more about Meadow's role in other cannabis events in California

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