Cannabis Alcohol Extraction at Home: Process & Equipment

You Can Do It!

Crafting your own extractions at home is unimaginably fun, exciting, and rewarding but for the beginner it can be a daunting task.  Understanding how to perform an extraction and what’s safe to do at home can be hard, but after reading this I hope you feel much more informed and brave enough to try it yourself.

Why Choose Alcohol Extraction For The Home?

There are various methods and processes used to extract oils from botanical material.  To determine the best process for a cannabis extraction enthusiast to use at home we should first consider what the options are.  There’s a long list of solvents that can be used for extraction including butane, propane, C02, naphtha, acetone, isopropyl, ethanol, and many more.  The arguments for and against the use of each of these solvents fill volumes of threads, blogs, and how-to-videos.  After taking into account all aspects of the various extraction methods I’ve determined, in my opinion, food-grade ethanol is best for at home extraction.  The process is the same using ethanol and isopropyl, but I recommend food grade ethanol above all other options.  I’m a fan of alcohol extraction because with the proper equipment anyone can easily craft a beautiful creation in a couple short hours.  In this post I explain the alcohol extraction process in simple terms, what I like about alcohol extraction for the home user, alcohol evaporation techniques, and what equipment is available for the home crafter.  The discussion will be kept very basic so if there is something more advanced that you would like to know or discuss definitely hit me up at ichibancrafter@gmail.com and ask me anything you’d like.
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The use of alcohol extraction has been around for thousands of years and in practice it’s quite simple.  Alcohol acts as a solvent, striping the THC, CBD, terpenes, chlorophyll, fats, lipids and wax compounds from plant material then suspending those compounds in alcohol solution form.  The first step in the extraction process is the “wash” where the cannabis plant material is soaked in alcohol to collect the desired components.  Second, the wash is separated from the plant material using a strainer and the alcohol solution is further filtered until it’s particulate free.  Lastly, the alcohol is evaporated out of the solution until what remains is a highly concentrated form of the botanical components harvested from the cannabis plant.  Three basic steps, wash, filter, and evaporate that’s it.

For the home crafter making botanical oils or cannabis concentrates I like alcohol extraction because, in addition to it being the most healthful choice, it’s very obtainable, affordable, and easy to replicate with a high level of certainty and confidence.  BHO makes a beautiful product but the process is immensely dangerous, not to mention the toxic nature of the butane and residual poisons.  In a commercial production facility it may be possible to rid the final concentrate of toxic contaminates but its highly unlikely for the do-it-in-the-garage setting.  CO2 also makes a stunning concentrate, but the required equipment is difficult to use and not affordable for home, small batch use.  There are other traditional methods for making concentrates and medicine like make bubble hash, but it’s time consuming, labor intensive, and ends up with lower potency in comparison to its peers.  Oils, butter, and vegetable glycerin are also used as a medium for ‘infusion’, as apposed to ‘extraction’, and are good for making medicated edibles when green chlorophyll, fats, wax residue, low efficiency, and low potency are acceptable.  Rosin press extraction is an unarguably pure product but the process suffers from efficiency, yield, and application limitations.  Enter your every day alcohol extraction to save the day.

Using food grade alcohol means your end product will be absolutely NON-TOXIC.  You will hear terms like ‘solvent-less’ and ‘solvent-free’ concentrates being touted as the only concentrate acceptable to be considered “medicine” and healthy enough to smoke.  A simple line dividing “solvent” and “solvent-free” is misleading and it inappropriately demonizes alcohol extracts.  Residual alcohol in a purged concentrate will be negligible.  Any negligible amount of food-grade, non-toxic alcohol is not any more dangerous than the plant material being smoked.  Please don’t be influenced by the “solvent-less” propaganda because it’s not applicable to food-grade ethanol extraction.

What Can You Do With Alcohol Extraction?

