Ever wondered what super science goes into producing your favorite cannabis items? We did, and that’s why Team Honeysuckle went behind the scenes at Choice Laboratories, Michigan’s first vertically-integrated cannabis producer, for a tour of everything from storage to extraction, processing and packaging. Chief Science Officer Zac Robertson led the way with enthusiasm, explaining the steps to making different forms of distillate and the importance of using outdoor-grown biomass.
Check out the full video of our Choice Labs tour!
Headquartered on a 10-acre campus in Jackson, Michigan, Choice operates grower and processor facilities and multiple provisioning centers. Run by brothers Wes and Jake Lutz, the company produces its own lines of signature edibles and vapes, but also white-label manufactures goods for various clients which are then delivered to Michigan dispensaries. Among the partner brands are Cookies from rapper Berner, Lil Wayne’s GKUA Ultra Premium, and Midnight Roots, a local company founded by award-winning cannabis advocate Jake Greba.
Robertson kicked off the tour at Choice’s biomass storage building. He explained that 75 percent of the 12,000 square-foot unit is used for cardboard and packaging storage, “a huge need for us in terms of the volume of edible packages, vape carts and various infused products we’re making,” but the remainder allows for the crucial step of preparing and freezing cannabis biomass. Each plant from Choice’s outdoor grow produces about 5-10 pounds of cannabis product and usable biomass, which are then mixed with ethanol to create distillate for infusion into edibles, vapes, and other items.
“We freeze all of our material, whether it’s fresh-frozen for hydrocarbon products or… ethanol for outdoor biomass,” said Robertson. “We [also] freeze our ethanol before extraction so we don’t pull any fats or waxes… [We’re] really working hard to have both our biomass and our solvents chilled, always as cold as possible.”
Chilling the biomass and ethanol ensures that the resulting oil will be extremely clean and free from impurities, while preserving the best effects of the plant’s THC content. At the extraction building, Choice technicians load the biomass from the freezers into centrifuges, pour ethanol in, and according to Robertson, “it functions like a washing machine; it soaks, it agitates and it spin-dries.” After drying, the mixture is run through a four-stage filtration system “and now we have tincture, now we have ethanol and THC and we’ve got to split those two apart, and we use what’s called a falling-film evaporator.”
The whole process, jokes Robertson, has a slight Breaking Bad vibe to it. “It sounds cheesy, but I call [the ethanol facility] my dream lab because it’s a dream come true,” he grins. “When I started in the black market, I was extracting… very small-scale comparatively to this.” The machines in the lab are all state-of-the-art extraction systems, everything is pristine, and sometimes the technicians even get to wear yellow Hazmat suits similar to those on the hit show.
For Robertson, who came to the cannabis industry after doing biomolecular and chemistry studies on chocolate, Choice has been an amazing home in which to explore how new extraction technologies affect various cannabis products. Professionals at the labs hand-sort through biomass and hydrocarbon materials to determine which is the best for producing which categories of items. For example, hydrocarbon is good at preserving terpene profiles, while the ethanol-biomass distillate makes for top-quality oils and vape cartridge bases. Distillate is also used to make dabbing products with lower price points, such as shatter, diamond, and live resin.
Dabbing items are kept in vacuum ovens for three to five days so their residual solvents, which might alter the THC’s potency if left in, are purged to state standards. Once the shatter and resins have been “cooked” enough, they are sent to third parties for full compliance testing.
The Michigan-grown strain known as “GMO” is a fan favorite at Choice, Robertson pointed out, especially in the form of shatter: “[It’s] very, very high in THC and high in [the terpene] myrcene, so it has that indica-like effect of making you sleepy.”
As ethanol is extracted during the later distillation process, Robertson showed us how decarboxylation (applying heat and pressure to convert acidic cannabinoids into non-acidic forms) also results in the extraction of crude oil, a dark viscous material which contains chlorophyll and other undesirable elements. Removing impurities from crude oil, you get distillate, which provides a powerful high when heated. “It’s like working with hot superglue that’s as expensive as wool,” Robertson commented.
Choice uses a large-scale white-film distillation machine manufactured by German-based company BTA. All ethanol mixes pass through the system at least twice, and generally makes Delta-9 THC distillate in the 87-90 percent range, meaning the percentage of pure THC which has been preserved from the original plant. The higher the amount of pure THC, the greater the oil’s potency and likelihood of achieving desired effects like improved sleep, pain relief, or reduced anxiety.
Once the distillate is processed, it too goes out for third-party testing and compliance, during which it is held in a “quarantine” state. When a batch of distillate passes its testing, it can then go to Choice’s production facility for vape and edible infusion.
Choice’s distinctive processes are endlessly fascinating. During the visit, Robertson marked what differentiates bio-available distillate from solventless bubble hash and non-bio-active THC. The lab’s pre-roll production was hypnotic, and it’s clear the technicians across all departments are having the time of their lives exploring the new frontiers of extraction. Our laboratory tour was truly a deep dive into cutting-edge cannabis.