Top Shelf: A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Cannabis

  • There are four main indicators when delineating between high-quality flower and subpar flower: Smell, look, feel, and flower structure.
  • The more trichomes you can see with the naked eye, the better indicator of the flower’s potency, not only for intoxicating qualities but also therapeutic properties as well.
  • From dirt brown to an immature lime green flower, nature provides several visual clues when you’re looking at a good plant gone bad.
  • Personal preference is the ultimate factor among strains once the quality has been established.

The best smoking experiences often come with the best marijuana buds. When flower is really good, you spark up and experience pleasant highs, great flavor, and relaxing aromas. The worst smoking experiences often come when flower is, well, just bad. We always want the “loud,” “fire,” “Private Reserve” weed, and want to avoid the “schwag,” “brick,” and “bunk” weed at all costs.

Identifying high-quality, or as people familiar to buying weed say, “top shelf” flower can throw even the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs for a loop, so here are a few key traits that separate today’s high-end strains from less desirable ones.

Top Shelf Flower

Let’s quickly define flower before we get started. The term flower refers to the dried and cured female cannabis plant’s blooms, often called “nugs” or “buds.” Flower is typically intoxicating — THC content is the primary indicator of euphoric potency — but some flower has high CBD content and will produce less intoxicating effects.

There are four main indicators when delineating between high-quality flower and subpar flower: Smell, look, feel, and flower structure.

Here are a few markers to help you identify the best marijuana for your money.

Indicators of High-Quality Flower

Smell

Cannabis cultivated and cured to the highest standards typically exhibits a pungent and pleasant aroma. Flowers emitting a strong fragrance are commonly referred to as having a “dank” or “loud” odor, indicating the overall quality of the flower. There are a variety of terms for the types of aromas high-quality cannabis emits, including “skunky,” “diesely” and “piney.”

Smelling Cannabis

The common denominator is that a good-smelling flower is distinct, pungent, and unmistakable; the stronger the fragrance is, the better.

Look

Varieties of Cannabis

High-end flower, like fresh, healthy produce, provides a few visual hints to help you determine its quality.

While all good cannabis should be visually appealing, a top-shelf strain can easily display an vibrant array of colors. Good-quality flowers are often a deep or lime green with flaming orange or red hairs. They can also express colors from deep purple to bright blue, but should never display brown tones.

Top Shelf Flower

Another important visual indicator is the amount of trichomes. Trichomes are the tiny, glimmering crystal-like appendages on the plant’s surface that create and hold the compounds responsible for the flower’s smell, flavor, and effects. The more trichomes you can see with the naked eye, the better indicator of the flower’s intoxicating and therapeutic potency.

Feel

Top shelf flower should be sticky and slightly spongy when you touch or gently squeeze it between your fingers. Stems should snap and the bud should be relatively easy to break apart, but shouldn’t be completely dry or crumble when you touch it. Alternatively, buds shouldn’t be too wet or soft, since these have a higher chance of developing or containing mold or mildew.

Hand Breaking Up Flower

Flower Structure

Skillfully cultivated and cured sativa-leaning flowers tend to be light and fluffy in shape and composition, while indicas tend to be tighter and denser in flower structure, though the structure and the experience usually have little to do with each other. Rock-hard flowers are a sign that cultivators may have used plant growth regulators, which can lead to an unpleasant taste. Extremely fluffy flowers could be a signal that the plant was not grown under sufficient light intensity and was not cultivated to its potential.

While “top-shelf flower is the hallmark of a great dispensary, good flower comes in many shapes and sizes — and has more than a few nicknames.

Trimmed Flower

Indicators of Subpar Quality

Smell

Low-quality flower can take on a variety of quirky fragrances, which are rarely good.  Often referred to as “schwag,” or “bottom shelf,” these low-end buds can reek of a musty or mildewy aroma. A musty or strawlike aroma is a clear indication of aged or compromised cannabis. Typically, when stored away from light and heat, cannabis has around a one-year shelf life before starting to really degrade. Unpleasant aromas are generally a sign of mishandling, poorly cured cannabis, or advanced age.

SmellBadWeed

Look

The appearance of low-quality flower is distinct. It can come in the form of discolored flower or an abundance of stems and seeds. There are many reasons for a discolored flower — mold, pesticides, chemicals, age. The bottom line is that you don’t want to buy it, let alone smoke it. One very important indicator is the appearance of amber-colored trichomes. With time, light, and heat, trichomes turn from clear to an amber hue. This is a dead giveaway that you’ve been swindled into last year’s harvest.

A sad sight, low-quality cannabis is seen in many shades of degradation. From dirt brown to an immature lime green flower, nature provides several visual clues when you’re looking at a good plant gone bad.

Bad Weed

Feel

When flower is of a lower quality, it will often be dry or brittle to the touch. Dry bud will feel light and airy with no weight behind it, unlike dense, sticky flower. Additionally, subpar flower will easily crumble when handled, or might even be falling apart. Loose, undone flower is called “shake” and should be avoided.

Crumble Bad Flower

Overly “wet” buds have stems that don’t snap and tend to stay put when squeezed. The extra moisture content makes for the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew. Wet nugs that tear apart rather than break apart are a sign that a cultivator didn’t properly dry and cure their cannabis.

Flower Structure

Poor flower structure can be easily detected with a discerning eye. While a properly cultivated flower will often be aesthetically pleasing, a carelessly grown plant can produce inferior-looking flowers.

Though a plant’s structure really says nothing about its chemical composition, it can still tell a story. Improper lighting or growing conditions can lead to “fluffy” or “airy” nugs, and while they may contain high levels of cannabinoids and terpenes, their density is still widely and harshly dismissed by the cannabis community.

The Best Indicator — Your Own Personal Taste

The search for a high-quality flower doesn’t have to be a tricky one. With a discerning eye, even novice cannabis smokers will be able to easily separate the great buds from the bad.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about what you like. What you prefer might be different than what the local budtender, delivery driver, or your friend likes. There are hundreds of strains grown by thousands of cultivators. The goal is to find the right one for you. It’s simply about finding the right product that works with your personal chemistry by a brand or cultivator that you like and can thus enjoy over and over again.

So get out there, look for the four main indicators — smell, look, feel, and flower structure — to find a strain that best suits your personal taste.