How to Read COAs and Analyze Hemp Strains Like You Know What You’re Doing

January 22, 2020
Category: Hemp

If you’ve been in the hemp world for more than 15 seconds, you’ve been bombarded with COAs. Here’s how to read them for all they’re worth and not lose your shirt when trying to decide who to trust.

Behind the Curtain

A Certificate of Analysis (shortened to COA) is a document produced by a lab that shows the chemical compound of a given sample.

Sample COA - The Wife Hemp Clone

From the growing side of hemp, most people are concerned with THC content, CBD content, and the Terpene Profiles. As you read these lab results, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Remember, the COA that you are given is only representative of the sample provided to the lab, not the strain in general.

The lab has no way to verify that the sample they receive is really the strain that’s labeled and whether or not it was cherry-picked from a premium area in the field or the plant. The results are simply a narrow snapshot of one particular sample.

How to Guard Yourself Against Cherry-Picked COAs:

1. Order from a trusted source.

Anyone submitting samples to lab has a lot of control over what they submit, so don’t just look at the numbers. Keep the reputation of the company in mind, too. If your spidey senses start tingling, look for someone else to do business with. And don’t be afraid to ask around–the hemp world is small. Check out their online reviews, and if you’re close enough, schedule a tour of their growing facilities.

2. Ask for more than one COA per strain.

A single COA is like posting your best vacation photo to Facebook. A series of COAs is like watching a home movie that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Labs make mistakes, and farms make mistakes, because, well, people make mistakes. Getting more than one COA per strain will give you a broader picture than a single snapshot of one plant at one point in time. Most growers and breeders are getting tests done weekly or every 10 days. They should have multiple COAs that they can provide.

Consider this graph from our website on The Wife hemp strain:

Wife COA Week 00.071.87 26.7:1
Wife COA Week 50.4119.50 47.6:1
Wife COA Week 6 0.4514.46 32.1:1
Wife COA Week 80.5814.07 24.3:1
Wife COA Week 90.6216.04 25.9:1

If the only COA you were provided was week 5, you would think it possible to get to 16-18% CBD easily within your legal THC limit of 0.3, but having multiple COAs shows you that week 5 is an anomaly of some kind. It could have been an exceptional sample or a lab error, but the results just aren’t repeated throughout testing. If you’re comparing Company A’s cherry-picked COA to Company B’s cherry-picked COA, you might think that Company A has a superior strain, but after growing it, you find out it was rather a case of luck with a particular sample and that the two were actually comparable. There’s safety in numbers.

Not all labs are created equal.

When you first get your COAs, there are a few quick things you can do to make sure you’re looking at quality documents.

1. Is the lab certified?

Good COAs will have the certification type printed on the document. That certification should also have their certification number displayed so that you know you’re reading a document you can trust.

Sample Lab Certificate 1

An ISO certification means that the lab conforms to the standards set by an independent, non-governmental international organization.

Sample Lab Certificate 2

A DEA certified lab does not have to be ISO certified, although they’re encouraged to be. The DEA standards include quality assurance, analytical verification, testing validity, and sufficient sensitivity in testing.

2. Does the COA have a QR Code?

QR Codes (those funny looking black and white squares) are shortcuts that allow you to trace the COA back to its original lab. It basically allows you to find the original report and make sure that the COA you’re looking at hasn’t been doctored in any way.

Sample COA QR code

Get a QR reader from your app store and scan it with your phone. That will take you back to the lab’s website and allow you to quickly verify that the COA you’re looking at is authentic.

Smoke and Mirrors: Focusing on the Right Numbers

For a new hemp grower, COAs can be a little daunting. A silver-tongued salesman, like a good magician, will grab your attention with a shiny number, but you have to look more closely. Why does one result show BaOx at 0.3 THC while another has 0.6? Why does the CBD percentage change on every single document? There’s a simple little answer:

CBD and THC content change over time.

These two numbers (CBD and THC) are always fluctuating based on the age of the flower, the growing conditions of the plant, and the way the sample is processed by the grower and the lab. To combat this fluctuation over time, the best number to look at in a strain is the ratio. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Know Your Numbers: A Quick Scan to Find the Right Info

Now that you know how to vet your COAs, let’s talk about what the most important numbers are.

Delta 9 THC – If you’re one of the lucky people in a Delta 9 state, this is the only number you care about as far as THC compliance. Delta 9 states are dropping like flies in our current regulatory world, but that’s a different blog post all together.

MAX THC – For us mere mortals who live in Total THC states, MAX THC is our number for THC Compliance. The magic number is 0.3 with some margin for error. Labs across the U.S. will be working over the next few months to publish this margin of error, making it easier for us to know what actual compliance will be. One lab with whom we’ve spoken expects their margin of error to be 0.05, which would mean that a compliant sample from their lab could be up to 0.35 THC

MAX CBD – This is the CBD percentage for the sample provided. This number is the marker for how you get paid, so growers tend look at it first.

Don’t make the mistake of stopping here!

RATIO – This is the ratio of CBD to THC for the sample (typically displayed like this: 25.2:1). In this example, the ratio is saying that if you grew the plant until it had a 1.0 MAX THC level, you would have a MAX CBD of 24.2. I’ve seen COAs that publish this number and some that don’t, but for my money, it’s the most important number to focus on.

If you are looking at a COA without a published ratio, simply divide the CBD number by the THC number to get the first number of the ratio–the second number will always be one. (For example, if you have a CBD of 12 and a THC of 0.5, you’ll have a ratio of 24:1.)

Why CBD:THC Ratios Are Vitally Important

CBD Percentages get all the attention, but ratios are where the real magic happens. When you know how the CBD and THC relate to one another over time, you can anticipate your yield at any given THC result.

Consider the following graph from The Wife strain on our website:

Wife COA Week 00.071.87 26.7:1
Wife COA Week 50.4119.50 47.6:1
Wife COA Week 6 0.4514.46 32.1:1
Wife COA Week 80.5814.07 24.3:1
Wife COA Week 90.6216.04 25.9:1

You may look at this chart and at first say, “Just about all of those COAs are hot in my state. They don’t help me.” Au contraire mon frère.

If you average the ratios, they come out to 31.32:1. Since week 5 seems like it’s an anomaly, let’s round the average down to 30:1. Then all we have to do is multiply our expected THC harvest (.3 or .35) by the ratio reported in testing. .35 X 30 = approximately 10.5 CBD at harvest. That’s why you can look at this chart with no compliant numbers and still arrive at a 9 – 11% expectation for the crop.

Now You Know What’s What

Armed with your extensive knowledge of COAs, you can now shop hemp strains with confidence. Remember: the character of the company and the quality of the lab are just as important as the numbers on the page. Never be afraid to ask for more information. Knowledge is power and puts you in the driver’s seat on business negotiations.

If you have further questions about hemp, call our office. One of our growers would be happy to help. We’re here to grow your business.