Tour Subdued Excitement

See How Pacific Northwest Grower Hits on Consistency, Quality, and Branding

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Subdued Excitement, a top-tier cannabis producer/processor out of Ferndale, Washington was started by three friends who have been snowboarding and growing weed together for twenty years. Sub X, as they’re affectionately known, has developed somewhat of a cult following in the Pacific Northwest, and co-owner, Nick Cihlar was kind enough to recently give me a tour.

Nick brought me into the mothering space first. This is where they keep their carefully selected females to provide cuttings for clones, allowing them to grow an entire crop genetically identical to its ‘mother.’

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Sub-X mothering space, using a deep water culture system

“The mother room is the heart of the operation,” Nick says. “We have two systems going here. We have the coco pots, but, they’re more like back up for us. They’re nice for rotation, but the deep culture system is really our production system. We get some spectacular growth with deep water culture.

Sub-X owner, Nick, talking about deep water culture

What is deep water culture?

It’s a hydroponic method of growing, where the plants are supported by rockwool, or as shown in the photos, clay balls called Hydroton, and the roots hang down in constantly recycling, nutrient-rich water that’s oxygenated and PH balanced for optimum growth.

 

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Nick pulling up a young mother plant to show the roots

Nick pulls up one of the smaller moms to so show the roots. You’d be amazed,” he says. “If you pull out one of the bigger moms, the roots can literally be the size and shape of the bucket.”

This can sometimes be a problem if the roots impede the water flow, but for Nick, taking the time to maintain this system is well worth the effort. I mean, just look at the size of those trunks!

“If you’re growing moms,” say Nick, “You want to get them as big as possible as fast as possible.” In some states, where growers are limited to a plant count, this can be a great way to grow flowering plants too by producing larger yields with bigger, yet fewer plants.

But here in Washington, producers like Sub X can grow as many plants as they like, focusing on the largest, fullest canopy possible. “We don’t use this for our flowering grow rooms,” says Nick, “But for moms, we were just blown away. It was like you could watch them during the day, and literally see them growing,” he says.

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Clones soaking in water

Nick walks me over to the clone prep room, where he shows me an intermediate step in the process I hadn’t seen before. The cuttings are rather large at first, with the stalks soaking in buckets of water.

They let these initial cuttings sit in the water for a couple of hours, sometimes overnight, then come back and cut them down to the smaller clones you’re probably familiar with.

Then, they place these into rockwool cubes. Rockwool, which is made from melted down and spun rock, is an industry standard hydroponic growth medium. Unlike organic growth media, like coco coir (made from coconut husks), the rock is inert. “It’s pretty cool to be able to start from absolute zero. There’s no EC there’s no PH there’s nothing. It’s just a way to hold the plant upright,” says Nick.

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Clones prepped and placed in rockwool

Until recently, Sub X used coco exclusively, but they’ve had some problems with the consistency of the medium, which, unfortunately made it difficult to maintain a consistent product. So now they’re at about 50% rockwool and 50% coco, and leaning more and more toward rockwool. Nick says, “It really helps not only to automate the system, but to make it more consistent. You’re getting the same thing from the start, every time.”

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A crop of Sunset Sherbet in the veg room

The next stage in the process is “vegging,” where the clones are allowed to grow and strengthen for a couple of weeks, depending on the strain and, well, just how fast they’re growing. Here is a nice long row of Sunset Sherbet in the early stages of growth.

 

 

Also in this area, they’ve got some moms growing as part of their ongoing ‘pheno-hunt’ project, where they grow out fifty to a hundred seeds of a certain strain, keeping only the females, and cloning them so each one has an exact match.

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Experimental mothers growing as part of a ‘pheno-hunt’ project

One of each pair is allowed to flower in an experimental grow room. They’ll harvest and go through various rounds of testing and selecting, eliminating, and testing some more (this is the fun part!), until they arrive at the particular plant with the perfect mix of phenotypes: THC content, terps, high yield, whatever they’re looking for in a particular strain. And then that plant’s corresponding match becomes one of their prized moms.

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Sub-X experimental grow room

“Why don’t we poke our heads into some flower rooms,” Nick says. They have five main production rooms, and two smaller experiment rooms which they use for the pheno-hunt, and for trying out new and different techniques to perfect their process.

Recently, they experimented with four different LED lighting manufacturers, and settled one called Fluence.   “The Fluence blew us away,” Nick says. “Their yield is comparable to the double-enders that we use in the production rooms, and the terps are just—it’s almost like different plants.”

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Another experimental grow room for the ‘pheno-hunt’

Here’s a production room with some Chem Cookies almost ready for harvest.

