Episode 23 Bluegrass Podcast Transcript Caleb Chen "The Highest Critic"
[00:00:00.490] - Elijah
Welcome to the bluegrass podcast. Today we're talking with Caleb Chen of the highest critic. We're
going to be talking quality cannabis, cannabis reviews, and more.
[00:00:12.530] - Elijah
Do you want to talk a little bit about what you do with the highest Critic and some of your projects and
just how you got introduced to cannabis?
[00:00:21.650] - Caleb
Yeah, so the highest Critic is a cannabis website that I founded in 2018. It features a lot of reviews.
That's how most people might have heard of it before. But I'm going out to do interviews, press
releases, more general cannabis news, and really, cannabis education for the wider audience that's
out there, accessible via the internet, even if they're still under the prohibition. And kind of my
beginnings with cannabis, my first brush with cannabis was in 2010 when I first started smoking on 420. It was a life changing experience. Shortly after I stopped drinking alcohol. And you could say that cannabis has been my only vice since, but really, it's more that cannabis has been my medical choice since I've heard a lot of cannabis circles. All cannabis uses medicinal. Some people say, well, is it
medicinal? Is it wellness? Well, we can gripe on the words, but really, everyone has something that
everyone that's a regular cannabis user has something that they're targeting use for.
[00:01:52.690] - Elijah
Yeah, absolutely. And where did you first get the idea for starting something like The Highest Critic, or
kind of take that next step to where you're not just a consumer, but you want to do something in the
space as well?
[00:02:08.890] - Caleb
That transition was actually kind of long from 2010. I was in school, and I was under the prohibition
then. So really, just to get my own access to cannabis, I had to become, I guess what would be called
on the east coast, a pusher. And from that was how I started to get closer with the cannabis plant.
And from there, I distinctly recall every time I'd go to pick up my you know, the dealer would have like
two strains if that, and, you know, they'd give me two names. It probably looked the same, probably
not really looked at different. I'd be really skeptical if they actually were different. And I'd take
whatever names were given to me, and I'd go straight to google and I'd search them. I'd end up on
seed finder all buds or beesley or any of those sites that have the exact same copy about certain
strains and then no copy about any other strains. Every now and then I'd notice that the stuff that
actually seemed to match, there'd be, like, some pictures that match. There'd be some information
that matched. It would be likely not on leafly, likely not on one of those major sites.
[00:03:38.000] - Caleb
It'd likely actually be on an IC mag or roll it up or one of these other cannabis websites that people in
the industry might know and love that have. You could say they target a different audience a different
subset of the cannabis industry. And whether that's a more honest subset of the cannabis industry or
whether it's a more educated subset of the cannabis industry, you know, the information was more
accurate. And I guess in 2018, I left the corporate job that I was at working as a marketer, and I moved
into a van. And then within a month, I started the highest critic. And it was with the express purpose of
having a resource that was kind of in between those two, because there's a lot of people who aren't
going to dig. Through forum posts to find accurate information, but as long as it's there accessible on
Google at the end of the day I say this a lot, but the highest critic and websites in general are definitely
Google's bitch right now.
[00:04:45.370] - Elijah
And did you have any trepidation making that jump where you're going from this more standard, more
accepted marketing job and then you move into a van and did you tell anyone about this? What was
that process like of making that jump to doing that full time?
[00:05:03.310] - Caleb
I had a lot of support from my family during that time. My dad actually gifted me a copy of Nomad's
Land, like a year before this quote unquote sudden transition. So I actually was not very trepidacious
at all during that transition. And if anything, my previous work as a marketer, I was running several
blogs or new sites in the few years prior, and it really cemented in me, like, some free speech
absolutist principles and stuff like that. So even in terms of legal trepidation or any of that stuff, I
didn't have any. And I'd say the Highest Critic was a way for me to go legit in this case. And I'm sure
as you've talked with a lot of people, have done the same thing. That's like the least trepidacious thing
they've ever done in the industry.
[00:06:00.850] - Elijah
So you start up The Highest Critic, and you've been working on that for how long?
[00:06:06.230] - Caleb
Coming up on five years now.
[00:06:08.070] - Elijah
And what was the first committed point, but what was the point at which you had the ball rolling and
you said, this is going to keep rolling?
