Is Growing Weed More Art or Science at This Point?

Colorado's cannabis industry is in the heart of a boom of branded wholesale growers.
Jacqueline Collins
Colorado's cannabis industry is in the heart of a boom of branded wholesale growers.
The unofficial résumé of a cannabis grower usually includes stops that can't be mentioned to the IRS, even here in Colorado, a state that's provided growers a legal home for nearly a decade now. But as more states legalize, Malek Noueiry just can't sit still. The longtime green thumb moved to Colorado ten years ago to become a medical marijuana caregiver before transitioning to the commercial space, managing cultivations for dispensaries such as LivWell and the now-extinct MMJ America in their early days. And Noueiry kept going, moving to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he co-owned a dispensary, then on to San Francisco to operate another grow.

A decade after he first arrived in Colorado, Noueiry now finds himself back in the Rockies, operating his new flower brand, Malek's Premium Cannabis, in the heart of a boom of branded wholesale growers. Even on crowded shelves, though, his flavor-packed strains like Strawberry Slurpee and Petrol Rainbow have already caught our noses, while his "kaiser" pre-rolls — joints that use rotini noodles as a mouth crutch, a stoner favorite — tug at our hearts.

We recently caught up with Noueiry to learn more about the man behind Malek's, and where he thinks the cultivation space is heading.

Westword: Is growing cannabis more science or art at this point?

Malek Noueiry: I think it's crossing from craft to science, but it's not quite there yet. It's moving toward the science, but it's coming from the craft world. There is the artistic side of cannabis, but there are these business and scientific sides to it, too, which are creating our industry.

Strain drops and branding are bigger than they've ever been, and dispensaries aren't viewed as main flower providers anymore. Has the power of growers increased over the past few years?

Absolutely. Originally it was all vertically integrated, so they forced people to play every hand. Naturally, not everyone does everything well. For example, I'm not big into retail, and my thing is creating top-end products. I'd rather get it to people who then sell it, and I'm sure there are some retail guys who don't view growing or making products as their "thing." I think that brought a lot of inconsistencies and not the best quality control, because these dispensaries were forced to do something they didn't necessarily understand how to do, or want to do. California kind of influences markets across the country, and I had a feeling that branding and pre-packaged products would become prevalent here and across the country once they did there. I know some people feel different, and prefer that deli-style still sticks around. But I think between quality control, branding and regulations, [flower] is going to be forced to be pre-packed.

People don't go to a liquor store because of the liquor store; they usually go to the liquor store because of what they want to drink on the shelf, and they choose whatever is closest to them or has the best price. So we want to create the best product on the shelf, but not own the shelf or the place where the product is sold. I think that's where cannabis is going. Hopefully, there is still room for those farmers' market and deli-style type of places, but I just think that's where the regulations are taking us.

click to enlarge Malek Noueiry launched Malek's Premium Cannabis launched in Colorado last October. - COURTESY OF MALEK NOUEIRY
Malek Noueiry launched Malek's Premium Cannabis launched in Colorado last October.
Courtesy of Malek Noueiry
What kind of strains do you prefer in the grow? Does growing commercially impact those decisions?

When focusing on flavor, I can't really lean toward yield. I do have to consider it, because I'm a fairly small producer in the big picture of Colorado. I have to balance those two, definitely, but I have to focus on what tastes the best. If something doesn't yield very well, I'll try to put it in the same room with a higher yielder so my overall yield isn't as bad. But I focus on flavor and terpene profile, mostly. One of our better yielders and terpene profiles comes from our Piña Grande, which is a cross of Pineapple Chunk and Skywalker OG. That's one of our favorites to grow, a staple, and I don't think we'll be saying goodbye to that.

How often does a grower's preference match a customer's?

I think there are different customers, obviously. Some people want a more craft situation, and they go more for quality than potency or packaging. Some people focus on potency and price, and then there are some that sort of play the big picture. I think the connoisseur end will alway be focused on flavor first and won't care about cannabinoid percentages. As the market gets more educated, people understand you're not necessarily going after a THC percentage, and you're really going after terpenes that taste and affect you the best.

Is it important to breed your own strains as a wholesale grower? What goes into selecting strains to partner up?

If you want to be a unique brand, I think it's imperative. If you want to be a general wholesaler, it's not as important. Being a general wholesaler is about growing what you know is successful, and getting it out there quick. That doesn't really benefit from the challenges of breeding. But if you want to be a long-term brand on the high end, it's imperative. You don't want to put out vanilla when everyone else is putting out vanilla.

Selecting partnering strains involves a lot of luck, chance, and trial and error. I can think two strains complement each other based on the way they grow or their terpene profiles, but a lot of times it's just up to chance. Sometimes you breed something and what the seeds produce isn't very good, and sometimes you breed stuff and it's just not sustainable because of yield or other factors. It's just taking a best shot at blending these profiles together. Sometimes it's about matching one strain with a good flavor profile with another strain that yields well. Sometimes you have something that doesn't yield very well but has an amazing terp profile, like Zkittlez. I have some seeds that are a cross of a higher yielder, like a Grease Monkey or Purple Punch, with Zkittlez. So we're basically hoping for a Zkittlez with better bud structure.

How long does it take for a new breeding project to come to fruition if everything goes well?

Creating the seeds, picking the seeds, popping the seeds and pheno-hunting, from beginning to end, probably takes seven or eight months, at best, to a year. Nothing is quick with growing, and you have to be patient. The best bet is to have a lot of things going on at once, so that way you're not just waiting on one project. You need to have a lot of rooms, so you stay busy and have a perpetual harvest.