What are cannabis concentrates and how do you consume them?

Cannabis concentrates appear in a variety of forms. Sometimes they're on full display, like weed oil in vaporizer cartridges, and other times they fly under the radar in medicated balms and edibles.

Those looking to fully appreciate the diverse world of cannabis concentrates have come to the right place. Here, we'll go over common types of cannabis concentrates and the different ways you can consume them as well as how to find the right product for your purposes. 

What are cannabis concentrates?
Concentrates let you experience cannabis in a multitude of ways; they come in a variety of textures and can be consumed using several different methods.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

What are concentrates and extracts?

Similar to that orange juice concentrate in the back of your freezer, cannabis concentrates are the product of distilling down the most desirable parts of the plant. They contain all the cannabinoids and terpenes of cannabis flowers and none of the excess plant material. Ounce for ounce, marijuana concentrates have a far greater proportion of cannabinoids and terpenes than raw cannabis flowers.

Cannabinoids and terpenes are responsible for the effects, aroma, and flavors you might experience with any cannabis product. They are found throughout the cannabis plant in small, sparkling structures called trichomes. A cannabis concentrate is simply a condensed accumulation of these trichomes. Grab any high-quality cannabis flower and you can see them for yourself. These frosty appendages coat the entire surface of the plant, but they're particularly noticeable on the flower buds. 

Concentrates let you experience the best parts of cannabis in a multitude of ways and they come in a variety of textures that can be consumed using several different methods. Depending on the final form they take, cannabis concentrates and extracts can be consumed on their own, sprinkled in a joint to increase the potency, or precisely incorporated in a batch of edibles. 

cannabis plant trichome
The most desirable cannabis compounds are found throughout the cannabis plant in small, sparkling structures called trichomes.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Is there a difference between a concentrate and an extract?

You may have heard the terms concentrate and extract used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference between the two. Extracts are a specific type of concentrate made using a solvent. So, while all extracts are concentrates, not all concentrates are extracts. 

For example, vanilla extract is produced by using alcohol as a solvent to pull out the desired flavor component, vanillin, from vanilla bean pods. Alcohol may also be used to make a cannabis extract, as is in the case with Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). But other solvents may be deployed as well, like butane for Butane Hash Oil (BHO) and supercritical CO2 for cannabis wax extracts.

Concentrates made without the use of solvents are produced using mechanical or physical means to remove and gather trichomes. Rosin, dry sift, and kief are all examples of concentrates made without the use of solvents.

Since extracts and concentrates come in a variety of textures, you always can't tell them apart just by looking at them. 

How to consume cannabis concentrates

In the same way that not all concentrates are extracts, not all concentrate customers are dabbers. Dabbing is the process of heating a concentrate or extract to the point that it vaporizes, producing a highly potent vapor the consumer can inhale. Dabbing is the most common consumption method associated with concentrated cannabis, which explains why you'll hear concentrates referred to as dabs. But these products can also be experienced via vape pens, tinctures, topicals, edibles, and more. 

In order to decide which concentrates and consumption methods will work best for you, first consider what you're looking to accomplish.

For a low-maintenance potency boost: top your flower

Adding powdered kief to your bowl or wrapping wax around a joint can up the potency of your smokeables with little extra effort. These methods don't require any of the expensive tools necessary to dab, while still increasing the potency of your smoke and adding extra flavor from the concentrate.

concentrate wax flower joint bowl
Adding powdered kief to your bowl or wrapping wax around a joint can up the potency of your smokeables with little extra effort.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

For an intensely potent, fast-acting high: dab

When most people talk about consuming cannabis concentrates, they're typically talking about vaporizing the concentrate using a dab rig. This method consists of heating the nail, or the dab rig equivalent of a bong bowl, and then applying the concentrate directly onto the hot surface, instantly turning it into an inhalable vapor. Most dab rigs are glass with nails made from either glass, ceramic, titanium, or quartz. And while the traditional method involves heating the nail with a torch, there are many user-friendly e-nails on the market now, too. 

Dab Rig with Torch
Dabbing consists of heating the nail, or the dab rig equivalent of a bong bowl, and then applying the concentrate directly onto the hot surface, instantly turning it into an inhalable vapor.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

It's also worth noting that high THC levels and dabbing are not synonymous. While high THC levels are still the norm, dabbable high-CBD concentrates and pure CBD distillate are becoming more popular as well. 

Related: How to use a dab rig 

For a light high on the go: use a vape pen

Pre-filled vape pens are a discreet, portable, and efficient way to consume cannabis concentrates. While they're unlikely to get you as high as a dab, the high does set in almost immediately. All you need is a pre-filled cartridge and a battery or an all-in-one vape pen. The cartridge's battery activates a heating element that warms the cannabis concentrate. Most vape pens are operated by pressing a button or, in the case of a buttonless pen, by simply taking a drag from the mouthpiece. Pre-filled cartridges and pens aren't refillable and need to be discarded after the concentrate runs out, but detachable batteries can be saved and reused many times.

concentrate wax dab pen vape
With a dab pen, you manually fill the chamber with any type of concentrate and attach the chamber to a battery.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

For a more customizable experience, consider using a dab pen. With a dab pen, you manually fill the chamber with any type of concentrate and attach the chamber to a battery. This method gives you the flexibility of a dab rig and the portability of a pre-filled vape pen.

Related: What are vapes and how do you use them?

