Grower Stories #81: John S Nemeth

Tia Moskalenko
Tia Moskalenko

Tia Moskalenko, author of the AskGrowers blog, brings a unique blend of content to her readers. She is known for conducting insightful interviews with key figures in the cannabis industry, including brand representatives, manufacturers, and experts. In addition to her interview skills, Tia has a keen focus on CBD. She expertly curates product selections and reviews, offering her readers detailed insights into the various effects and benefits of CBD. Tia's ability to combine in-depth interviews with comprehensive CBD analysis makes her a valuable asset to the cannabis community, offering a well-rounded perspective on the industry.



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Grower Stories #81: John S Nemeth

THC for You and Me: An Interview With John S Nemeth of Alaskan Cannabis Brand Top Hat Concentrates

There are fewer places less hospitable than the often frozen and inhospitable tundra that is Alaska. Some brave souls not only choose to live there, but they take it a step further by growing their own cannabis. One of those brands is Top Hat Concentrates. AskGrowers sits down with John S Nemeth to chat about their origins, their products, and the challenges of operating in Alaska. #growerstories

Tia (AskGrowers) : Tell the story of your creation.

John S Nemeth : Top Hat was founded in 2016 by Benjamin Wilcox, Tracy LaBarge & John Nemeth in Juneau, Alaska. We are Alaska’s first CO2 concentrate company! We came together from a place of activism since our founders did a lot of advocacy work to get cannabis legalized in the state. Once that legislation had been passed, we started THC Alaska (Top Hat Concentrates & Top Hat Cannabis) with the goal to produce Alaska’s finest chemical and pesticide-free cannabis, to sell as flower and make into the purest CO2 oil in the industry.

Tia : What is it like to be a cannabis brand in Alaska?

John : Incredibly rewarding although tough at times! There are unique challenges to working in this industry in Alaska. A big one for us, as a company that wholesales our product to retailers across the state, is the issue of delivery. However, this is also one of the coolest things about what we do!

We sell our products at roughly 50 stores scattered across the state, covering an area of thousands of miles; from Utqiagvik “The Northernmost American City,” to Nome in Western Alaska, to Fairbanks in the interior and Anchorage in South Central Alaska, to various towns in Southeast Alaska. Most of these places are only easily accessible by air and marine transport, as most are either landlocked or incredibly far away from where we are in Juneau, Southeast Alaska.

For example, the distance from Juneau to Utqiagvik would be like delivering products from Toronto, Canada, all the way to Tampa, Florida, except without a road system the whole way!

Tia : What share of your sales comes from tourists? How has this changed in 2020 due to the pandemic?

John : It’s estimated that tourists contribute roughly 14 percent of sales annually for the entire industry in Alaska, according to our retailers. Having very little tourism in 2020 has affected that some, but we have a robust local cannabis consumer community who have still been purchasing cannabis throughout this challenging year. We have actually seen an uptick in sales in certain areas throughout 2020, which we believe may have been a result of the black market suffering due to the pandemic.

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Tia : What problems did you face at the beginning of your development and what is stopping you now?

John : A continuing struggle we’ve faced is safe banking. There has never been an efficient, safe way for us to bank because the appropriate laws have not been passed. This is something we are currently working on, and there are safe banking laws being discussed, but as of right now that is a major hurdle in our industry. Also, as mentioned before, we did have to do some creative thinking to figure out the logistics of delivery and obtainment of materials due to Alaska’s unique geography. It seems commonplace for us now, but having to fly our product everywhere to deliver, and have any equipment or even soil shipped to us by barge, are definitely Alaska-specific challenges.

Tia : Can you advertise your business?

John : There are very specific, tight restrictions around advertising cannabis products and businesses. Some of the regulations make sense, while others seem overly restrictive. We can advertise in publications that are cannabis-specific and only available in stores (such as Alaska Leaf magazine), thereby meeting the requirement of ensuring the audience seeing the ad will all be of age. We cannot, however, advertise in other newspapers.

