We are all faced with forks in the road of life, but not all of us look down each path and boldly march toward the one with unfamiliar outcroppings and the least certain destination.
In 2008, Julie Berliner found herself at such a crossroads. Having just graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a bachelor’s in elementary education, Berliner was approached by a friend who loved her famous chocolate chip cookies—and who wanted her to create a cannabis-infused version he could sell as a private line at the collective he operated.
“I knew then that it would be one or the other,” she recalls. “If I was going to move into the marijuana industry, it would seal the deal with not getting a job in the education system. But I wanted to keep my doors open and was fascinated by the emerging marijuana industry—so I went for it.”
After experimenting with the butter extraction method and perfecting her cannabutter recipe, Berliner knew she was onto something, and in 2009, at the age of 23, went through the necessary licensing to open Sweet Grass Kitchen in Denver. “I realized that I had an incredible opportunity to not only create a career for myself, but also be a part of history,” recalls Berliner. “The legalization of marijuana is a movement of the people; it is something people are actively fighting for, and I wanted to be a part of that movement.”
The legalization of marijuana is a movement of the people; it is something people are actively fighting for, and I wanted to be a part of that movement.” —Julie Berliner, founder, Sweet Grass Kitchen
Within its first year of business, Sweet Grass had 15 or so customers around Denver, but Berliner knew she had an opportunity to continue to develop her business even further.
While most edibles manufacturers purchase cannabis wholesale and many companies use trimmings and stems to infuse their products because the marijuana flower is so much more expensive, Berliner began to rethink the quality of the ingredients she’d been using in her infusions. “For a long time, I was taking what I could find,” she admits, “but what’s tough about purchasing wholesale is that there is a very limited market as far as the quality and consistency of the product.”
Berliner’s solution was simple: “We now have our own cultivation,” she says. “We call it crop to table,” continues Berliner, explaining that she chose a single strain cultivation of a sativa-dominant hybrid, grown indoor, in soil and without hydroponics. “We’ve really refined our cultivation process,” comments Berliner. “We see everything from when the plant is a few inches tall to when it is infused.”
With cultivation giving her consistency and control over her ingredients, Berliner and Sweet Grass Kitchen Executive Chef Lauren Finesilver also reconsidered the standard infusion method, choosing to do a more costly full-flower extraction rather than using trim or stems. “We’ve seen that a full-flower extraction has a more effective and more medicinal effect on the consumer, and ultimately, we have a more premium product,” says Berliner.
With recreational and medicinal menus featuring a variety of cookies, brownies, seasonal products like pumpkin pie, and the ever-popular peanut butter and jelly cup, Sweet Grass Kitchen strives to create edibles that are not only delicious but, first and foremost, consistently dosed and safe. “Cannabis is a great fit for baking because it is so regimented,” explains Finesilver. “It’s very important to be precise in your measurements in any form of baking, and we’ve developed a formula that really perfects our potency.”
Flavor is also important to Finesilver, who admits that there are two camps when it comes to cannabis infusions: those who want to taste the flavor of the flower, and those who don’t. “It can be a double-edged sword,” admits Finesilver, “but I think it is important to have the cannabis taste, and there are some flavors that pair really well with cannabis’s very earthy taste. Chocolate is a natural, and mint is also a really nice pairing because it is an herb of the earth, like cannabis. The flavor can be a little overpowering with fruity pairings, but it’s all down to personal preference.”
Finesilver also notes that while flavor nuances are easily discernable when smoking cannabis, it is difficult to tease out the flavors of specific strains in the edible arena: “At the end of the day, it is a cookie, so it isn’t easy to say, ‘Oh yes, this is Blue Dream or Sour Diesel’; but that’s something I think people will continue to develop,” says Finesilver, adding that exploring new fat compounds (the agents the THC binds to) such as coconut oils, baking fat, and shortening will also offer new flavor and application alternatives.
But with a patchwork of ever-evolving codes regulating shelf-life and packaging restrictions on edibles, Finesilver, who dreams of being able to one day offer a menu featuring freshly-baked infused French pastries, admits that we’re just at the forefront of this developing field. “We have a long way to go,” she says; “we can’t have an éclair on our shelves because it is so perishable and not easily dosable, but everything is changing very quickly here in Colorado.”
Like Berliner, Finesilver, a classically trained chef, recalls that she too was at a fork in the road when a career in cannabis presented itself: “Everyone told me to be careful and warned that I might not get another chefing job after working in cannabis, but things have already changed so much. Now, if someone saw this on my resume, they’d say, ‘That’s cool!’”
And as the regulatory issues continue to iron themselves out, Finesilver calls upon professional chefs to join the charge driving the legal cannabis-infused industry. “We need more chefs!” she says emphatically. “We need good people who know what they’re doing in the kitchen and have the tools and techniques to continue developing this industry—not just people who are knowledgeable about marijuana. It’s a lot easier to learn about marijuana than it is to learn how to be a chef!”
As more and more people choose this path, the brighter, wider, and more certain it will become, thanks to those who’ve come down it before and fought for its legitimacy, one cookie at a time.