There are millions of recipes for granola, but few involve a gram scale.
The scale is one of the first things that Stephany Gocobachi and Akhil Khadse bring out when they start a batch of medicated granola for Flour Child, their new enterprise. As the oven in their sunny Tendernob studio preheats, Gocobachi, a bright-eyed, voluble 25-year-old, weighs a minuscule amount of powdery green hashish, then tips it into a small saute pan of oil, raw sugar and maple syrup. Slowly, gently, she heats it up to convert the THCA in the cannabis resin into the psychoactive molecule THC.
Then she pours the potent mixture over organic rolled oats and seeds.
These days, anyone with a prescription for medical marijuana can shop for cannabis edibles in enough forms to stock a 7-Eleven: honeys, peanut butters, smoothies, ice creams, caramels, gummy bears, chocolates — not to mention the more traditional cookies and brownies. Most, to be frank, are functional foods targeted toward stoners — sugary and mind-blowingly potent.
Flour Child’s line of jams and granolas, in contrast, are everything that resonates with the Bay Area culinary ethos circa 2015: local, seasonable, sustainably grown, free of chemicals, perhaps a wee bit precious. They represent a new class of medical marijuana products — meant to be savored for their taste, not just for their ability to turn an eater into a puddle of goo.
Artisanal “medibles“ have arrived.
Cannabis chef Khadse and Gocobachi have all the qualifications you’d want in a cannabis chef:
Khadse, 29, cooked professionally for more than a decade in New York before moving here two years ago with Gocobachi, a New York University grad who majored in food sustainability and social entrepreneurship. The couple worked at the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market — Khadse as sous chef, Gocobachi as produce buyer — before quitting last month to pursue Flour Child. Gocobachi, a San Francisco native, says the move is the culmination of plans she has been fomenting since she obtained a medical marijuana card at the age of 18.
It has taken the couple several years to get their business off the ground. Some of that, of course, is due to normal startup concerns: raising seed funds, landing suppliers, securing the help of designer friends to create the logo and labels.
Unlike most small businesses, though, every other step requires a lawyer — and not just any lawyer, but one versed in state medical marijuana laws and guidelines.
“California is really tricky compared to Colorado and Washington because of the regulatory scheme we’re in,” says Tiffany Wu, a Harvard-educated attorney specializing in the cannabis industry.
To operate as above-board as possible, Wu says, a company like Flour Child must navigate a hazy, constantly shifting terrain. It will have to incorporate as a nonprofit collective corporation in California, though the federal government won’t give it tax-exempt status. Each producer has to observe both state medical-marijuana guidelines as well as local guidelines for every city in which it wants to sell its products. Just as individual medical marijuana cardholders do, a producer has to “join” every dispensary it sells products through, so that makers, sellers and eaters technically belong to the same collective.
Then there’s the issue of banking. Most banks, which are federally regulated, are banned from laundering money from businesses involving Schedule I drugs. Equally vexing: The IRS does not allow medibles makers to deduct any business expenses — labor, rent, lawyers — beyond the cost of raw materials.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years. Nationwide, the value of the legal marijuana industry in 2014 was estimated at $2.7 billion. Yet many people in the industry still operate as if they could go to jail at any moment.
“There are still a lot of people who do this in the dark,” Wu says. “They don’t form corporations, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t want to bring any attention to themselves. But more and more people are coming to me and trying to go legit.”
One of the businesses aiming for 100 percent legitimacy is Madame Munchie, a San Francisco collective that makes delicate Parisian-style macarons — almond-meal cookie sandwiches filled with cannabis-infused nut butter or chocolate ganache. Ashley Martino and Kim Geraghty formed the collective just 2½ years ago. After winning High Times magazine’s Northern California Cannabis Cup in 2014, demand for their products took off.
“I come from a background in really conservative jobs,” Geraghty says. “I’ve never set myself up to be outside the law, and I don’t want to be.” Success has brought enough money to pay rent, yes, but also more challenges. Madame Munchie can’t take debit cards or process online transactions — and more significantly, the collective is not allowed to trademark its brand.
