’Twas two months after harvest, when on sites by the Coast,
Gathered hundreds, nay thousands, who loved marijuana the most.
The buds had been taken from trimmers with care,
In hopes that a cannabis cup soon would be theirs.
The growers were nestled all snug in warm threads
While visions of winning danced in their heads.
And my friend in her brown hat and I, without cap,
Had just got in my car and looked at our map.
We drove to Fortuna where there arose such a clatter
Of chicken and dogs wondering what was the matter
The host opened the door and invited us in
The Lost Coast Ganja Cup was about to begin.
North Coast residents and spellbound tourists attend cannabis competitions across the Emerald Triangle every winter. Some of the contests are little more than a few friends gathering to compare their harvest. Most are by invitation only. Signs on fences and expressions on faces read: "Private." "Keep Out." One, the Emerald Cup, which takes place just north of Laytonville at Area 101, has multiple bands, comedians, and vendors -- all the trappings of more traditional festivals; it is the only Mendocino-, Trinity- or Humboldt-based event open to the public.
For marijuana enthusiasts, being in the Triangle at a cannabis cup provides an experience akin to a being a baseball fan at the World Series. But why do locals traipse through rain and mud, driving hours on dark nights down twisted mountain roads to get to these events? Well, for fun. The pure pleasure of interacting with folks who share a common interest and financial connection draws them out of the hills, just as farmers everywhere join with others of their kind to celebrate the harvest. Beyond that, though, they also go to learn and to prepare for a changing future. In some ways, the local cannabis cups are trade shows allowing growers to see, touch, smell (and maybe beat) the competition while gleaning information from their colleagues.
This year, the Emerald Cup was held on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 11. Earlier that same day, there was an invite-only competition in the north. The Journal managed to attend both.
The Lost Coast Ganja Cup (LCGC) in Fortuna is by invitation only. Around 50 people gathered at a private home on the outskirts of town. "This is the third year now," one of hosts, who prefers to be known as the Piano Man, explained. "We try to bring some dank weed and some good attitude." Cultivating cannabis in Humboldt for at least a couple years is a requirement for entering this event. Piano Man pointed out scornfully that many people who have just moved here want to claim that they are local growers. "[If] you don't even know your zip code yet, you're not Humboldt," he scoffed.
In other ways though, this competition welcomes diversity. The judges, for instance, were split 50/50 -- five male and five female -- on the theory that the women's tastes may differ slightly from the men's. One judge, Asia Anderson, exemplified this. Standing next to the Christmas tree, entries neatly jarred and labeled on a nearby table, she shimmered like a sugary pot fairy in a dress of Barbie doll pink. A marijuana leaf crown rested on her dark hair. She was so young that she still wears braces, and yet she had the sophisticated palate and knowledge of a seasoned smoker.
"When I taste the ganja, I like to taste the first note that hits my palate," she said as she broke down the judging process. "The second note [I taste] when I breathe in with it; and then I exhale tasting the third note. All those things are a consideration ... then the aftertaste in my mouth."
But flavor was only one aspect of what she judged. "I always look first before I smell," she said. "I look through a microscope and make sure that the crystals are at least 60 percent opaque--otherwise I know it was harvested too early. ... I like to snap a little bit of the stem." She demonstrated with Rattlesnake Bowl Big Bud, a late entry. "It wasn't bendy. It snapped right away. I squeezed it a little and it bounced back when I squished it. When I pull it apart -- two solid pieces. It didn't crumble. That's how I knew it has an awesome cure."
She picked up an elaborate bong and added a nugget to the bowl. "The last thing we look at is effect ... my favorite part," she laughed. After lighting, she inhaled, held for a short time and then thoughtfully released a slide of smoke.
The judges may have been thoughtful and calm but the growers as a whole were a bit nervous. One of the hosts of the LCGC, Humboldt Chick -- pretty, plump and a grower in her own right -- made a confession. "We talk about that placing amongst ourselves," she said. "I get nervous. Sick. It's very nerve-racking for me just because I'm so competitive."
But the stress and the rivalry were exhilarating, and they added to the excitement. She laughed with guilty pleasure as she added: "My husband and Piano Man are also competitors, and I just want to kick their butts. That's always fun."
The importance of winning cannot be overstated. This is what these people do for a living. This is how they support their children. For men, especially, their personal value is tied up in how others perceive their buds. Winning, or at least placing, gives growers bragging rights. Even growers who claimed not to be concerned whether they won or lost were visibly deflated when the cup winners were announced and their names were not called.
At these cups, talk swirled with the smoke that writhed from joints and bongs. Conversations about growing mixed with complaints about selling. "We put them in huge glass Italian jars." "If I had my druthers, I'd have everything cure for 50 days. Pharmacy really likes it fresh. I like it more broken down." "Selling is, of course, bad. A lot of competition."