[00:06:19.930] - Caleb
That's a great question. So the site started in 2018, and between 2018 and 2020, I was just
periodically updating it. It was myself and the first reviewer that I worked with, shout out Brian, the DC,
and we were, you know, just posting maybe like once a month, some reviews of Flower, some vapes
or something. And then come 2020, I just decided to go at it. And that's when I started to reach out to
more reviewers from different states, different countries, all around the world. And I was surprised,
but generally the reception was good to syndicate content out to The Highest Critic, and I'd be able to
feature reviews from cannabis reviewers wherever they were at, on YouTube, on Instagram, and just
give them another avenue to promote their work, get them new followers. And that really ended up
opening the floodgates. So, myself, I would just be editing a lot of these reviews, putting them online,
and I would be able to read about what the new hottest strain in Puerto Rico is, for instance, or what
the hottest cultivar out in London is, or see what the market preferences in certain areas are. Market
conditions, actually, because that largely is a prerequisite for market preferences.
[00:07:50.070] - Caleb
And I think on that end, it's made the highest credit kind of like a unique resource in the space
because it is still so, like, ear to the ground, I guess you could say. And to give an example, most of
the traffic comes from the United States, but the state where most of the traffic comes from is Texas
and stuff. Like, I was doing some research before, looking at the analytics, and, for instance, the
amount of visitors that come from Kentucky is raising it's almost like an order of magnitude more
than it was last year. Just as pieces of legalization or like normalization happen, you kind of see
different states coming online, and this is like pre licenses coming online. You can see cannabis
culture kind of rise from the not even the ashes, really. It's been there everywhere, because
everywhere that there's people, there's people that want to consume cannabis, medicinally wellness.
And the best example I have of that is there's apparently quite the trade in cannabis vapes on
Antarctica. People will smuggle in cannabis from wherever they're being assigned from, and it's just
like a thing that's known and not talked about.
[00:09:18.930] - Caleb
Not technically legal, but definitely something to do when you're down there and stuck.
[00:09:25.660] - Elijah
For a while with these different areas like Texas and Kentucky that maybe have hemp products that
are moving into the cannabis license space. Why do you think Texas in particular for you has raised
up so highly, just out of curiosity?
[00:09:42.330] - Caleb
Well, that's a very good question. I actually don't have that many hemp products on my site, so it really
is a barometer of legacy demand, I would say, or on the traditional market, and you kind of see that
traditional market. So there will be the brands that are represented, are represented, are not the hemp
companies that are seeking to transition. It's the brands that are leaking stuff from California to the
rest of the world from wherever. So it's brands that lots of people haven't heard of, but a lot of people
have heard of.
[00:10:24.310] - Elijah
With the highest critic, you talk about doing a lot of reviews. Where do you see this going? When you
think about what you want this to keep moving into, where do you see the highest critic going?
[00:10:37.630] - Caleb
There's a lot of places I see it going. But I think the pillar that I want to stay near is education. And
really, like, reviews are educational, but they're only educational to a certain point because at the end
of the day, every person has a different endocannabinoid system. And also the people that self
identify as cannabis reviewers generally have more established tastes and preferences. So you can
always see that in any writer's, work is their inherent bias. And for reviews, it's just front and center. So
on that end, I want to go more towards empirical stuff. So in the last year, since going through the
Ganjier a program I've gone through to try and make sure that a terpene profile is mentioned in these
reviews and also just in any information. So if someone can find that, can read a particular cultivar
review and see that it is merci dominant or whatever, not just indico or sativa or hybrid, all dichotomy,
then it might be able to help them better choose a product for their endocannabinoid system based
on their previous experiences. And so whenever possible, I'm trying to link to the actual COA for that
actual batch and product.
[00:12:03.340] - Caleb
And it's been very hard to get that cooperation from brands, actually. Obviously it's not an option for
these gray market brands that aren't necessarily testing what they're sending out. But there's plenty of
products that are out there that have the test that companies or middlemen in the middle are just not
willing to share that information even though it's really free. So I want to kind of bridge that gap of
information, and I'm going to be compiling, if anything, like a database of what growers grow what
license type they have and to really break it down. More like what lights are they using, what brand of
lights are they using, what are they, what nutrients are they using, what brand or what amendments
they like, what post harvesting techniques do they have, anything that they'd be willing to share?
