There’s no question that we’re living in a golden age for concentrates— a greater federal tolerance for the marijuana industry and the widespread availability of extraction “tech” has dramatically increased the amount of concentrate available to patients and recreational users alike. However, the explosion in popularity of concentrates has also generated excess of misinformation circulating the internet, especially among amateur hash-makers.
Perhaps the most common questions among enthusiasts is “What is the difference between shatter and honeycomb wax?” and “Why does my concentrate look like ______? How do I make it look like _____?” A quick google search will yield an endless supply of contradicting “answers” from forum “experts” who demonstrate a tentative grasp of basic scientific principles. Even among bud-tenders, there seems to be little consensus or understanding with regards to how different forms of concentrate actually differ from one another. In this article, we will examine the difference between shatter, wax and sugar and speculate why light colored, translucent shatter is likely to be the most desirable product to consume.
Shatter Vs Wax
Just about every dispensary these days will have more than one form of hash outside the traditional pressed-trichome product that’s been around for centuries. While CO2 extracted “crumbles” and more liquid, pressure-extracted concentrates like “the clear” have become more common, this article will focus on butane-extracted hash (see our previous article on the benefits of closed-loop extraction).
BHO generally comes in two forms, shatter and wax (or crumble). Shatter tends to have a consistency ranging from sticky sap to a very stable, hard resin at room temperature and can have an appearance anywhere from a dark brown to a nearly translucent. Wax on the other hand, tends to be completely dry and crumbly and is sometimes referred to as “honeycomb” because of its resemblance. While both are made using the same solvent (butane) and a vacuum purging process, there are several factors that account for the difference between the two forms of concentrate.
As one might expect, wax/crumble is purged for longer at higher temperatures resulting in a drier more “completely purged” product that has less residual butane complexed within. However, butane isn’t the only compound that can be purged at 100°F and -29 mmHg. Under such a vacuum, the boiling point of all liquids are depressed.
More Than Just THC
When butane is used to extract THC from raw plant material, it also picks up a medley of other compounds including terpenes, plant fats, and chlorophyll (via micelle formation). The concentrations of these compounds vary as you move from the top of the cola to the roots of a marijuana plant which is why “trim run” and “nug run” extracts of the same plant can appear completely different. It should also be noted that n-butane is actually slightly water soluble at room temperature and can pick up some polar species which tend to make for darker, harsher concentrates (this is why dryness is important for both solvent and raw plant material).
While plant fats and chlorophyll are undesirable (and tend to burn, leaving ash behind), terpenes are the compounds that contribute to the smell and flavor of marijuana and some have been known for centuries to possess medicinal and practical value. Many of these compounds are volatile (meaning they start to evaporate) around room temperature so their concentrations begin to decrease as soon as a plant is cut and killed. The key to making the most pleasant, flavorful extracts is maintaining a full terpene profile while decreasing the butane content below the 3ppm taste threshold.
Basic thermodynamics determine that liquids boil more readily when held under vacuum. During a vacuum purge, the pressure can be reduced as low as -29 mmHg which lowers the boiling point of butane from 31°F to -96°F (and THC from 315°F to 195°F). In order to achieve a “complete purge” many will even apply additional heatwithout considering the consequences this will have on the volatile terpenes (which already evaporate at room temperature and normal pressure). This is the main reason why shatter tends to have a more potent taste/ smell when compared to crumbles.
At this point one must ask the question, “what’s more important? A full terpene profile or less residual butane present in the final product?” Ultimately while the THC concentrations in shatter will be greater than that of crumble (because of density), both have similar perceived “strength.” As many people use cannabis for many different reasons, the answer is entirely personal but it should be noted that residual concentrations of butane in either products has been deemed non-toxic to humans. With that in mind, I consider crumble to be over-purged product that is missing an ideal component, the natural terpenes (some folks try to add food-grade terpenes like ‘D-limonene’ but the end result is almost always unnatural and off-putting).
Judge A Book By Its Cover
While its impossible to know just how a concentrate will taste until you’ve tried it, there are certain traits to look out for that high-quality shatters seem to all have in common:
1.It will be transparent: “dewaxed” shatter will be free of any solids that would give it a cloudy appearance and will leave little residue behind when vaporized.
2. It will be light colored: the dark color to shatter is caused by solids and polar compounds that get picked up during extraction, usually attributable to the presence of water. Some of the best extract artists have suggested freezing fresh cut plant material to lock up water while maintaining a full terpene profile resulting in some spectacularly light, almost clear shatters.
3. It will smell strongly: high terpene concentrations will almost certainly give off a magnificent bouquet.
The consistency of shatter (from vicious ‘taffy’ to ‘stable’ shatter) will depend on the overall butane and terpene concentration, both which contribute to a more viscous product.
Shatter vs. Sugar
“Sugar” is the word used to describe shatter that has begun to resemble the consistency of wet sand while not completely drying out into crumble. Many have speculated that this could be strain-dependent while others have suggested that this results from shatter “sitting around for too long” or from residual butane escaping the shatter. While legitimate experimental data doesn’t yet exist on the subject, I believe the real answer to be a combination the previous suggestions.
I think sugar results from a natural separation of volatile components (butane and terpenes mostly) from non-volatile components. Different strains contain different concentrations of various terpenes and non-volatile molecules which explains why some strains naturally “want” to sugar up more than others. This process is accelerated by the vacuum purge which effectively increases the volatility of all components within the extract. Regardless, “sugaring up” suggests some degradation of the final product (which is why it generally tends to be priced cheaper than regular shatter of the same variety)
Though its often farmers and amateur chemists who end up constituting a large portion of the concentrate production industry (at least as long as it’s somewhat illegal), organic extraction/isolation of volatile compounds and most especially concentration of such under vacuum is a very delicate process even by a trained chemist’s standards. A scientific attention to detail and high grade starting material are often the difference between a Cannabis Cup winner and the discount crumble available at your local dispensary. Be aware of the differences between sugar, shatter and wax/crumble and use the guidelines we’ve mentioned while choosing your next concentrate (if you have such a luxury) and see if you don’t notice the difference.