“Trust is a very important factor in this industry,” Geraghty adds. Madame Munchie is fortunate in that Martino’s family has been in the cannabis industry for 30 years, so they can reliably obtain high-quality marijuana from a source they know. The two trust all their employees, too, but since their transactions are all cash, they make most of the deliveries — as far as Los Angeles and San Diego — themselves.
Designing a new artisanal medible involves several technical challenges unique to the industry.
Ensuring potency, for one. One of the newest producers is Stephanie Hua, a San Francisco food writer and cooking-school grad whose artisanal marshmallow company, Mellows, debuted at the end of July. “I’m a lightweight,” she says, “and so as I was discovering different products on the market, I was finding that almost everything out there was way too strong for me. I would have to take one gummy and split it into 10 pieces or more.”
Hua came up with 1-inch-square handmade marshmallows that she coats in pretzels and peanut butter, say, or birthday-cake sprinkles. Each contains no more than 5 mg. of THC. She infuses the marshmallows with a concentrate (a “shatter”) from a single strain of Red Congolese sativa whose effects she enjoys. A lab tests the concentrate for potency and contaminants, and Hua has the finished marshmallows tested again to ensure they’re no stronger than the label says — an expensive extra step.
Finding the right packaging delayed Mellows’ release. San Francisco requires opaque boxes or bags for any edible that might be attractive to a child. Although Hua wanted her boxes to look suave and high end, she couldn’t print too much on them lest the rules change. Her solution was to wrap each sleek white box with a cardboard band that clearly states “Medical Cannabis,” “Not a Food” and “For Medical Use Only.”
Finding the right strain of marijuana and figuring out how to use it is not the only concern. For these new producers, there’s also, you know, flavor.
The complex aroma of good marijuana ranges from the elegantly herbaceous to spicy, resinous, fruity, floral, even musky. Some producers hide or minimize the flavor in their baked goods and confections; much of the infused butter or oil is made with “trim” (leaves left over after the smokable buds are clipped), and its taste leans toward the vegetal.
In contrast, many of the new artisanal medibles incorporate the piney flavor of pot instead of masking it. Hua, for one, enjoys a bit of pot flavor in her marshmallows. She says that it reminds tasters they are consuming a medicated treat — a last warning signal, if you will. She finds the best marriage of flavorings in her sage-brown butter marshmallows, where the sage and marijuana wrap around each other like a bouquet of fresh herbs.
Flour Child takes the focus on cannabis flavor a step further.
“When we figure out what fruits we’re using, and figure out what we’re actually making, we try to pair the hash so it’s complementary with whatever we’re making,” Khadse says.
“Darker fruits like blackberry or strawberry can stand up to an earthier hash,” adds Gocobachi, “whereas if it’s a really delicate fruit, we source something that’s more citrusy, like a Lemon Diesel (a strain of marijuana) or something that complements the jam rather than fights with it.”
Key for the couple is that all the ingredients in their products — fruits, herbs, grains — share the same sort of pedigree. They obtain French Laundry hash from Hepburns, a women-owned collective they belong to. The resin is made the old-fashioned way, with ice water and fine screens — not by prevailing methods that use hexane, butane or other chemical solvents.
“If this is supposed to be a medicine, why are you combining it with things that are not good for your body?” Gocobachi says.
That is, in fact, the rub. Is a medicated marshmallow a medicine, an illegal drug or a foodstuff?
San Francisco can’t quite decide. The city and Berkeley both have some of the most stringent regulations in the state, requiring that medibles cooks follow all the rules of the California Homemade Foods Act (the “cottage food” law) and obtain food handlers’ safety permits. Yet for legal reasons, San Francisco insists that medible jams and marshmallows are not a food.
Within the world of medical marijuana, there’s a lot of wink-wink, nudge-nudge. You can talk to someone seriously for an hour about the therapeutic effects of CBD before they giggle over being featured in The Chronicle (chronic is a term for high-quality marijuana) and where the most pharmaceutical-looking dispensary offers strains named Romulan Diesel and Veganic Hella Kitty. It’s not hard to guess the target market for bubblegum cookies or s’mores brownies with 330 mg of THC.