We also cannot sponsor an organization or purchase program ad space, which is unfortunate as alcohol businesses are allowed to do those things. We feel that as the legalization of cannabis was based on treating this substance similar to alcohol, we should be allowed to advertise the same way alcohol can, without these other broad restrictions.

Tia : Have you encountered any prejudice from friends and society about working with cannabis? If so, how did you deal with it?

John : The cannabis industry definitely faces prejudice from certain factions of society. Alaska is a red state with pockets of blue, tending to lean very libertarian in personal philosophies, but in politics Republican. This has, at times, made it hard to get things done, and the industry faces constant scrutinization. Our solution has been to foster a strong community of smart policymakers, most notably with the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association (AMIA). Within our company, one of our employees is actually the President of the AMIA, and we are on the front lines of advocating for better policies and furthering the industry at large.

Tia : Tell us what sustainable methods do you use in your work?

John : We are lucky enough to live on Lingit Aani (Tlingit Land, home of the Tlingit people who have been stewards of the land since time immemorial), here in Juneau, Alaska. We are surrounded by mountains, glaciers, rivers, and the sea. The entire town runs on locally produced hydropower, and our water supply is sustainably sourced and incredibly clean. In addition, we at Top Hat are committed to being as sustainable as possible with our growing practices.

Our flower is grown in biodynamic living soil, and we never use any pesticides or chemicals, relying instead on compost teas, companion planting, and other environmentally friendly ways of growing.

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Tia : Should all cannabis businesses be involved in charity? Tell us about your charity initiative related to Alaska food banks.

John : We believe any business should be in the habit of giving back to their community whenever and however possible. In addition, everyone at Top Hat is committed to social justice and equity, so it is vital to our philosophy to have ongoing donation campaigns for local and national non-profits that align with our values and goals.

Our initiative with the Southeast Alaska Food Bank was very successful, we committed to donating 5 percent of our profits for a period of a few months, which ended up coming to $10,000 dollars. We are currently planning a new donation initiative for 2021, which will for sure include the Last Prisoner Project, as well as numerous local non-profits.

Tia : What is your most popular product right now?

John : Our most popular product is our CO2 extracted, 100 percent cannabis oil cartridges, which is the majority of what we produce. We do small batch runs using trim from our own cultivation as well as from multiple high-quality cultivations across the state, so our strain inventory is constantly in flux. That being said, a strain we produce that is always a favorite is our Black D.O.G. which we sell both as flower and make into CO2 concentrate for our cartridges. Every time we have a batch of that it sells out quickly! Our cartridge hardware matches our eye for quality, as we exclusively use the CCELL brand. Featuring ceramic atomizers that are free of heavy metals.

Tia : You've probably heard that pre-rolls sales were record high in 2020. Have you had such a tendency? If yes, please share your assumptions, why did pre-rolls sales conquer the market?

John : In Alaska, many cultivators and stores started selling trim pre-rolls, or pre-rolls made from a mix of trim and bud. This naturally brought their price point down, resulting in them being able to sell them cheaper to the customer. My guess is that this cheaper price for customers resulted in higher overall sales of pre-rolls. We at THC don’t necessarily agree with this process, as it has a tendency to drive up the price on all trim, which is not sustainable for us and other concentrate manufacturers.

While we always encourage people to buy high-quality products, we do understand the difficulties with having an unstable economy and customers looking for cheaper options. In addition, with the ongoing pandemic, people are less likely to be sharing pre-rolls, pipes, or other smoking devices, resulting in a higher quantity of pre-rolls being sold so that people can smoke socially but individually, without having to share or pass products around.

Tia : By what criterion do buyers choose a product? More THC or are they more interested in other metrics like terpenes? What is your opinion on this?

John : This is a question very near and dear to our hearts. At Top Hat, our process and philosophy involves honoring the plant, and keeping our products as pure as possible. We strive not only to retain the whole cannabinoid and terpene profile of the plant, but also to allow each strain to shine with its unique flavor and characteristics. We are constantly seeking to educate the consumer on the benefits of considering all of these aspects as opposed to chasing high THC only.

