Smell and taste go hand-in-hand. You’ll find a lot of overlap between smelling and tasting quality buds, but there’s a few particulars specific to the act of catching a whiff. Before we get into olfactory portion of assessing good buds, it helps to know how to go about it.
Pinch, don’t crush: First, to truly capture the scent of a strain, you’ll need to pinch the buds. Just a light pinch will do, enough to ruffle up the trichomes and unlock the terpenes trapped in the plant material. Because pinching can crush some of the trichomes, it’s best to do this on a single nug rather than crushing someone’s entire bag.
Waft if you can’t pinch: Second, note that pinching may not be allowed in a lot of dispensaries or retail shops. If you’re a customer, you may be banned from touching the buds before your purchase. If that’s the case, you’ll have to rely on the scent trapped in the container. To smell the container, please avoid shoving your face into the jar. Rather, waft your hand just above the container’s opening. This forces the air inside of the container up to your nose.
Keep the smoking to cannabis: Third, if you smoke tobacco, that’s your choice. But tobacco smoke wreaks havoc on the olfactory receptors in the nose (and on your taste buds), which can diminish your ability to fully enjoy the scent profile of your cannabis.
When a pot critic or connoisseur first smells good buds, they may note a sensation similar to some other plant. “This smells piney” or “This has a fruity quality” are some phrases you may hear.
Like the flavors in cannabis, the smells also come from terpenes. Terpenes don’t just affect the olfactory experience of cannabis, they can also affect the psychoactive experience, too. This likely has to do with the entourage effect, and many cannabis lovers will swear that certain terpenes seem correlated to certain types of highs.
For instance, strains that carry a heavy pine scent contain copious amounts of limonene. It may induce a sense of focus, which is why some strains are known for an “uplifting” effect. In contrast, myrcene, which smells kind of like fruity soil, is thought to be the terpene responsible for “couchlock.”
You don’t need to be a chemist to connect smells to heady effects. With time, as you appreciate your flowers’ aromatic bouquet before smoking, it’ll become second nature. But if you’re interested in terpene science, check out this list from Leafly.
The wrong aromas can tell us if we’re dealing with low-grade nugs. Even buds that look gorgeous may betray their low-grade status from a quick smell test.
Burnt/buttery smell: Bad buds may smell like burnt bud butter. If you’ve ever cooked your bud butter so long it started turning brown, you know that smell. That smell indicates the cannabis wasn’t cured. This cannabis was likely flash-dried in an oven. The smell is a lot more common in “schwag” brick weed, which we tend not to see in dispensaries today.
Burnt rubber/hair smell: If there’s a rancid scent coming from the buds, one that’s reminiscent of singeing your eyelashes, then you’re probably smelling neem oil. Raw neem oil is used on cannabis to ward off spider mites. In other words, if you’re smelling neem, your batch was probably grown during a mite infestation.
Mites happen. That’s just how it goes with enclosed, indoor grows. Although potentially smoking dead spider mites sounds pretty gross, it’s probably not dangerous for most people (unlike, say, smoking powdery mildew). Regardless, the smell of neem oil alone is enough to automatically downgrade that particular batch.
You may also smell roses or sandalwood on cannabis treated with neem oil. That’s because some companies sell scented neem oils mixed with other essential oils.
Cut grass/lawn clippings: If your buds smell like a freshly cut lawn, then you’re handling buds that weren’t cured properly. That lawn-clipping smell comes from ammonia, a natural byproduct of chlorophyll decomposition. Lawn-clipping weed happens for two reasons.
One, the buds were cured in a jar that wasn’t burped frequently. Closed containers trap the air and moisture inside. If the container isn’t regularly opened and its contents stirred, all that stale moisture (and ammonia) builds up inside, tainting the buds forever. If you’ve correctly done a jar cure, there should be no remaining lawn clipping smell once the nugs dry.
The other way this happens is an incomplete cure. If the buds are packaged before they completely dry, that dead-chlorophyll smell will linger.
Either way, smoking improperly cured buds is not good. They don’t burn efficiently because of the excess moisture, and they taste like sandy dirt.
Bathroom cleaner scent: I describe this smell as being “chemical,” for lack of a better term. Basically, it’s any smell that you know isn’t coming from the cannabis plant, because it has that bathroom-spray antiseptic quality. There’s a variety of products can create this smell. It usually boils down to pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.
If you’re smelling this on your buds, then you’re smelling product that had too much chemical assistance, wasn’t rinsed or wasn’t properly flushed. Either way, it’s probably safer to smoke something with more “natural” qualities.
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