Producers like Madame Munchie and Flour Child are after a different customer, one who is either reluctant to treat her illness with a drug she’s been warned off for decades or who is a dabbler who doesn’t, honestly, want to get wrecked.
“When I’m cooking jams, I’m thinking of my grandpa or my mom,” Khadse says. A standard dose of Flour Child’s strawberry-indica jam would be a single teaspoon, which would contain between 3 and 5 mg of THC, which could be spread over toast or stirred into yogurt.
Cheffettes owner Molly Poiset, a former interior designer who studied pastry at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, says that when her daughter had leukemia and was in the hospital, barely able to swallow, she envisioned how to give the severely ill a way to take medicine that isn’t in pill form — that would give them, in fact, a moment of pleasure.
After spending several years in Washington state and Colorado studying the cannabis industry, she moved to the Bay Area last fall to be near her grandchildren — and launch her high-end dessert business. Cheffettes’ two inaugural truffle flavors, smoked chocolate and Margarita truffles with lime Tequila and sea salt, look as if they belong in a Hayes Valley boutique. They contain 5.5 mg of THC each, and a box of eight costs $75.
“Two and a half years ago, it was all stoner culture,” she says. “There wasn’t any thought that you would want to appeal to people with a more sophisticated mind-set. I just saw this niche that was not being filled.”
All the makers of low-dose, flavor-centric medibles say that they’re entering the market before the market is completely ready to accept them. Some dispensary owners, who tend to be high-tolerance users, won’t pick up any product too mild to affect them.
More and more, though, dispensaries and artisanal medibles makers are taking their cues from the rest of the country.
In November 2012, Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, followed more recently by Alaska and Oregon. Colorado then fielded scores of complaints and emergency-room visits from newbies who overindulged in edibles — including a New York Times columnist who spent eight hours collapsed in a Denver hotel room feeling the wales of her green corduroy jeans.
In February 2015, a new Colorado state law went into effect requiring edibles makers to reduce the THC content of each unit of their product — whether it be a whole cookie or one square of a chocolate bar — to 10 mg.
It appears that at least one California measure to legalize recreational pot sales will make it onto the ballot in 2016. A commission led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom released a report last month that, clearly taking a lesson from Colorado, calls for child-safe packaging as well as limits on the amount of THC each packaged good can contain.
The medicalization of marijuana, in fact, with all the testing and measurements that it entails, may be the factor that ensures the future success of artisanal medibles. By giving people a tool for measuring how much THC they can safely ingest, as well as how much each bite or portion contains, people can pick up a bag of medicated granola, marshmallows or chocolates and control their high.
“Instead of taking a great bottle of wine over to a friend’s house for dinner,” says Cheffettes’ Poiset, “you can take a box of truffles, and everybody can have a nice after-dinner dessert and a good night’s sleep.”
Jonathan Kauffman is a staff writer at The Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jonkauffman.
THC: Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most commonly known chemical compound in marijuana. THC is what gets people high.
CBD: Cannabidiol is the second major cannabinoid, or chemical compound, found in marijuana. Very mildly psychoactive, it has anti-inflammatory properties as well as other potential medical applications.
Sativa: One of the two variants of hemp known as “marijuana.” Sativa strains are known for having a more uplifting, “heady” and possibly anxiety-producing effect.
Indica: The other major variant of marijuana is generally attributed with producing sleepy, body-focused effects.
Hybrid: Most of the strains on the market are crosses between sativa and indica variants, bred for both the plant’s physical characteristics and the quality of the high the strain produces.
Dispensary: A store or delivery service that sells medical marijuana. In California, patients, growers and edible producers must all be members of the nonprofit collective.
Profiled in this issue
Produces jams, granola and CBD-rich topical balms.
Produces marshmallows in seven flavors.
Produces Parisian-style macarons in five flavors. Available at close to 40 dispensaries across the state; check the website for nearby dispensaries or delivery services.
Produces truffles in two flavors.
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