Operating a legal cannabis growing competition in multiple states was tough enough before COVID-19 arrived, but Grow-Off founders Sam Taylor and Jake Browne just keep climbing out of the well. The Colorado-based challenge for a state's best cannabis cultivators just wrapped up its latest round in the Rockies — this year's mystery strain and winners will be announced October 24 during the virtual awards show, which includes performances by Rachel Wolfson, David Gborie and Doug Benson — and Taylor and Browne plan to launch their contest in Oklahoma, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan next year after successfully expanding into California and Oregon.
Taylor and Browne, who scientifically test each competitor for yield, potency and terpene count, have seen their fair share of cannabis grown across the county. They have also encountered their fair share of obstacles while trying to host live events during an era of staying home. They moved their hard-seltzer festival, Fizz Fight, online while mulling over what to do with the Hash-Off, a cannabis-extraction competition they hope to revive next year.
We caught up with Taylor and Browne to learn more about the differences in cannabis from state to state, and how they continue rolling with the punches as event organizers.
Westword: Do you see the pandemic affecting innovation in the cannabis world, or does its underground past and essential status during stay-at-home orders keep that train moving?
Sam Taylor: Real cannabis OGs are a group of highly adaptable problem-solvers, so I think a pandemic was just another day at the grow. In many cases, we’re hearing that retailers can’t keep product on shelves and business is booming. Our soil sponsor, Royal Gold, told us in March, when this started, that people were buying up soil like toilet paper to prepare for shutdowns. Boveda and GreenBroz, our presenting sponsors, said they’ve been having one of their busiest years yet.
Jake Browne: I think people forget how tough it is for cannabis essential workers, though. If you’re a budtender, you’re dealing with frustrated people in an enclosed space with a mask on for eight hours straight. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a well-ventilated trim room. And any grower will tell you that plants don’t come with a pause button.
The Grow-Off is several different regions now. Have you ever used the same strain for different regions? What differences are you noticing between strains, growers and bud quality around the country as you test cannabis?
Sam: We try to work with local breeders in each state to celebrate and elevate their hard work. For instance, we’re about to launch Massachusetts with local award-winning breeder City Slicker Genetics. Cannarado is really the first name you think of when it comes to breeding in Colorado, and was a huge get for us. We have the utmost respect for state guidelines — [that's] part of the reason we’re still going — so we have to work with what we have. If the country goes federally legal, there will 100 percent be a nationwide Grow-Off.
Jake: Oregon is quietly growing some of the best cannabis in the country, and you’re seeing defectors from NorCal that are fed up with the legalization infrastructure there heading north. You’ve got Yoopers in Michigan that have indoor down to a science and will be making waves once that market is fully opened. But our buddy Dane says it best: “Growers are the phenotype.” The reason that cannabis doesn’t go away is because it can be grown anywhere; who grows it is what really matters.
Is there any sense of how long it takes a certain strain to "travel" from its state of origin to somewhere else? Like, how long do you think it takes a hot new Cookies or Chem variety to make its way from California to Michigan? And how close to the original pheno is it by the time the plant is grown across the county?
Sam: We’ve definitely seen that California is the trend setter. When MAC was getting popular here in Colorado, our friends in California thought it was old news.
Jake: Most consumers don’t realize that as soon as a strain was hype enough, you’d have dispensaries swapping labels on jars to help push product. One hundred percent fake. Now that pipeline is real. Strains are moving within six months of making it big on Instagram, but they’re just guessing if what they got is legit, because they’re going on photos. If someone handed me NYC Diesel that’s been sitting in a jar for a decade, I could call bullshit right away, but these faux-exotic strains have been crossed and backcrossed so many times that you can’t really tell them apart.
What's been going on with the Grow-Off since the pandemic began? Were you in the middle of any competitions at the time?
Sam: We actually launched in both California and Colorado during the pandemic. There’s always a clone pick-up day where growers come and select their competition plants and get to meet one another, but with travel being so risky, it was the first time we couldn’t physically attend the California event.
Jake: That was rough for us on so many levels. You develop relationships, have been seeing the same people since 2016 — and to have to do it over an iPad just isn’t the same.
How will you move forward with the Grow Off during the pandemic? How do you check in on growers and ensure consistency?
Sam: Launching California from a distance taught us that if we have the right boots on the ground, we can launch anywhere. The nice thing about our competition is that it’s almost naturally socially distanced, because it’s all about the growers doing their thing either out in a field or in a sanitized indoor environment. We also gave growers time slots and mandated masks, gloves and social distancing to ensure everyone’s safety.
Jake: We took our lumps trying to launch Oklahoma in September, though. Our partner emailed the morning plants were supposed to go out to let us know about a powdery mildew issue. From there, it was one problem after another that we would have spotted if we were there. Growers have to trust us, almost like they were adopting a puppy. If you send them home with a full-grown coyote with fleas, they’re going to be pissed.
Do you think streaming events have a shelf life, or will people continue to tune in as long as we wait out the pandemic?
Jake: I mean, streaming was here to stay pre-pandemic; COVID-19 just forced the world to throw brain gas on the innovation fire. I’ve been producing streams for comedian friends since March, and my biggest frustration is when I watch something else and ask, “Why does it matter I’m watching this live?” This is an interactive environment people are treating like terrestrial TV, so we’re doing live giveaways, polling, and creating a night that viewers can engage with.
Sam: I also think we have a unique opportunity to bring in talent we usually couldn’t get, because people can join us from anywhere in the world. I don’t think we’d ever be able to get Doug Benson to one of our intimate awards ceremonies, but now that he’s joining us for the Colorado live event, maybe he’ll be more apt to join us when we can do in-person parties in the (hopefully) near future!
When it comes to making a live stream feel “intimate,” this is obviously super important to us. Historically, our mandate for these parties has been “Growers don’t get a lot of time off of their farm, only a few of them will take home awards, so we need to make this the best night of their year." This year, our goal is “Let’s make this the best live-streamed event they’ve ever seen or been a part of.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.