The way I remember it, I was sitting around the trim table with Tim Blake and some others back around 2000. We’d probably just smoked a tasty fatty, and we were playing weed-believe. “Someday they’ll sell joints already rolled in packs just like cigarettes,” speculated one stoner while I may well have offered, “… and there’ll be weed bars on every corner.”
No doubt it was Tim, who went on to be the founder of the Emerald Cup, who suggested, “I’d like to see a competition just like wines have where the best of the best is awarded at a big party where everyone can get high together.”
Tim has always been a big believer in dreams becoming reality and hence, in 2003, the Emerald Cup was conceived. Basically what happened was that Tim came to a handful of his friends and asked, “Are you willing to do this? It could be risky.”
Considering we’d already been taking risks for years working in the cannabis trade long before it was legal, it was a no-brainer. We all signed up to be judges.
It seemed so simple and old school back then, even if a little reckless. The rules were basic: it would be a completely blind judging of California organic, outdoor-grown flowers — the word “sungrown” had not even been coined back then. The few entries that came in that first year were dropped off with Tim directly and we got them in small ziplock baggies to sample. Most came from local acquaintances, as we couldn’t exactly advertise openly about the competition due to the laws, although Tim did brazenly put up a few posters around the Emerald Triangle to alert people to the event.
The brave and curious came, and no doubt a few undercover cops too. I seem to recall about 30 contestants. There must have been at least a couple of hundred people in the audience on the awards night at Area 101, Tim’s place in Laytonville, California. The Judges gathered in the back room and rolled up what was left from the entries and passed out joints among the guests, who were encouraged to light up. Local grower bands played rocking music but it was hard to see them on the stage through the thick smoke. The place was hopping and it was truly a group high, everyone was smoking the same weed as the judges.
First place that first year went to a surprise winner: the 80-year-old father of a friend of Tim’s, who grew his first plant in the backyard with his tomatoes. That’s a lot of firsts! I remember still how pure and tasty it was, we could feel the love right through it. I bet he grew killer tomatoes too! Dad was probably at home sleeping and never came to get his award, but his son was very proud.
Word of mouth spread quickly and the Emerald Cup grew more and more each subsequent year. It was apparent that this competition and the event were unique to Northern California, even though SoCal entries were always welcome. This was not High Times — there were no models in bikinis or questionable spectators. The cup was attended by real farmers and locals who were genuinely part of the scene. The spirit of celebration permeated it as harvest was finished and everyone was ready to share their flowers and party.
Over the years, as the crowd grew so did the offerings. By the third year at Area 101, I’d estimate there were 500 people squished into the main room for the awards and we must have had over 60 entries. By about the fourth year there was food available and a few booths selling pipes or T-shirts or historical marijuana containers. No one had the nerve to actually sell weed in the open yet. Tim added speaker panels after a few more years, so the event lasted a full day from noon until midnight. It just kept growing every year.
By 2013, it was apparent that the cup had outgrown Area 101 and even the Mateel Center in Humboldt where we had moved in 2012. Though larger than Area 101, the Mateel was too far from the city, too cold and still didn’t have enough space for the expanding cannabis community. That’s when Tim and the cup crew made the bold decision to move it to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.
Many people were skeptical about whether the vibe could move with the event, but that first year we proved it was possible. I’m guessing there must have been about 10,000 people. New categories, all still deemed “medical” at the time, were added to the awards presentation such as solvent-less concentrates, edibles and topicals, plus the Breeder’s Cup, for best new cultivar. The other major change happened when our friend and neighbor Casey O’Neill of Happy Day Farms valiantly brought some large mason jars of flowers (with Tim’s approval) and became the first official cannabis vendor ever at the Emerald Cup.
Considering Casey’s great success, in 2014 there was a line of growers and companies wanting to sell their products, all still organically sungrown. Visitors to the cup began to realize that what they could purchase at the cup was some of the best cannabis grown on the face of the earth. Plus, the Emerald Triangle vibe was enticing, fascinating and authentic even in the enormous Sonoma Fairgrounds. The crowd was always friendly and fun. Even on the wettest wintry days of December in the Bay Area, the sunshine was shining through the weed!
This December heralds the 16th Emerald Cup and we are expecting at least 30,000 people over the two-day event. The challenge remains the same: When we bring the mountains to the city, how do we retain that homey feel of the original cups?
Last year Swami and I helped host the first Area 101/Judges Lounge at the event and it was such a huge success that we’re doing it again, even better, this year. At the far end of the Lyttle Cow Palace we are creating a comfortable oasis in the midst of the bustling marketplace, where guests can chill out, enjoy a smoke, meet new friends, learn from elders, enjoy a massage chair session and take a cup of tea … and more. For a literal “high-light,” Frenchy Cannoli will again bring his hookah and set it up for group enjoyment the old-fashioned way. There will be cozy couches, sacred spaces and lots of plants – all reminiscent of the original Area 101 in Mendocino.
It’s nice to know that in this ever-changing new world of cannabis, where every day seems to bring some new challenge to just wanting to grow some good herb, there remains a place for the true tribe to gather. We still have lots of judging to do before Swami and I will once again announce the top flower awards on Sunday, Dec. 15th. Wish us luck … and I hope to see you at the Area 101/Judges Lounge at the Emerald Cup!
TELL US, do you smoke outdoor cannabis?