Few names carried the hype of Royal Key Organics entering the era of legal cannabis, and the snowball looks ready to keep rolling ahead of the brand’s relaunch later this year.
While we’ll get to all the heat in general, the basis for Royal Key and any great hash company is the quality of the inputs. “Inputs” mean a lot of things in the weed space. You might be talking about the material you’re going to make hash out of or the nutrients going in your plants. But it all carries through with great hash. Every input along the way is detectable, lack of effort and shortcuts amongst them. So when you see a company with legendary hash making it exclusively with its own material, it makes it that much more special. To this day, the most famed batches of Royal Key live resin would hold up with the best hash ever made.
Royal Key’s founders, Josh Vert and his wife Erin Hamilton, have been cultivating cannabis together for 12 years. Their products have placed first in every live resin contest that they’ve entered since 2017, totaling five Emerald Cups. After whipping up top-shelf flowers for the Northern California market’s most elite shelves for much of the early 2010s, they formed Royal Key. There they would build the brand identity brick by brick into the powerhouse it has become today. The list of how many companies with Royal Key’s scale of operations that command as much respect as they do would be a short one.
While the dynamics of that talking point will change as Royal Key is preparing for massive growth in the years to come, its ethos won’t. Whether a brand had 50 lights or 5,000, they would kill to have the same kind of name recognition.
The Road To Royal Key
These days, Hamilton handles the growing while Vert works on business development. But back in 2015, Royal Key Organics was just the name they settled on as they began to conceptualize their brand. Conceptualization turned into execution, and once their hash made its mark on the new budding “live extract” scene, they were a household name with the most elite tier of cannabis consumers.
“Royal Key in 2015, ’16, and even ’17 was 100% propane-based because there were zero residual solvents,” Vert said. “We were doing testing and selling directly to the clubs at that time with our paperwork and everything.”
Royal Key was dropping insane sauces during that time with extraction techniques they’d work to develop in-house. It was a long hard process to get dialed in, but the results quickly spoke for themselves as they hit the market.
Royal Key’s techniques were not being imitated. They had the juiciest propane-extracted terps by a mile. A lot of the propane extracts had the now mostly retired pull and snap consistency.
Vert weighed in with why he thought his competition couldn’t achieve similar results back then.
“I think it was what we were growing,” he said. “Without me knowing what their starting material is, all I could do is tell you we were pheno hunting, growing indoor, and taking the whole crop that we picked for live resin and making it into live resin, which no one was doing at that time.”
Vert noted that Southern Humboldt Concentrate was doing greenhouse-grown flowers for live resin before Royal Key was doing it indoors.
“I tasted Bruce and Pete’s Zkittelz; it blew me away and influenced me,” Vert said. “It made us go to the drawing board. Nobody was going to help us out. There are no classes for live resin or anything, but we did it. I think it was terpene-rich and heavy because of the way we were growing indoors and using those cultivars.”
But during this whole R&D process to develop their hash technique, their flower was already commanding top dollar. Vert said it was really hard at that moment to take such a huge risk with the material instead of getting easy money for it because it was so good.
While terrifying at the moment, it would be a major mile marker for Royal Key.
“It was a huge risk,” Vert said. “There was a crux of it right where you’re like, ‘Hey, this little batch worked, but let’s try the whole batch’ kind of a thing. And that was really scary. Because we weren’t sure what we were gonna get, like how good it would be, all those things. And so it was tough. It was daunting, but the product prior to that and testing was so good. And we had such a good response from it that we just went for it. And it ended up working out, but yeah, it was scary.”
Eventually, things would reach their peak at the 2017 Emerald Cup. Royal Key had released nearly 20 flavors they hunted in-house. One of the reasons they went all out was because they knew they were exiting the market to build out the property they’d secured in Arcata. They worked extensively through 2018 to relaunch at the cup a year later.
“But we had shut down everything and we just have been able to gamble on opening the lab first before the cultivation of the flower,” Vert said. “So, therefore, Suprize Suprize launched first at the Emerald Cup, and there was no Royal Key because we weren’t growing it yet.”
While Royal Key was all in-house grown material, Suprize Suprize would be the mechanism that allowed them to collaborate with others they’d been hoping to collaborate with, like Alien Labs.
