Jason Pfeifer, the co-owner, operator and chief extraction expert at Frog Mountain in Ketchikan, clearly remembers the day he discovered his calling in life.
“I was in college in Anchorage when I saw my first e-cigarette on campus, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what I’m going to do, but with cannabis.’ So I just started figuring out different methods of extraction, different consistencies that came out, and got really nerdy with it.”
Pfeifer worked as a commercial fisherman and switched majors from electrical engineering to business finance but always stayed committed to continuing his self-taught perfection of extraction methods. When he first started 12 years ago, he used solvents such as butane, but settled on CO2 extraction five years ago because he felt it was the cleanest method. That’s when Frog Mountain was born.
Pfeifer had been saving up to buy a fishing boat from his captain, Harold Haines, but instead he convinced Haines to sell the boat to someone else and invest the money in an $110,000 Eden Labs 5 Liter High Flow CO2 Extractor.
“Things started looking toward legalization in Alaska, so I talked to the captain and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ He’s been wonderful to me. Without him, none of this would have been possible and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Pfeifer said.
Since cannabis wasn’t yet legal, Pfeifer and Haines decided to take the equipment to Washington state.
“I couldn’t have it sitting here just collecting dust, and I wasn’t going to be able to legally run it up here, so the only solution was to barge it to Seattle,” Pfeifer said. “We took it over to East Wenatchee. I was working with a company called Ladera Farms. They were three cultivator/ producer/processors who could do everything, but they didn’t have the money for equipment. I had the equipment but nowhere to operate it.”
Once legalized, the Alaska cannabis industry took a while to get off the ground as the state figured out rules and regulations. Pfeifer and Haines also ran into zoning issues in Ketchikan, and Haines ended up sinking several hundred thousand dollars into a new building and septic system. Pfeifer used homemade solutions and Alaska ingenuity to expand the capabilities of the existing equipment until they could afford more.
“I tinkered with things my entire life, growing up. We had processing equipment that I was able to MacGyver because I was familiar enough with things. As we were able to buy stuff, that made it more efficient and more technical,” he said, noting that he used “water bottles that I rotated through my freezer, so they’d be my ice to keep my extraction equipment cool,” until they were able to purchase commercial chillers.
Why Frog Mountain?
Pfeifer and Haines named the business Frog Mountain after their favorite deer hunting spot on Prince of Wales Island.
“Frog Mountain is a place where Harold and I find ourselves the most at ease. I am not sure what the real name actually is of the mountain. We wanted to share this incredible view, which is why you will find the picture of Frog Mountain on the back of all of our packaging. The logo was a design from my father, Dr. William Pfeifer. He is a Tlingit artist who has done many years of apprenticeship under world-renowned Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson. The frog represents good luck in many cultures, and in this industry we needed all the help we could get.
“It has been a long hard road, but we have met some incredible people along the way who have helped make all of this a possibility.”
The extraction process
Pfeifer is a firm believer that the CO2 process is superior because he can selectively grab the more fragile components — such as the terpenes — first, and then start extracting the cannabinoids. Also, processes that use petroleum hydrocarbons such as butane and propane are not good because those solvents never fully purge out and “all you’re doing is introducing toxins.”
“I’ve seen some videos of other extraction companies’ products catching fire when it’s put onto a hot dab nail. That should never happen. They’ve been playing it off saying it’s the terpenes catching fire. I can put straight terpenes on a hot nail and it’s never going to ignite.”
Pfeifer explained the CO2 extraction process in more detail.
“It works similar to how a refrigeration system works. By changing the temperatures and pressures I can change what phase the CO2’s in. So it’s going from a liquid to a supercritical phase, which is a gas and a liquid simultaneously, then it goes to a gas phase, then back to a liquid again, and then it recycles during that phase. When it goes to a gas, the gas can’t carry particles the way the liquid does. So the cannabinoids and terpenes and water, or whatever else is extracted from the plant, will then drop down, and the clean CO2 gets recirculated through the system.”
It’s all about the feeling
Terpenes, according to Pfeifer, are the key to any good cannabis products.
“It’s like aromatherapy. Terpenes are in all botanicals and they give us a feeling. With each of the strains, it’s not the THC that gives you the feeling; the THC amplifies that feeling, but it comes from the terpenes that are present,” he said. “People get caught on these THC numbers and say “‘I want the highest THC, that’s what gives me the effect,’ but it’s not.”
