You might know Montana for its epic skiing, legendary steaks, or “Yellowstone,” but it’s also home to the newest recreational cannabis market in the US.
And while we might not have a huge blowout cup (yet) like you’d find in a bigger market like California or Illinois, we’ve got something much wackier: The Lovers Cup, a DIY celebration of the best weed for sex, the chillest strains for our long winters, and a much-needed opportunity to raise a glass to our unparalleled community of craft growers.
When a couple of friends and I decided to create the Lovers Cup—the first cannabis competition in Montana since rec sales began here on New Year’s Day—we knew our top goal was to nurture the state industry’s growing sense of community. Medical marijuana first became legal here in 2004, but the industry has long been stifled by state regulations and stiff competition alike.
We also wanted to celebrate the state’s craft growers and the enormous efforts they made in the runup to rec sales, and to ensure that the barriers to entry were low and the enticements high: No entry fee for competitors, no cover at the door, and free beer at the bar.
Lastly, we felt it was crucial to acknowledge this special, and brief, window in the Montana industry’s development. In July 2023, a moratorium on new licenses—which was baked into the state’s legalization bill—will expire. At that point, companies based outside Montana will be able to enter the market, potentially disrupting today’s unique ecosystem of small, homegrown businesses.
So at the end of January, we put out an open call for entries, and on February 23 we packed the longstanding Missoula brewery Draught Works to announce the winners.
Here’s how it all came together.
A cannabis competition that reflects Montana weed culture
Montana may be the size of Germany, but only a million people live here. Our cannabis community is similarly intimate, and we wanted our competition to reflect that close-knit vibe.
We capped entries at 20 shops and limited our judging panel to five Missoula-based connoisseurs, who represent a wide range of backgrounds:
- Tom Winter, a candidate for Montana’s new congressional seat and a former state lawmaker who introduced an ill-fated legalization bill in 2019
- Ariana Newton, COO of The Weed Tube
- Beloved local artist Jesse Blumenthal
- Mike Zens, co-founder of the terrific Montana edibles brand High Road Edibles
- Nicko Lannan, a former dispensary manager and current creative marketing director at Draught Works
Our judges had about three weeks to test the 20 strains, which were eligible for five awards: Best Flavor, Best Smoking Experience, Most Relaxing, the Aphrodite Award (this was the Lovers Cup, after all), and Best Overall Strain.
Nearly all of the entries were insanely terpy (especially the Tropical Runtz from Big Sky Buds, winner of our Best Flavor award!), and most were indica-dominant. Out of the 20 strains, there was only one repeat: Donnie Burger.
“Rating all of these exceptional products was really hard,” Lannan reflected after the event. “There were some close calls. It was a fun challenge, but it was still a challenge.”
“What a privilege to sample the best efforts of Montana entrepreneurs in this new industry,” said Tom Winter, the congressional candidate. “The quality was just so high. It’s so clear that Montana cultivators are putting their all into their work.”
For Newton, testing unknown strains brought both thrills and a bit of a gamble for her mental health. “I’ve found the strains that work for me, but opening the floodgates to all these new strains I’d never tried, not knowing what they were, was a bit risky for me,” she explained.
A week before the Lovers Cup, the judges gathered at my house to pick the winners. They arrived with notebooks packed with observations, to debate and to vote, and—after taking a few last-minute puffs—gorging on a homemade baked ziti pork puttanesca. The consensus was bold, and they made their decisions remarkably quickly.
Then, we had to zip our mouths shut, and for a week, throw away the key.
A whirlwind of beards, beers, and support
The party itself was a whirlwind. About 120 shop owners, growers, and passionate consumers converged on Draught Works, whose arcing string lights and exposed wooden beams evoke a sprawling, cheery ski lodge.
It’s also the most vocally pro-pot brewery in town. Asked how he felt about hosting the state’s first rec weed competition, co-owner Paul Marshall didn’t beat around the bush. “We feel fucking awesome about it!” he said. (Separately, the Montana State Providers Cup has previously organized cups in the medical market, and is hosting an upcoming 4/20 event in Missoula.)
As attendees poured in, they greeted each other with hugs, and swarmed the long wooden bar in a sea of beards and plaid. They came not just from Missoula, but from the capital of Helena, and from Bozeman and Belgrade—200 miles to the east—and from the Flathead Valley to the north.
“It’s funny, I only know most of the people in this room by their Instagram handles,” Joey Clams, the co-owner of Missoula shop Urban Farmer, remarked. “Like, ‘What’s up, GrowMT406?’” he added with a laugh.
A history of contention and intense competition
Here’s what you might not know about Montana’s cannabis industry: Until recently, it wasn’t very chummy. Maybe it was years of a “tethered” medical program that limited patients to only shopping at a single store. Or a fully vertically-integrated market that stifled any opportunity for collaboration. Or the sheer number of shops, often on the same block and sometimes in the same building, fighting for the attention of the state’s 40,000 medical patients.
Whatever the reason, Montana’s providers and growers haven’t exactly been known for their camaraderie.
That changed dramatically in January, however, when recreational sales began in Big Sky Country. Suddenly the vertical market became fully horizontal. Competitors became allies.
“I was shocked to discover in my first four years [in the Montana market] that there was anything but community here. Tethering only exacerbated that territorialism,” Jay Bostrom, co-owner of Dancing Goat Gardens, which won second place for their Queen’s Candy, told me. “When I attended the Lovers Cup, it was fascinating to see all these people suddenly open to discussion and sharing ideas. People were earnestly trying to build relationships for the first time.”
Meet Montana’s winning weed strains of 2022
“I’m passionate about fighting against cannabis censorship,” Ariana Newton, of The Weed Tube, said. “Watching all these individuals come together in real life and relishing in that energy is impactful and empowering for the community.”
By the time we gathered the crowd to announce the winners, the brewery was packed to the gills. As I ran through the list of entrants, everyone got cheers. When I announced the winners, they came forward to grab their enormous, straight-outta-Hogwarts trophies with huge grins. The applause was enormous.
Our winners represented a wide spectrum of Montana businesses. Bozeman-area Pure Remedies, which won Best Overall Strain with their insanely fruity and giddy hybrid The Woah!!!, is a true mom-and-pop. Missoula’s Indo, which took third place with their Mint Chocolate Chip, opened just a few months ago and is similarly small. Spark1, winner of the Aphrodite Award for their Wedding Pie, on the other hand, is one of the biggest wholesalers in the state.
“The competition was stacked and there is no doubt to us that every cultivator has some serious love for cannabis.”
Michael Lentini, owner of Pure Remedies
“The competition was stacked and there is no doubt to us that every cultivator has some serious love for cannabis,” Michael Lentini, owner of Pure Remedies, said later. “The experience has been incredibly humbling and also very rewarding.”
It was a night of connections made and friendships bolstered. One attendee later asked me for another’s phone number, remarking he’d only asked for a hug, and not a business card.
When the judges and I gathered later that night for an after-party dinner, the vibe was one of joy, relief, and utter exhaustion.
“The sheer energy of the room that night, whether you were a business owner or just a consumer, created a buzzing vibe of people excited to finally celebrate cannabis above the fold—that’s gonna stick with me for a long time,” said Nicko Lannan, one of the five judges. “It’s been a long road for people in cannabis in this state. It was so cool to see people who’ve been fighting this fight for a long time all come together.”