Our hope is that there is a shift happening that will continue to broaden as more consumers learn about the benefits of looking beyond just THC content. With our products, while we do aim for high THC and all-around great testing results, our priority is retaining the purity of the plant and highlighting to our customers each strain’s unique qualities. We do have some customers that always look out for things like terpene profiles and the presence of cannabinoids such as CBG and CBC, all of which are prominently displayed both on our sales order sheets for retailers, and on our unique packaging labels for the end customer. It’s all about the entourage effect of terpenes and cannabinoids working in harmony to create different effects and great highs. Not just high THC.

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Tia : Has the target audience and its preferences changed from legalization to the present? If so, how exactly?

John : The target audience and its preferences have changed in respect to consumer education about the benefits of looking at not only THC but other aspects of cannabis as well. This is why we at Top Hat make full-spectrum concentrates. With legalization, more research has been done looking into different cannabinoids, and with that research comes awareness on the side of the consumer.

For example, people for years have known that CBD is a powerful cannabinoid with multiple health benefits, but there is a lot of exciting work being done looking at CBN, CBG, and CBC and how those particularly may affect people differently than THC or CBD. People use cannabis for a variety of reasons, and post-legalization we are now realizing the breadth of possibility when it comes to cannabinoid type, terpene profile and flavor, and even delivery method (i.e. concentrates, edibles, tinctures, topicals). Legalization has allowed consumers and the industry as a whole to explore these different aspects in a safe, regulated way.

Tia : Name five cannabis brands that you respect.

John : We respect any cannabis brands that treat their employees right, grow and create a quality product, and work to make their community better.

Tia : Do you personally use cannabis? Do you have any product and brand preferences?

John : Yes absolutely! CO2 vape cartridges (usually from Top Hat), Tundra Brewing Co. cannabis-infused beverages, and Stoney Moose’s chocolate truffles!

Tia : What values does your company adhere to?

John : Our goal at Top Hat Cannabis and Concentrates is to create the highest quality flower and concentrates with the least amount of impact on the environment. We value sustainability and quality above all else. Beyond just cannabis, we value social justice, equity, and activism, and doing what we can to strengthen our community and make the world a better place for everyone.

Tia : Do you have delivery? How do you think the industry will change when delivering cannabis becomes as routine as ordering pizza?

John : We don’t have a retail store yet, but delivery is prohibited in Alaska. Delivery would likely drive sales up and make the industry stronger in general.

Tia : Please share your wildest predictions for the Alaska cannabis industry for the next five years.

John : Safe banking, while not exactly “wild”, is a huge hurdle that we anticipate being changed in the next couple of years. So hopefully in five years we will be able to safely bank and be able to better grow the industry!

The other big up-and-coming change will be on-site consumption lounges. While this is legal in AK and technically not hard to obtain a license, since it can be hard for businesses to qualify because of municipal and state restrictions, there are very few licenses in the works at the moment. We hope things will change in the coming years, and make it more feasible for on-site consumption licenses to be obtained. In 5 years we may be able to go smoke with friends similarly to going out to the bars!

Tia : Your top strains to smoke? Why?

John : I love to smoke our own Black D.O.G., Green Crack, and Blueberry. Each strain has unique qualities leading to different types of highs, whether I feel like relaxing or going on a hike I can curate my experience with these varied strains.

Tia : If you could smoke with anyone on this planet, dead or alive, who'd that be and why?

John : [tooltip title="Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr." content="US rapper and media personality."]Snoop Dogg[/tooltip]!! I’ve respected his music and personality since I was a kid, he’s been a proud and open cannabis user for years, and a great asset to normalizing cannabis consumption.

Tia : Do you have your favorite brand in Alaska? Can you name them?

John : Honestly, we are our own favorite brand! All of our employees consume our products more than any other brand!

Tia : Do you have any brands in the USA you appreciate and follow?

John : We are inspired by Bloom Farms and Cresco.

Thank you so much, THC Alaska team, for taking the time to do the interview. To learn more about them, head on over to their website.

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