Pfeifer’s work output and mood depends on what kind of product he’s working with on any given day.
“When I’m working in my lab and it smells like a certain strain, I get that experience. So, if I’m running indicas, I have a pretty slow-paced day. If I’m running sativas, or something citrusy, I get a lot more done,” he said with a chuckle. “I prefer certain strains when I’m making concentrates, because I have to deal with the smell, and it changes my attitude. I don’t do a lot of earthy and mossy strains because they tend to not give me the energy I want, so I tend to go after fruits like mandarin.”
Terpenes can not only change your mood but also can evoke strong memories, according to Pfeifer.
“I ran some Grapefruit Juice from Frost Farms in Anchorage, and it smelled like when I lived in Florida and I would section grapefruit for my grandmother in the morning. Exactly like that, and it gave me that mood and triggered those memories. It’s powerful.”
A healthier high
Pfeifer said that while most people think smoking cannabis in plant form is better because it’s more natural, extracts are actually better for you.
“Dabbing, vaping, all of those are the cleaner version of consumption. People that are smoking flower are getting a lot of toxins, lots of tars. There are more tars in cannabis than there is in tobacco. We want to eliminate those as much as possible,” he said. “People get scared and say, ‘No, I want to smoke flower because I feel like that’s safer,’ but that’s just because they’re familiar with the dosing of it. With concentrates they’re not sure what the dose is.”
Pfeifer said part of the problem is that there’s no good way to educate the cannabis-consuming public about the mysteries of extracts and concentrates.
“That kind of information is really difficult to get to the end consumer, because we don’t have anywhere that we can consume concentrates. We’ve just approved consumption areas, but they’re not allowing concentrates, just edibles and flower.
“A vape pen is like an expensive bottle of wine. You’re sending them home with the most expensive bottle of wine and they’re thinking that it’s a box wine. If they don’t know how to consume it properly, they won’t know the difference. They just don’t know what they’re missing out on.”
Pfeifer said there are also waxes, fats and lipids inside the cannabis plant, and, if not filtered out in the extraction process, these impurities can be harsh and irritating to the user’s throat. That’s why he recommends products such as the Puffco Peak as a good, portable dab rig. The first “smart bong,” Peak has an electric heating element with four temperature settings, maintains a steady temperature so it doesn’t scorch your terpenes, and the vapor is cooled by passing through water. This helps with the dosing problem and makes inhaling a more pleasant experience.
“A single dab that somebody might take and get over-stoned on can get three or four people stoned, just from simple efficiencies. A lot of older friends of mine, in their 50s and 60s, like the Puffco because it’s smooth, it’s easy, and they don’t cough. They don’t smell like anything afterwards. They’re able to consume it and continue doing what they’re doing,” Pfeifer said.
Building a better vape
Pfeifer said most vape pens were designed for smoking e-cigarettes, which is not compatible with the way cannabis is used.
“There’s a big difference between smoking an e-cigarette and smoking cannabis. You typically smoke your own cigarette, but you typically share a joint, right? These devices are designed to heat rapidly, because the hotter it is, the more vaporization you have. The problem is that this isn’t an e-cigarette where you’re going to take one or two puffs and put it away. You’re over-firing it because you’re passing it around, and it can overheat and burn your oil and ruin your experience.”
Pfeifer has been working with a company called O2 Vape to create a device that works well with his product.
“I reached out to multiple vape cartridge companies when I first got started five years ago, and this company was the first one that listened to me and what I was looking for. Everybody else said, ‘You need to do this to your oil to make it work with our cartridges, or add this into your oil and it will work perfectly.’ That never was an appropriate answer for me. I said, make the cartridge work with my oil, because I’ve made a wonderful product and I want people to be able to experience that,” he said.
Pfeifer said he often gives advice to other extract manufacturers.
“It’s better for me to help my competition to achieve a better quality product than it is for me to watch them struggle. If they’re struggling that means there’s bad product making its way out to the market,” Pfeifer said. “I try to help as many people as I can. It might not seem like the best business plan but it’s been working great so far. The industry’s growing, and if we don’t work together then it’s not going to grow.”
Contact Alaska Cannabist staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582 or at email@example.com.