One of the reasons the Piano Man, Humboldt Chick and her husband hold the cup is to facilitate these talks. People live far apart, and the Cup helps draw them together to share information and reinforces their sense of community. Humboldt Chick listed "furthering the education in cannabis" as one of her goals. She believes that knowledge about what strains help which medical conditions can come from meeting and comparing notes with each other.
At the Lost Coast Ganja Cup, the number of guests may have been small but the organizers hope someday it will be bigger. "One of my future dreams," Humboldt Chick said, "is to have the Cup in the park. I don't know if Fortuna is quite ready for that." Then, with a hint of frustration she added: "I don't feel like there is any difference between having Wine in the Park and Hops in the Park ... [Business owners] just need to open their eyes. People are coming in and spending money.
"And where is it coming from?" she snapped -- rapidly, angrily. "[Business owners] can't be in denial of who their customers are."
That evening, hours south of Fortuna, cars peeled off of Highway 101 and slid up a canyon road to park wherever a wide spot nudged an opening between deer brush and trees. Festival-goers slogged back down through the dark and mud to buses that swallowed up lines of partiers and belched them out in clouds of smoke. This was the big show -- the Emerald Cup. Tiny Christmas lights wrapped a large statue of a Hindu god with magic and sparkle in the winter bare branches of silvery birch trees. A large, oddly-shaped heart woven from more lights glowed weirdly from across the parking lot. Locals greeted each other with hugs, exchanging news of weed and worries. Wide-eyed wanderers from more urban settings tried to find their way amongst the maze of ramshackle buildings and tents. Stretch Hummers jostled ancient Subarus as VIPs vied for the few parking spots close to the venue.
Inside the main building, a glass case displayed this year's 141 entries. This is the heart of the Cup. Everyone passed by to stare and compare with their own buds -- either those they've grown or those they buy at the dispensary or dealers. Rock-hard, small sticky nuggets and large rambling purple beauties laid in rows like expensive chocolates in a candy box. Ooohs and aaahs competed with comments about the color and the quality of the manicure. Proud growers pointed out their entries to friends in muffled voices. For some, there was still trepidation at the prospect of being publicly known as a grower of ganja. In the next room, bands alternated with comedians. There was music and laughter as folks wearing a wild assortment of clothing -- men in white robes, women in short skirts, others wearing top hats and dread caps -- swirled, clapped and swayed.
For seven years, the Emerald Cup has slowly been emerging from the shadows. Each year the organizers grow bolder and reach out farther, drawing in marijuana tourists from as far away as Florida and Canada. As the history grows richer, the crowds grow more prestigious. Winners from previous years mingle with cannabis celebrities like Ed Rosenthal and Dale Gierenger. They wander amongst the crowd or dip behind the VIP door to sprawl on couches and chat with each other.
In spite of the changes, the outlaw image of the Emerald Cup remains real. Last year's winner, Hawaii Dave, could not enter this year's competition. In 2008, he had been arrested and charged with growing marijuana. In 2009, while awaiting trial, he bought Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman's zipties -- coded blue plastic strips the county sells to medical marijuana patients for $25 each, and which are used to distinguish legal medical marijuana plants from illegal black-market crop -- for the few plants he dared cultivate while under such close scrutiny. Good thing he did, because Mendocino sheriff deputies came knocking on his door. Last year, as he stood on the Emerald Cup stage clutching his trophy, choking shyly on his words, he sincerely thanked the officers explaining that the deputies "were in my greenhouse right before these babies were to be harvested." Because of the protective zipties, the officers politely left the plants alive, thus sparing his winning strain. But by early 2010, Dave's 2008 arrest resulted in jail time during the crucial growing season.
The arrest curtailed more than this year's growing. It also kept Dave from accepting job offers from marijuana collectives. His first place finish at the Emerald Cup had piqued several people's interest in his growing skills. But because marijuana laws are nebulous, Dave didn't want to do anything that might be conceived as illegal. He turned down the jobs. At one point, he had hoped to parley his win into a boat that would keep him floating as the tides of change washed across the cannabis world. But in the end, going to jail made the decision for him.
The outlaw culture makes winning fraught with danger. In past years, and probably this one as well, the public nature of the Emerald Cup has discouraged some from entering and others from accepting prizes they had won. For several of the first sessions of the Emerald Cup, a mysterious man won or placed highly but refused to step forward out of the shadows to claim his reward and the public's acknowledgement. In fact, in spite of the reality that the Emerald Cup is only open to medical growers -- thus making all entrants legal, theoretically -- Derek, who placed third both of the last two years, says that accepting his award publicly troubled him. He worries that being in the Cup could somehow get him into trouble with law enforcement, so like many others he declines to give his whole name. In fact, all of the top placers refused to give their name in both cups and most either wore hats and glasses to alter their appearance or did not allow their face be photographed.
