CBD oil, as you might have noticed, is in everything these days, and “CBD ethanol extraction” is one of the many new phrases now entering the common lexicon. As with much of the burgeoning vocabulary around this popular cannabis-based supplement, ethanol extraction is a term both familiar and bizarre to the average person. You know what each of those words mean by themselves, but put them together and suddenly you’re left scratching your head.
To be fair, the origin story of the CBD craze itself—or more accurately, the multiple origin stories—is equally puzzling for many people. But even though they’re not sure where CBD comes from, or why it matters how it’s extracted, one thing is clear:
CBD is here to stay.
And maybe that’s all you really need to know. Maybe it’s enough to look at the ever-growing list of CBD-infused tinctures, topicals, edibles, drinkables, smokeables, and more with only the thought, “Hmmm, that looks interesting. Wonder if it’s any good?”
However, if you want to make that call with any confidence, it helps to know a little about the origins of CBD oil.
The answer, in a nutshell, is that CBD is extracted from plants, usually in the form of oil. You likely knew this already. But to paraphrase the old saying, the plant-based goodness is in the details.
So let’s take a closer look at how CBD gets from the farmer’s field to your kitchen cabinet—and why ethanol extraction is a sign your CBD will be worth the money.
What Is CBD, and Where Does It Come From?
Before we continue, here’s a quick Cliff Notes guide to CBD in case you need it:
- CBD is derived from the cannabis plant. The term cannabis can apply to both hemp and marijuana plants, but the over-the-counter CBD you buy is all derived from hemp (we’ll explain why in a second). Some people assume that CBD is just a slang term for cannabis, but this isn’t the case. That would be like saying “cheese” is slang for “pizza.”
- CBD is a molecule. Cannabis plants contain hundreds of different types of molecules, and CBD belongs to the most important family of molecules: cannabinoids, which studies have shown to have a wide range of potentially beneficial properties. In most cannabis plants, CBD is the second-most common cannabinoid.
- CBD won’t get you high. The reason cannabis gets you high is because of its THC content. THC is the most common cannabinoid in the plant, and it’s responsible for cannabis’ famously intoxicating effects. This is because THC “activates” a special class of cells called CB1 cannabinoid receptors—which aren’t activated by CBD.
- CBD is legal in (most of) the U.S. Hemp, which is legally defined as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent THC, was legalized across the U.S. by the 2018 Farm Bill. As a result, hemp-derived CBD also became legal at the federal level. A handful of states have imposed their own laws restricting the use of CBD, though these are subject to frequent legal challenges.
In any case, since hemp is nationally legal and marijuana is not, the CBD you see at your everyday pharmacy, supermarket, or health shop comes from hemp. Hemp has been a popular and versatile plant for most of human history, but the skyrocketing demand for CBD has meant that hemp cultivation is on the rise across the U.S.—and indeed, much of the world.
From Kentucky to Oregon, farmers are planting huge green fields of hemp in the spring and harvesting them in the fall. It’s definitely one of the most important steps of the process, since hemp is a bioaccumulator that eagerly soaks up whatever’s present in the soil where it grows. In fact, we have our own Rogue Bear Farm so we can keep a careful eye on what goes into our hemp.
But growing hemp is only the first step on its farm-to-table journey, so to speak. After it’s been planted, nurtured, and harvested, it’s time to extract the CBD.
What Is CBD Extraction?
Put simply, “CBD extraction” means separating the CBD (and other molecules) from the hemp plant’s biomass. By biomass, we’re talking about parts of the plant like its flowers, leaves, and stem.
These parts of the hemp plant are covered by tiny hair-like structures called trichomes, which produce a sticky substance called resin. Hemp resin contains CBD and other beneficial compounds. Think of these compounds like gold, and extraction like the process of mining.
As with any time of mining, there are a number of different ways to go about extracting CBD. These each have their own benefits and drawbacks, though some are obviously preferable to others.
Let’s take a closer look at those CBD extraction methods now.
What Are the Different Types of CBD Extraction?
Below, you’ll find five of the most common ways to extract CBD from hemp plants. These aren’t necessarily the only possible extraction methods, but they’re the ones used by the vast majority of companies out there:
- CO2 Extraction: This involves using supercritical carbon dioxide (basically, CO2 that’s both a liquid and a gas) to separate CBD from plant material. It’s clean and efficient, but it requires a great deal of complex equipment and highly experienced workers to operate it, which can make it a bit pricey.
- Steam Extraction: Here, the concept is roughly the same, except superheated steam is used to create clouds of CBD-rich vapor, which are then condensed and blended into an oil. Again, it’s a clean process, though a bit inefficient (and potentially dangerous, since the equipment can explode if not operated properly).
- Solvent Extraction: This method involves soaking the hemp biomass in a chemical like butane or propane, which pulls out the CBD from the biomass. While it’s cheap and efficient, it also runs the risk of leaving harmful residues behind in the extracted CBD. Even when these residues aren’t concentrated enough to be dangerous, they can have a negative impact on the CBD’s taste.
- Olive Oil Extraction: Hemp biomass is also soaked in this method, but this time the chemicals are swapped out for olive oil. The result is a clean, CBD-infused olive oil concoction. This method certainly has its appeal, but it’s both time consuming and ill-suited for any kind of extraction at scale.