In the years since they launched Suprize Suprize, it has joined Royal Key on top of the pantheon of California heat while adding to the trophy shelf. As Royal Key worked to build out its new grow, Suprize Suprize kept expanding. The dice roll to open the lab before the grow paid off. They became major players in the white label market, and in doing so, they helped other producers process their material. We asked Vert if he ever saw that coming.
“We hoped it would,” Vert replied. “But also at the same time, we wanted it to always really be good quality. So it’s tough because whenever I hear white label, I’m like, you know, it’s something that feels like it’s not something you can’t get passionate about, or it’s not good. I didn’t want it to be watered down. I did think it could be something bigger because, obviously, it goes beyond what we can grow.”
Through all the madness, Vert watched the price of live resin plummet. The $40 wholesale numbers his product once commanded no longer existed in the market. At this point, Royal Key put their foot on the gas when it came to R&D on rosin. It wasn’t easy.
But one thing that helped the cause was that the Royal Key flower, including a cultivar called M-Con #8, was starting to drop.
“Thank God,” Vert emphasized. “At that time, we would watch M-Con #8 in 2019 in the LA market primarily, but also throughout Northern California. That saved our asses when everything was just starting to be a mess in the extract world.”
As the pandemic hit, Royal Key’s solventless products were getting a bit more in order, but Vert wasn’t truly satisfied. But on the live resin side, despite price crashes, Royal Key was still the best in the world. There was a dip in the live resin production when their longtime extractor, Pete, passed away. He was a core member of the team and is greatly missed.
Eventually, everything was back at full blast.
Despite the praise the flower was getting, Vert said the business was challenging. Royal Key was using lights from the Proposition 215 medical era in the buildout. The intensity of the lighting was a bit lower than what he felt like they needed to achieve the maximum expression of the crop.
But everyone else thought it was stupid heat, myself included.
“We’re struggling to grow like, you know, as high quality as we can, but it’s just really fucking hard,” Vert said of the 2019 comeback harvest. “Everything that we do seems like moving through quicksand, but we’re able to lock some batches, and people were really happy with it. You know, it saved our ass.”
Growing A Brand
Due to the limited output, Royal Key remained exotic. They definitely left some money on the table, as word of how heat the M-Con #8 they grew from a pack of Equilibrium Genetics seeds got around.
Vert explained what it was like watching the brand explode in popularity but not having enough product up to their quality yet to meet the ever-growing demand.
“It’s like feeling like you’re in a straitjacket all the time. You’re just financially in a straitjacket, and there’s problem after problem,” Vert said.
As he watched demand increase, it felt like he oversaw the company go through eight to 12 near-death experiences of their business during this time as well. But the financial perils have come to a close. In 2021, Royal Key found someone who believed in the vision. Through all the rough waters, they were constantly attempting to fundraise. Regularly, they would get deep into discussions with groups who would come at them with a buyout offer despite the fact they were never looking for one. Vert would move on to the next opportunity in hopes of finding someone who wanted a piece of the vision and not all of it.
Vert and Hamilton were very adamant that they didn’t want to sell and needed someone who believed in them. They wanted to be a good partner, but couldn’t let someone else steer the ship. The various negotiations led to some sleepless nights. It can be tough to rest after you’ve just turned down a big-money offer that would take you out of peril.
Eventually, Royal Key found Holistic, which was happy to come in as a minority partner on the proven brand.
“We’ve fixed a lot of the problems that we had,” Vert said of the capital infusion. “We told them that we were going to exit the market, which was sketchy for us to do because everyone still needs results when you’re getting investment. They don’t want you to lose money for seven or eight months, but we exited the market.”
During their time away from shelves, Royal Key has done two back-to-back phenohunts. Vert also found some phenomenal hash artists who needed to work in a good home. He argues the new additions truly bumped up everything to a world-class level.
We asked Vert if it was ever tough to watch Royal Key’s solventless lines develop while the BHO was renowned out the gate.
“For sure, and I’m always willing to admit that, and we did admit it,” Vert said. “It just never met the grade until 2021. Probably in the spring of 2021 is when it changed, where everything changed perhaps, and then by the end of 2021 we are entering contests.”
Vert thinks the solventless hash is there now. It was always about getting Royal Key’s solventless products to the same respect levels as its live resin.
“I mean, I’ve taken it everywhere,” he said. “I’ve taken [out] the full melt that we found. The only thing that we’re yet to show is the single source, in-house stuff. Stuff that we grow and phenohunted for. And once we release that stuff, I think there won’t be any question.”
This article appears in the July 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.
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