Behind the bolted steel doors of an old brick warehouse, Big Wes meets a nutrient company scientist to see if he can increase his crop yield. Rows of hydroponic marijuana plants soak up solution flowing through plastic troughs and light blazing from high-pressure sodium lamps.
Big Wes has spent more than half his life calibrating his system of growing high-grade marijuana to its utmost efficiency. At 50 years old, he harvests a crop of dozens of plants every week from five rented warehouses scattered along the rutted streets and alleys around the docks of Oakland.
His problem is that OG Kush, the ultra-popular strain he specializes in, produces notoriously low yields of bud per plant. For this reason the scientist has come with a nutrient solution made from deep-sea algae, which he promises will boost the output. Big Wes — who asked that his real name or certain identifying traits not be revealed because his career could land him in federal prison — is going to test it against his usual concoction, and try 15 different combinations of the two.
Photos: A higher grade of pot
Big Wes is new breed of cultivator, a "master grower" who produces marijuana that is potent and mold-free, tastes smooth and has a pleasing aroma — the kind of product now expected by ever-more discriminating consumers who frequent medical cannabis dispensaries.
He and others like him have revolutionized weed in recent years, growing sophisticated new varietals with scientific precision and assembly-line efficiency. Their expanding role in the burgeoning industry is shifting cultivation from clandestine rural plots to highly controlled indoor grows in urban centers.
"It's kind of becoming the big leagues now," said Kyle Kushman, a writer for High Times magazine and a grower who teaches organic and "veganic" cultivation classes. "Just like any other industry, as it gets older, the talent gets better."
Pot connoisseurs can talk about the complexity of cannabis like vintners do wine. They detect sweet flavors, and musky ones, and hints of berries, sandalwood, citrus, mint, pine and almond. An array of more than a hundred chemicals called terpenes brings out the taste and aroma.
Dusting the buds like a light snow are resin glands full of 80 or more cannabinoids, most notably the psychoactive one, THC.
According to George Van Patten, a.k.a. Jorge Cervantes, a renowned grower and author of the 484-page "Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower's Bible," the many combinations of these chemicals produce a complex range of sensations.
"This explains why certain medical patients find more relief with specific varieties," he said. "The THC molecule is the same in all cannabis plants. It is the mixture of other elements that play a vital role in changing the psychoactive effect."
Two decades ago, most marijuana smokers bought whatever their dealer had. Now, in the retail environment that sprang up with California's legalization of medical marijuana, they can choose from hundreds of strains of high-quality cannabis.
"Consumers have quickly developed a sophisticated palate," said Andrew McBeth, publisher at the marijuana niche Green Candy Press. "Like fine wine, the marijuana must look amazing, have a distinctive bouquet and have the cachet of being a well-known and popular strain."
The title "master grower" is part of the new marketing. The true connoisseurs scoff at the use of the label except in reference to a handful of the best growers in the world, like Cervantes.
But none dispute the high level of craftsmanship going into cultivation these days, both indoor and outdoor.
"All boats are rising," Cervantes said.
Part of this is due to information. In the past, growers didn't admit what they did, much less discuss their techniques. Now they have written dozens of books and penned a steady stream of articles in print and online. They even teach classes at pot trade schools like Oaksterdam University in Oakland.
Wally, in-house grower for a warehouse dispensary in Long Beach, spent years honing his skills on the underground market after realizing pot helped tamp down the tics he suffered from Tourette's syndrome. A 36-year-old native of Santa Cruz, he first worked trimming the marijuana harvest for older hippies.