Behind Sweet Grass Kitchen's Cannabutter Adventure
Coming from Colorado, and particularly from Boulder, means that there's rarely a person I first meet who doesn't ask me about growing up in one of the most famously Marijuana-friendly cities in the U.S. I was definitely surrounded by it from a young age, a hippy beat culture where Hunter S. Thompson could run for the Sheriff of Aspen on a platform of drug-decriminalization, and where University of Colorado students come out in such great numbers that they can hot-box a pretty serious sized field every 4/20.
But Boulder and Denver are also very entrepreneurial, filled with creative people with big ideas, starting up their own companies. It makes sense being in one in one of the first two states to legalize the drug recreationally, it would start turning the use of this green into a legally legitimate industry. So when I returned for a visit for the first time since legalization wanted to look into the kinds of companies coming up in this new economy. Particularly those, given my love for all things baking, the edible specialists — a significant player in the new market. And I wanted to find one run by a badass lady.
I found Sweet Grass Kitchen, founded by Julie Berliner. Now based in a semi-secret spot in Denver, I got the personal tour of the surprisingly large and impeccably professional production facility, to learn how they infuse our favorite confections with that little extra something special, and how exactly one gets such a business off the ground.
JULIE ON STARTING SWEET GRASS
The concept of Sweet Grass was born in 2009. I had studied to be an elementary school teacher and had just graduated from CU Boulder. I was in this in-between phase of trying to find a job, and finding my place, in my career and in this world.
I had a really great recipe for chocolate chip cookies that were un-infused, and around this time in 2009 a lot of medical dispensaries were opening. A friend of mine had opened a shop just around the corner from where I lived in Boulder, 20th and Pearl Street. This was back before House Bill 1284, so the rules were really loose and you could really do whatever you wanted. People call it the Wild West now, but back then it was truly the Wild West, you could smoke onsite — it was crazy, it was awesome.
So when my friend asked me to make an infused version of my cookies, I was easily able to say “Sure, why not? We’ll make them out of my house,” and that’s how things got started.
It was a difficult time for me, because if I was really going to take this path and do this and if it didn’t go well, I probably couldn’t go back to teaching. So big risk there, but I’m very happy with my decision.
Then 2010 rolled around and House Bill 1284 became a reality, and it was time to build our own kitchen. In this business in general people have to be scrappy, because you can’t get loans. It’s complicated working with banks at all, let alone get financing from them. So I had pretty limited resources and came up with a creative way to build our kitchen on a budget and be agile within this industry that’s constantly changing.
I built our original kitchen in a race car trailer and parked it in this building. The trailer was hardwired to the facility. I was able because of that hard plumb and hardwiring to convince the city and the state to say yes and let me do this, because of course they don't want people driving around in a food truck with weed. So they said yes! Barely three short years later we totally outgrew it. Once recreational became legal, at the beginning of 2014. It was just not up to our needs as far as production, it wasn’t efficient — we just had one small oven and one small mixer. A really small space, less than 200 square feet within the kitchen itself, we were bursting at the seams.
At the end of last year we began our new project, which was building a commercial facility. We contracted a guy who coached the Olympic baking team, there is such a thing. But he came out, and helped us plan a really efficient production facility, one that can now handle the demand that we see on the recreational side. We’re in the old warehouse, we were lucky that we were able to break down a barrier and create a larger facility but keep the same address. It would’ve been a huge obstacle having not had that happen, licensing wise.
How it's Made
With our production process, the idea is that we're constantly in circular motion. Every step of our production has to have it's own space and dedicated area.
The grow here, these guys (plants) are coming down in ten days or so, maybe a little less, like seven. Most edibles companies don’t have their own cultivation, but we chose to do it even though we’re not obliged by state regulation. That way we can guarantee a consistent product from start to finish. We know from seed to sale everything that’s going into the product. Another thing we chose to do was pick one single strain, versus multiple different strains. Because it’s consistent and we know the effect is the same today as it will be a year for now.
3. SCALING AND MIXING
We do all of our ingredient scaling, pulling everything together. There’s a fridge where we keep a lot of cannabutter and things like that. All of our cannabutter is pre-scaled per recipe, everything has an RFID tag, it’s really tracked, so we can look at our RFID tag and batch number and pull it back to the actual plant it came from.
2. Making Cannabutter
What we do is first activate the THC, which is called decarboxylation. From there simmer it in butter and strain it — it’s a pretty simple process, but the cannabutter is a really healthy way to ingest edibles, versus other methods that are a little less natural. Like hash oil or putting straight hash in your edibles, is just not as clear to the body, not recognizable the way butter is.
(The actual process of how they make the butter is a secret, so I didn’t see how they produce the butter itself.)
From scaling and mixing it goes into the baking room, the oven. We’re making peanut butter and jelly cups, so the cooks are poking the peanut butter cup the minute they come out. Then they add the jelly.
So once it’s finished being baked, the product gets cooled and packaged. Now we're doing medical PB&J cups and single servings, the sample bites. The little sample cup is a brand new product adapted from the bigger medical versions. All of our finished product usually gets turned around in a week or so! They’re in a couple of stores now, but the full release is coming for this product, which is why they’re stocking up and doing a bunch of them now. Hopefully we’ll get a ton more orders after they’re released!