Marijuana plants starting to flower at a Denver marijuana grow in March 2013. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

A new breed of cannabis competition: The Grow-Off uses science to crown champs

Pay for play — that’s how many in the cannabis industry describe the countless competitions that have popped up over the years to crown the so-called best growers and makers of marijuana concentrates and pot-infused edibles.

While most of these award categories celebrate the Best Strain or Best Extract, industry insiders have long suggested that a more accurate trophy title would read something like: Spent Most Money on Booth and Sponsorship.

And that’s what’s so intriguing about the Grow-Off, a new marijuana-growing competition starting this year in Colorado’s recreational market. The Grow-Off, which plans on expanding to other regulated markets in 2017, gives each participant identical clones — the origin of which is completely unknown to the growers. Months later, Grow-Off organizers will assess the plants’ yields and take a sample of the product to a sponsoring lab, which will test the bud for potency and flavor profiles in lab-grade machines that retail in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nobody is getting high in this cannabis competition — setting the Grow-Off apart from other pot contests.

The Grow-Off will rely on science, not taste-testing judges or money-grabbing events, to determine its winners in three categories: yield, potency and flavor. And what happens between the clone distribution and the finish date all depends on individual growers’ best practices — making for a unique title in an industry that has only recently entered the government-regulated era.

Samantha Sandt and Jake Browne co-founded the Grow-Off with their partner Sohum Shah, not pictured. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)
Samantha Sandt and Jake Browne co-founded the Grow-Off with their partner Sohum Shah, not pictured. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

We caught up with Grow-Off co-founder Samantha Sandt — who, full disclosure, founded the competition with Cannabist pot critics Jake Browne and Sohum Shah — to learn more about the competition.

The Cannabist: What is the Grow-Off?

Samantha Sandt: The Grow-Off is the most revolutionary concept in cannabis competitions in the last three decades. We wanted to start everyone off on a level playing field with identical “clones” to see who can truly grow the best. Think about it this way: If you had a photography competition, the person who starts with a brand new digital camera has a huge advantage over the person using a disposable they bought at Walgreens. We’re giving everyone the same “camera” to start with, so it comes down to who can produce the best results.

Cannabist: How is it most different than other cannabis competitions?

Sandt: Everyone has followed the same model for years: Submit whatever you want, a panel of judges gets super-stoned, they score everything based on personal preference. We eliminate the subjectivity by grading everything through lab results for potency and flavor — and a score for yield. By introducing science into the competition circuit, we’ll not only educate the public on the growing process, but we’ll be able to help growers understand what works and what doesn’t in a way that’s never been done before.

Cannabist: You and your partners have experience in this industry. What are some of the dirty secrets of these other marijuana contests?

Sandt: When we talk to competitors, their main complaint with any contest is the lack of transparency. They don’t know why they placed where they did, so the feeling is that the more money you spend on booth space and advertising, the more likely you are to win. They wonder how a judge can evaluate that many strains in such a short period of time. They’re frustrated that a large dispensary can submit 10 or 20 different strains and dramatically increase their odds of winning. We eliminate all of that by releasing results, not accepting sponsorship dollars from competitors and using science as our measuring stick.

It’s tough, because I think you look at the High Times Cannabis Cup, which is the gold standard right now, you have to respect what they’ve done. There’s no accolade right now that’s more highly regarded than a Cup, and that reflects the years of hard work they’ve put into throwing great events. And then you have great local events like the THC Championship and The Rooster Cup out there fighting for a piece of that pie, as well, but I don’t think anyone has a silver bullet to deal with the perceived “dirty secrets.”

Cannabist: The Grow-Off’s tagline is ‘the quantitative quest for the best.’ So you all are relying on science to judge this end product? That makes sense for potency and yield. But you’re also judging the cannabis product’s flavor, which is a subjective, not scientific, measurement. How will that work?

Sandt: People ask us this question so often, we had to make a video explaining what “terpenes” even are. Basically, our labs have the ability to test for the chemical compounds that make up flavors we smell and taste in our bud. Most can identify 7-10 different flavors like Limonene, which, you guessed it, is the citrus we smell in Super Lemon Haze. It all speaks to how far the science has come since Jake and I started out in the industry back in 2010.

Cannabist: Tell me as much as you can about this plant’s genetics.

Sandt: This is where our growers are the most excited: We know what the plant is, but they don’t have a clue. Getting new genetics is like opening a new LEGO set on Christmas morning — but without the instructions. They know what they’re capable of building, but will they build it better than everyone else?

What I can say is that this plant has been a long-term breeding project at Dark Horse Genetics and has never been released to the public. Part of the challenge to our growers is to watch and learn as the plant grows. Does it look like an indica or sativa? What are the optimal nutrients? How long should it flower for? A lot of the general public has no idea how complex different strains of weed can be, so we look at this as another opportunity to show what these master growers experience.

Cannabist: Each competitor starts with the same clones. Is it realistic to expect that the final potencies of these products will vary all that much?

Sandt: We honestly don’t know, but we also think it’s crazy that no one has ever tried to figure that out. There simply hasn’t been a study like this in the history of cannabis. What we do know is that every grower is different. Some have told us they’re going to strictly grow to win the yield category, while others will hope to get the most flavor out of each nug. We also have competitors of all sizes, meaning a smaller grow might be able to spend more time and attention on the competition plant. We can’t wait for the awards ceremony in February to see what actually worked best.

Cannabist: What are some of the challenges of producing the Grow-Off while still operating legally and within Colorado regulations?

Sandt: We’re using regulation as a framework instead of something to look for gray areas in because our competitors work too hard and have too much at stake to put their licenses in jeopardy. However, I will say there are quite a few medical facilities, caregivers and home growers who are very upset they can’t compete. Most of this hinges on testing and how plants can enter grows legally, so we’ll continue to look to the regulatory framework and the Marijuana Enforcement Division for guidance.

Cannabist: This is the first Grow-Off, but what are your plans for future events?

Sandt: We’re already planning for 2017. We’ve earmarked our next set of genetics — which everyone is going to want — and we have plenty of outdoor growers who couldn’t compete this round that are dying to get in on round 2. In terms of expansion, states like Oregon and Washington jump out because they have regulations in place, and we’d love to be in Nevada once the market has had a chance to mature.

Cannabist: Your website mentions cash and supply prizes — but what exactly will these winners take home?

Sandt: Most importantly, they can say that they objectively grow some of the best cannabis in the state — and have real numbers that back them up. First place in potency, flavor and yield will take home a portion of the entry fees, a unique trophy, as well as a bounty of merchandise from our lead sponsor Cultivate Colorado, which has committed to $10,000 in prizes — including a little something for each competitor. We’ll also acknowledge runners up because to be near the top in a challenge like this is something to celebrate.

The Grow-Off: Cost for entry is $1,000, and deadline for entry is Aug. 29. Registrants will pick up clones on Aug. 30. Winners will be announced at a private awards ceremony in February 2017.