- Ethanol Extraction: Used for thousands of years to create essential oils and other remedies, ethanol extraction works by soaking the hemp in an alcohol solution. The ethanol evaporates quickly and thoroughly, leaving only clean and tasty CBD in its wake.
Of these methods, the three most common are CO2, solvent, and ethanol extraction. Solvent extraction is generally the cheapest method, but it’s also the one that comes with the most red flags—after all, propane might be great for grilling, but few people are excited about ingesting it.
CO2 extraction dodges these concerns, but its purity comes at a (financial) price. CBD is already expensive, and companies that invest in the high tech laboratories required for CO2 extraction definitely aren’t eating those costs themselves.
Ethanol extraction, on the other hand, exists in a sort of Goldilocks Zone. It yields CBD that’s free of chemical residues and exorbitant price tags. Plus, since ethanol extraction has been around nearly as long as the concept of medicine itself, humans have had plenty of time to finetune the technique.
Here’s what you should know about it.
CBD Ethanol Extraction: How It Works
Ethanol extraction is sometimes referred to as alcohol extraction, but the two terms are interchangeable. No matter what you call it, the process is the same:
- Hemp biomass is placed into a large container and soaked in an ethanol solution, until the trichomes (along with the CBD and other compounds they contain) are separated and start to float around.
- The hemp biomass is removed.
- The ethanol solution is evaporated, leaving only the CBD and other compounds behind.
The ethanol solution itself can vary in a few key ways. First, there’s the question of purity. An ethanol solution that is more pure—for example, 100 percent ethanol versus 80 percent ethanol—will be quicker to evaporate, thus making it more cost-efficient to produce multiple batches. At the same time, purer solutions are also more flammable, so most companies dilute their solution to varying extents for safety purposes.
The temperature of an ethanol solution can also have a significant impact. Here’s a quick explanation:
- Warm ethanol extraction: Ideal for small batches, this method is relatively quick and easy, though it’s not great for producing CBD at scale. Plus, the warm solution decarboxylates—i.e. activates—the CBD and other hemp compounds before they can be processed, which means they can only be used to create a narrow range of products.
- Cold ethanol extraction: Like the name suggests, this form of extraction uses ethanol that has been chilled (or just left at room temperature) to separate CBD and other compounds from hemp. Since it doesn’t decarboxylate these compounds, it results in a more versatile extract—and one that can be produced at greater scale.
After the CBD and other compounds have been extracted, there’s still more work to be done. This varies depending on the company producing the CBD (and how they plan to use it), but it generally entails:
- Winterization: this involves removing unwanted waxes and other compounds from the CBD-rich extract
- Decarboxylation: following cold ethanol extraction, the CBD and other compounds have to be heated up before they become “active”
Ethanol extraction poses its challenges, to be sure, but it’s widely regarded as safe, and it can allow for CBD production at a scale that’s hard to beat. But that’s not all it has to offer you, the person who’ll actually end up using the CBD in question.
Why Ethanol Extraction Makes for Great CBD
The CBD world is a famously querulous one, and devotees of certain extraction methods can make a passionate case that their preferred method is the best one. As with many CBD-related questions, there’s no cut-and-dry answer to the question of “which CBD extraction method is best.”
Having said that, there are three simple reasons why ethanol extraction has stayed so popular for so long:
- It preserves CBD and other key hemp compounds. Unlike CO2, ethanol is a polar substance, meaning it can extract a wider range of substances. Cannabinoids like CBD aren’t the only valuable compounds found in hemp, after all. Molecules like terpenes and flavonoids also give the plant many of its powers, and ethanol extraction ensures you’re getting a full dose of hemp-based goodness.
- It doesn’t affect the taste of the CBD. Ethanol isn’t the only solvent that’s adept at pulling out all hemp’s compounds. But with the right equipment, it evaporates much more cleanly than alternatives like butane or propane. Not only does that mean there’s less chance of unwanted contaminants in your CBD, you’ll also get a better-tasting product.
- It keeps the price of CBD lower. Since ethanol extraction can produce large quantities of CBD at a brisk pace with (relatively) inexpensive equipment, it means that ethical CBD brands sell their products at more affordable prices while still keeping the lights on.
That’s an ultra-quick summary of the benefits of ethanol extraction. A full explanation could take all day, but for the average person, it’s enough to know that you’re getting CBD that’s tastier, more wholesome, and more budget-friendly.
The Bottom Line on CBD Ethanol Extraction
At Rogue Bear Farms, our full spectrum CBD tinctures—and our CBG tinctures, too—are made using ethanol extraction. We chose this method for a number of reasons, but our main goal was to provide you with safe, potent oils at the lowest price possible.
So far, we couldn’t be happier with the results. Our ethanol extraction process lets us keep things simple and focus on what we do best—growing the finest quality hemp in the country, and turning it into the kinds of extracts that can make a noticeable difference in people’s quality of life.
There’s more than one way to feed a cat, as the (modified) saying goes, but we’ve found the one that seems to work best. And if you give our CBD a try, we think you’ll agree.