Because obviously, lots of this stuff could fall under trade secrets. But the kind of stuff that they hint
at in their marketing, these types of differentiations are what make growers different from each other,
and they're very prideful of it. And so to see that information kind of get lost and not be accessible for
end users to make their decision is very sad and I really want to change that.
[00:13:21.230] - Elijah
I very much understand that the process and the inputs, like you said, and all of the things that went
into making that product, not just some of those final numbers. If you had some key pieces of
information, what would you like to see added? I know you talked about chirping profiles, COAS,
things like that. What are a couple of things that if you could just on the wish list always have that info
to make those decisions or to look at those reviews, what would you want on there?
[00:13:52.570] - Caleb
Great question. I would take a step back away from terpene profiles and even to go back to there's
too much stuff out there that still doesn't even have the grower's name on there, right? That would be
thing number one. And then beyond that to have the proper lineage genetics information to give credit
to the breeder, those are just basic things that I guess they were happening more in the past or it's
always been something that the cannabis industry has battled with. I guess there's lots of incentive to
do shady things, I guess, and we see that play out, especially in unregulated markets. I'd say just to
have accurate lineage information and to pay respect to the breeder and really that lineage
information sans terpene profile, sans all that stuff is the only thing that someone is going to be able
to like choose a new cultivar that might hit them the same as a previous cultivar. Right? I like to say
that people generally ask someone like what cultivars, what strains that they have enjoyed in the past
and then go try to do a suggestion from there, like tell them what family treated bark up essentially.
[00:15:20.390] - Caleb
So if someone likes particular if they liked, if they liked OG Kush back in the day, chances are they'll
get a somewhat at least 50% similar experience with anything on the shelves that's labeled OG. And
that's very general advice. But at the end of the day that can't be true. It cannot be true. I've seen some
stuff that's been labeled OG that technically like OG is like a great grandfather if that. And at that point
that naming convention is going to fail. So just to have that information and have as much
information as possible because people who do care are going to care and people who don't care,
maybe they'll care eventually. Absolutely.
[00:16:11.750] - Elijah
And like you said, making sure you have that validated information where it's not just the claim but
here we can show you that this product actually is. Do you have any advice for maybe reviewers or
people that would want to do reviews about how to go about it? Beyond just maybe someone has just
been smoking but they want to really dive in a little more. How do you kind of get into that reviewing
area where you're breaking things down a little more analytically or maybe a little more consistently in
[00:16:46.850] - Caleb
I would say to anyone that smokes or bates or is able to using cannabis in a way where the end
cultivar makes a difference that'd be anything from flour to concentrates and maybe some pinchers
they should have like a stranger at least. Even if you're not aiming to be a reviewer or not, anything like
that, just to be able to write down like how certain cultivars by whatever breeder, by whatever grower
made you feel. And then if you have further information like oh, was it sun growing, was it indoor, was
it living soil, was it cocoa, was it whatever. And if you have that information you'll absolutely end up
seeing like what you like or what's more effective for you. And that will end up just even for an end
user that's not reviewing, could end up saving you more money, could get better highs, more targeted
towards what you're trying to achieve. And the other thing I would say for anyone who's trying to be a
reviewer, I think I've seen a lot of reviewers where that's the easiest first step to get your foot into the
cannabis industry. Like if you apply for a bud tender position and you have an established review
page, whether it's on Instagram, whether it's on BlogSpot or somewhere else that you've just set up for
free, and it's just entries from your journal, that is something where you're more qualified than the
other person that's coming in.
[00:18:20.770] - Caleb
So I would say just start. And there's a very nice subreddit called Just Start that people just write
about their experiences. Just starting. Whether it's being a reviewer, whether it's starting a drop
shipping business or something, that Just start is definitely good advice.
[00:18:44.470] - Elijah
I like what you said, too, about strain journals in particular, especially for medical patients, being able
to go back and look at what you liked, what you didn't like, and sometimes what you misremember
you liked or didn't like. And just having that reference.
[00:19:02.590] - Caleb
Because there might be insights that you never think of. Maybe it's not that it's a particular family tree
of strange or cultivars that you like. Maybe it's just a specific grower or specific brand that does it the
way that your body likes. And there's all sorts of insights that can be gleaned from data analysis in
this space on a personal, micro and macro level.