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A production room full of flowering Chem Cookies
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Close-up of flowering Chem Cookies
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One of their fuller grow rooms almost ready to harvest

Here’s a room-full of Orange Poison, where music is blaring and one of their master growers, Carl is doing what they call undergrowth trimming or “lollipopping.” Here, they remove the lower stems and growth that don’t receive as much light as the tops.

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Sub-X master grower ‘lollipopping’ some plants for better growth

Nick says, “It makes more sense to go through, cut off all that stuff, and let the plant focus all of it’s energy to the top of the canopy. That’s where the buds are; everything below is just wasted energy.”

Here’s a grow room with some younger plants, where they’ve been able to implement their new lighting setup. Nick and the team were so impressed with the Fluence LEDs, they decided to use it exclusively in this room. “So far, it’s been a resounding success,” says Nick. These full-spectrum lights are so bright, they actually had to install a dimmer switch and gradually increase the brightness over a period of days to avoid shocking the plants.

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Grow room using Fluence LEDs

Something else Sub X uses that I hadn’t seen before, are these green drip trays fitted to the tops of the rockwool cubes. I asked Nick to explain the purpose of the design.

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Drip tray system

“The idea is twofold,” he says. “Number 1, it keeps algae-buildup from happening on the tops of the cubes; and number 2, if you just have drippers, they’re going to drip down into a single place, into the rockwool cubes. You’ll get two very wet columns, and the rest of the cube won’t get very wet, but if you fill this entire thing up with water, it comes down over the entire surface area of the top of the cube, and you get a fuller drench.”

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Drip tray removed to show rockwool underneath

Speaking of watering, Sub X uses filtered rainwater and a series of Dositrons to automatically inject nutrients and additives in a preset ratio. Here’s what Nick calls their “feeding area.”

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Sub-X “feeding area,” where irrigation system is housed
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Dositron pumps used for irrigation

In a smaller garden or farm, some people prefer hand-watering and hand-mixing, but on an industrial scale, when consistency is key, using a pump system with automatic feeders is the way to go. “When it comes time to feed,” says Nick, “the pumps go on and each one of these Dositrons brings up a single additive. Your parameters are all programed, so they only bring up the amount that you need. You get the precision of computer-control, and the minimization of waste that comes with automating the process.”

Once a crop is harvested, they chop down the plants, remove all of the big fan leaves, and hang the buds in this drying room for one to two weeks, depending on the size.

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Gardeners hang-drying buds before the final cure

That’s the initial dry. Then everything is taken down off of the racks and trimmed a little bit further so it can fit in these tubs, where it will stay in the tubs for up to two weeks, depending on how dry it got.

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Buds rough-trimmed in tubs for initial cure

At this point, when the product is dry and somewhat cured, they’ll take it to the processing room to do the final trim. Then, they store the trimmed buds in these orange tubs for the final cure. Here’s some White Erkle, almost ready for packaging.

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Manicured buds in final curing process

Anything that doesn’t make it into these tubs that can still be used—all of the sugar leaves and larfy buds—go to the extraction room.

This is a common form of cannabis oil extraction, known as hydrocarbon extraction BHO, or ‘butane hash oil. The way it works, is you force a solvent—in this case butane—through a column filled with plant material. The butane strips all of the THC and other cannabinoids, as well as terpenes, from the plant material. When the butane is evaporated off, you’re left with pure cannabis oil in various forms depending on your method—wax, shatter, etc.

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Sub-X BHO extraction unit

Here are some sheets of shatter in a purging unit, where it’s kept at a very specific temperature in order for the butane to completely evaporate, while producing just the right consistency.

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Sheets of shatter being processed in a purging unit

As much as we’d all love to be able to take home an enormous pizza-sized sheet of wax or shatter, or a big five-gallon bucket of flower, you’ll never see anything like this in a store. Everything is broken down and packaged in-house for delivery to the stores.

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Jar of Sub-X flower: Orange Poison

Up here in the packaging area, the product is portioned and labeled, and sent on its way.

What really sets Subdued Excitement apart is their attention to consistency. From their deep water culture system they use with their moms, to their intense pheno-hunting process and constant experimentation and improvements, to their highly skilled extraction lab, producing top-tier wax and shatter, Sub X clearly values being able to put out a superior product and to do it consistently.

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Jars of Sub-X flower

Add to that, their on-point branding, and Sub X has all the ingredients to be not just a major player, and but a leader in Washington’s cannabis scene. Nick is humble about it though. For him and his partners, this just what they love to do.

He says, “I don’t think we’re doing anything special or different. You could say that a distinguishing feature for us is authenticity. All three of the major partners spent 20 years growing in the black market, and we’ve used that experience to learn how to do this properly. We’re not just people with money investing in this trying to take advantage of the gold rush mentality. We would be growing weed right now, whether it were legal or not.”