For a long-lasting, smoke-free high: eat an edible

Edibles rarely make it into the cannabis concentrate conversation, but they should. Store-bought and homemade edibles alike are made possible by cannabis extracts. Much like vapes, they don't require special equipment and are easy for new consumers to try. And much like dabs, they can provide a long-lasting, potent high depending on the dose. The main difference between edibles and inhalables is the onset time. Inhale vapor or smoke and your high will kick in almost instantly; eat an edible and your high may take up to two hours to reveal itself. 

weed edibles
Store-bought and homemade edibles alike are made possible by cannabis extracts.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Related: What are edibles and how do you consume them?

For targeted relief: try a topical 

Similar to edibles, topicals are typically left out of concentrate conversations. But when applied topically, concentrated forms of cannabis may provide targeted relief without the head high.

cannabis topicals
When applied topically, concentrated forms of cannabis can provide targeted relief without the head high.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Related: Order cannabis topicals online

How to decode concentrate product descriptions

So, you've decided you want to dab, vape, or smoke a cannabis concentrate. Congratulations! Now you'll want to wrap your head around the countless terms used to describe these multifaceted cannabis products. 

Weed brands aren't trying to confuse you, but they do need to pack in many specifics to help you identify key product characteristics and qualities. For example, a product with the name “Nug Run Blue Dream Shatter” tells you three things:

  1. The strain of the cannabis plant used was Blue Dream.
  2. Nug run indicates that the plant material used to make the extract was dried and cured flower.
  3. The extract has a brittle consistency that shatters easily.

In the same way Reduced Fat Homogenized Ultra-Pasteurized Milk is more easily described as 2% milk, the many names for cannabis concentrates can be condensed down into a few categories (pun intended). Those categories are: 

  • The input material 
  • The extraction method
  • The resulting texture

Input material

The cannabis flower buds, leaves, and stems are collectively referred to as the starting, or input material. The input material can alter the resulting cannabinoid and terpene profile of the cannabis concentrate. Additionally, the quality or grade of the input material also affects the potency and flavor of the final product.

Nug run, as described above, indicates that dried and cured flower is the input material.

Trim run means the concentrate was produced using dried leaves removed from the harvested plant. 

Whole plant indicates that whole dried cannabis plants were used as the input material.

Live resin is used to show that fresh or flash-frozen, not dried, cannabis was used.

Extraction method

Cannabis concentrates are simply the accumulation of trichomes (the glands that store the cannabinoids and terpenes), but how extractors separate those trichomes from the starting material can vary greatly. Some methods strip out everything but one cannabinoid (like THC or CBD) while others leave the full range of compounds intact. Of all the various methods extractors use, they can generally be bucketed into two categories: solvent and solvent-free.

Solvent-free, or physical, separation. During the physical separation process, trichome glands are removed from the cannabis starting material using a physical action, like shaking or pressing. Think of the trichome glands as fruit on a tree; physical separation is similar to shaking a tree to remove the ripe fruit. When creating dry sift, for example, cannabis is shaken through a series of screens in specific sizes to ensure only the trichome heads make it through to the final product. Rosin is created using a targeted combination of heat and pressure to squeeze the desired compounds out of the plant. The key concept of physical separation is that a direct physical action results in the expression of trichomes.

Liquid solvent extraction. All solvent extractions use the same basic workflow: a liquid solvent is used to separate the active compounds from the trichome gland to yield a solution. This solution must be further refined until nothing but the desired compounds remain. Due to the volatility of these solvents, technicians typically use closed-loop extraction systems, which allow them to safely control elements like temperature and pressure in order to achieve the optimal result. Depending on the solvent selected, some sort of vacuum system is used to ensure complete solvent removal prior to consumption.

Texture

The terms that cause the most confusion (we're looking at you, shatter, badder, crumble, and sauce) simply describe a concentrate's appearance and texture. Even though most of these adjectives are fairly intuitive, things get confusing when they're stuffed into a jam-packed product description like Apple Fritter Live Resin Badder.

While the resulting textures aren't necessarily an indicator of how the concentrate will taste or affect an individual, they do affect the experience. Some people may prefer budder because it's easier to scoop while others prefer the flexibility of oil. As a result, there are no good or bad textures, just personal preferences. 

Shatter is known for its brittle, glass-like texture. It can also have a snap-and-pull consistency. (Imagine taffy candy being pulled really tight before snapping). Shatters usually have a golden yellow to bright amber color throughout.

Budder and badder are slightly oily and soft in texture. (Think of a stick of butter or thick cake batter.) They're malleable, easy to handle, and have a sun yellow to bright orange coloring. The butter-like consistency allows the extract to be easily used as a spread on blunts or joints, or to be dabbed using a dab rig.

Crumble is a brittle version of budder or badder. As the name suggests, it has a crumbly, honeycomb consistency. The color tends to be similar to budder or badder, but instead of having a glossy look, they tend to have a matte or dull finish.

shatter budder badder crumble concentrates consistencies
Top: Shatter, Badder
Bottom: Budder, Crumble
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Sugar is a term used for any concentrate that has a similar consistency to wet, sappy sugar. It's not uniform in nature and typically has colors ranging from bright yellow to deep amber.

Sauce is thick and viscous; it looks sticky. The color of sauce can range from deep amber to bright mustard. Sauce is similar to sugar in both its consistency and color, but has a more uniform and prominent crystalline structure.

Crystalline is a single, crystallized cannabinoid. Just as the name implies, THCA and CBD crystalline are white crystals that can vary in density and size from small rocks to powder.

Sugar Sauce Crystalline concentrate consistencies
Top: Sugar, Crystalline
Bottom: Sauce
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Bottom line

There are many avenues for experimenting with concentrates. To experiment with them safely, make sure you only shop from licensed brands and dispensaries

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on March 15, 2021.