Though the Emerald Cup maintains its outlaw kinship with the private cups being held throughout the Triangle, the area where it differs most widely is the entertainment. The other cups make do with CDs and iPods. This year's Emerald Cup was jam-packed with musicians, as well as a comedian or two sprinkled in to leaven the mix. There were several stages (some more primitive than others) filled with quality live music.
Less than 300 people were packed into the tiny room that contained the main stage, and the intimacy of the venue created a bond between the party-goer and the performer. Something in the proximity of musician to music lover pushed each to heights of passion. There was barely enough room to walk, let alone dance, but dance some people did. And one young singer acted as if he were playing the Astrodome in hopes of winning a Grammy. Sweat streamed down 21-year-old Lukas Nelson's face as he sang his heart out to the enthralled crowd. His passion never let up, and the crowd responded. They refused to let him leave the stage even though the cannabis awards were an hour overdue. At one point, the barefoot Nelson leaped into the air dozens of times, striking the guitar strings as if to force the notes to obey his will and they did. Then, in a move reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, Nelson landed on his knees and began picking the strings perfectly with his teeth.
The silver timbre of his voice, almost wry and self depreciating, carried echoes of his famous father, Willie Nelson. People in the crowd bent their heads together and whispered that they were watching a star rising. According to the editor of the Emerald Triangle News, Lucas Nelson himself said, "This was one of my best performances EVER tonight ... "
After such a show, the Cup results almost took a back seat. When a white-robed Swami gently tried to turn the crowd to the spiritual contemplation of the sacred herb, he had trouble bringing them together quietly. Eventually, though, the crowd hushed and joined him in saying ohms.
When the winners are announced, there always seems to be some poignant story; this year, the entrant who got second place, a man already on stage filming the awards, passed his camera to an onlooker, choked up and accepted the awards in the name of "my friend Doug, who gave me the entries. He died this spring. He won more cannabis competitions than I'll ever know."
The MC was clearly delighted to announce the first place winner as well. He related a little story about how, a half-hour before, as he had signed a small farm to the Mendocino Farmers Collective (the grower's group which sponsored the Cup), the man had offered some bud. "Try a little of this. I entered it in the cannabis cup. I'm number 117." Because of his duties, the MC already knew 117 was the winner. "It was very hard not to bust out and tell them they had won," the MC said later.
According to the winner, Sour Best Shit Ever, came from a strain started back in the ’70s. The judges described this entrant as "fuzzy-looking, velvety buds [which] had a good trim job and tasted of minty choc-coconut, apricots and a hint of mint. [I]t has an intoxicating aroma as it burns like a pine forest floor ... earthy. Produces clearing effects that would be great in the morning and make you babble mouthfuls of philosophy. ... "
Though the private cup and the public had many differences, their winners entered for much the same reasons. "I like to share what I have with everybody," the winner of the Lost Coast Ganja Cup said. "It's nice to come together at the end of the year to see what everybody has."
As a judge for the Emerald Cup suggested, there is more to these cups than just a big party. "We all live somewhat far apart," he said. "This is an excuse for all of us to get together, and cannabis is a excuse for us to communicate ... It seems like everyone is doing what they can to contribute ... We all have some sort of knowledge. If we can all get together on this planet to share that knowledge maybe life'll be much more peaceful and easy-going."
As the Cups ended...
The growers got in their trucks, to their mates gave a call
And away they all went until sometime next fall
But I heard them exclaim ere they drove out in low gear
"May there be sales for us all and for the North Coast a good-year."
And the 2010 Emerald Cup Winner isssss:
1st Place: "Sour Best Shit Ever." 19.62% THC, .25% CBD's
2nd Place: "Cheese." 17.78 %THC, .21% CBD's
3rd Place: "In the Pines Pineapple." 19.02% THC, .35 % CBD's
4th Place: "Headband." 23.20% THC, .26 % CBD's
5th Place: "Cheese to Please." 21.70% THC, .26% CBD's
6th Place: "Lemon Diesel." 19.56% THC, .20% CBD's
7th Place: "Pineapple Afghani." 21.65% THC, .28% CBD's
8th Place: "Kracky Tobacky." 18.85% THC, .57% CBD's
9th Place: "Purple Mr Nice." 7.40% THC, .14% CBD's
10th Place: "Maui Purple." 14.33% THC, .14% CBD's
And the 2010 Lost Coast Ganga Cup Winner issss....:
Best of Cup
1st Place: Blackberry Kush (indoor)
2nd Place: Blue Dream (outdoor)
3rd Place: The Bubba Ganoosh (indoor)
1st Place: Bubba Kush (indoor)
2nd Place: The Bubba Ganoosh (outdoor)
3rd Place: Blue Dream (indoor)
Best of Indoor
1st Place: BlackBerry Kush
2nd Place: Blue Dream
3rd Place: Cheese
Best of Outdoor
1st Place: Blue Dream
2nd Place: The Bubba Ganoosh
3rd Place: Mango