[00:19:30.470] - Elijah
And since it was just New Year's thinking about 2022 for yourself, you don't necessarily have to
choose the best thing. But what is in that upper top three or four things you've tried this past year that
you really thought stood out to you of all the things you've tried, it can be hash, baits, flour, whatever
product in whatever category.
[00:19:57.790] - Caleb
I'm going to take that one at a time. So flower first. Like I was saying before, each reviewer has some
biases, so mine are definitely going to show here. But the coolest things I found this year are a
sungrown haze number 19 by Heart Rock Mountain Farm. That was freaking awesome. I just came
across that right before Emerald Cup Harvest Ball at the Gongier lead consumption Lounge that
Terrence was running, and she was there. I got some Heirloom and Sino strains besides that haze,
also some Sour Afghan and some the other one's, Velvet Perps. And that was one very cool
experience. And the flower was just very nice. And then besides that, I guess everything on my list is
sungrown right now. The other thing that I really came across this year that really made me happy
was a Vietnamese land race by First Cut Farms. And it's funny because I saw it, I smelled it, I had it in
my hands and then I lost it. And then I just kept thinking about it being like, man, I wish I didn't lose
that Vietnamese. I wish I could try it. And I was on a trip.
[00:21:27.220] - Caleb
I was in New York City at one of those consumption lounges, and I'm looking at their menu, and I see
Vietnamese land race. And lo and behold, it's the exact same farm, exact same everything. And I
bought it and I smoked it. And that was like the pinnacle find this year for sure.
[00:21:50.370] - Elijah
And that's so lucky that you found it there and then went to New York. And that was where you got the
[00:21:57.570] - Caleb
Yes, where I actually got to smoke it. And the best part is, because it was New York, I was literally just
walking down the street. Like, I had my backpack on my front so I could use it as like a base. And then
I was packing my bowl and just walking down the street, smoking the bowl, as is legal in New York
[00:22:16.090] - Elijah
Are there any projects you'd like to talk about, like, that you've been working on? The highest critic, of
course, but also other things or things that you'd like people to be aware of, like that you might have
[00:22:29.150] - Caleb
So on the highest critic side, I've recently launched a newswire, and my plan for that is to really allow
smaller cannabis companies to have a voice, to have a place they can publish new product launches
when they're collaborating with other brands. Just the kind of stuff that usually gets posted on
Instagram that might get lost in the nether, but to really put it out there and have it be something
that's on the public record, according to Google, that kind of stuff. And there's a lot of other ideas that
I've been floating around, and one I know we talked about in person back in Oklahoma, but I guess at
this point, I'm trying to find like minded individuals that see the environmental damage that
disposables are causing both outside the cannabis industry and in the cannabis industry. But
specifically, one time use pens, one time use whatever. The fact that the biggest innovation in that
space is that they let you recharge the batteries that you're only supposed to use once is kind of sad.
And I really feel that there's something to be said about American lithium independence and all sorts
of stuff along those lines and how the cannabis industry could really take the charge.
[00:24:00.880] - Caleb
There people in the same breath talk about the benefits of the benefits of cannabis and how it's, you
know, it's just the best, it's an agricultural powerhouse, all that kind of stuff. But there's all sorts of
ancillary things in the cannabis industry that may or may not still be here in the long run, and I
honestly hope that's one of them.
[00:24:25.830] - Elijah
And if people wanted to find the highest critic and your social media, how can they go about finding
[00:24:33.690] - Caleb
So the Highest Critic is online on its own firstname.lastname@example.org, highestcritic.com. And also on
Instagram socialclub at the highest critic. But those are centralized platforms that can't really count
on so the best spot to reach me would be via the website or via my email. email@example.com.
[00:25:03.840] - Elijah
Caleb, thank you so much for talking to me. I appreciate it.
[00:25:07.810] - Caleb
Thank you, Elijah, for having me on, and it's always great talking with you.
[00:25:12.930] - Elijah
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Bluegrass Podcast. If you'd like to check out
more episodes, you can do so at www.Bluegrasscannabis.com. If you'd like to stay up to date with
news, merch and more, make sure to follow us on Instagram at @bluegrass_Cannabis
[00:25:42.830] - Elijah
The Bluegrass Podcast. Old Fashioned. All Natural, Kentucky bluegrass.