Alcohol is a great tool and a very efficient solvent that can be used in different ways to achieve different results.  When preparing to perform an extraction it is important to first determine what form the final product take and what it’ll be used for.  For medicinal extractions like FECO a long soak of 1-hour to several days is used resulting in a dark green or black oil for oral ingestion.  On the other end of the spectrum, to make a great smokable concentrate that’s clean in color and flavor use a process called QWET (Quick Wash Ethanol) that requires freezing of the material and a wash of only several minutes.  Then, somewhere in-between the long medicinal soak and the QWET is a happy medium used to make delicious edibles without the unsavory green plant flavor.  Alcohol extraction provides a lot of flexibility and control over your final product.  A huge benefit of using alcohol extraction is the ability to use already extracted cannabis material to perform a second wash and extraction adding huge value to your process.  I don’t know another extraction technique that has so many different applications.

Another reason to like alcohol extraction is the high efficiency of collecting Terpenes along with THC and CBD.  Alcohol holds Terpenes well but if they are subsequently subjected to higher than necessary heat they will evaporate or be destroyed at an increasing rate with higher temperatures.  Maintaining low temperatures throughout the extraction process is the only way to protect the valuable terpenes and have a final product with the maximum amount of flavor and healing power.

What’s The Process and Equipment Necessary for Alcohol Extraction?

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 5.23.48 PMTo convert the alcohol solution from a liquid to a concentrate the alcohol must be removed through evaporation.  There’re  different evaporative techniques  that vary from downright simple, seriously dangerous, and pure genius.  The original old school and most simple technique is natural evaporation achieved by pouring the alcohol solution into a flat bottom pyrex dish in a thin layer and allowing to evaporte into the air for 1-2 days with a small fan blowing gently over the area.  When the solution is completely dried the final product is scrapped off and collected.
Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 5.10.19 PMThe most dangerous and Darwin Award worthy way to evaporate the alcohol is in a pot, on the stove-top, over an open flame.  Disaster is just waiting for the highly combustable evaporated alcohol vapor filling the kitchen.  Using a rice cooker to evaporate the alcohol is almost as dangerous when done in an enclosed area .  It isn’t as bad as boiling alcohol over an open flame, but it must to be performed outdoors for safety.  Unfortunately, with any open evaporation technique like these, the neighbors for miles will smell exactly what you’re doing.

If you want more method to your cannabis cooking madness there’s a lot of equipment on the market to help you.  Sadly, most of the stuff for sale is laborious or ineffective, or both.  There are a number of rigs you can cobble together yourself or purchase that are either ‘open’ or ‘closed-loop’.  An open alcohol extraction setup allows the evaporating vapor to escape into the air.  Conversely, a closed-loop captures the evaporating vapor, condenses it and reclaims the alcohol for reuse.  A fully self-contained closed loop system not only removes the danger of accidental fires but also eliminates the pungent odor of cannabis extraction.  Closed loop systems are the best choice by far, but the inexpensive contraptions people cobble together themselves involve various cumbersome interconnected sections, an external vacuum pumps that are very noisy, difficult to control performance settings and unreliable components .  These systems work but are not worth the effort or cost when you consider the options.

This brings me to the three products that make the most sense for the at home photoforblogcannabis crafting enthusiast.  The Magical Butter Machine (MBM) was a game changer when it first came out.  In reality it’s simply borrowed existing technology of Chinese made soy milk (almond milk) makers and rebranded it as a cannabis tool.  It only performs infusions, not extractions.  MBM doesn’t work well with alcohol but I included it here because it’s a great entry point for experimenting and getting your feet wet with working with cannabis without a large investment.  It’s primarily used to infuse oils and butters with cannabis by emulsifying and mixing the contents in a heated container.  Quite frankly, the function the MBM performs is the same as simmering butter and cannabis on the stove top.  It claims the ability to make a weak tincture by alcohol “extraction” but in reality it simply steeps the cannabis and this is not useful.  The MBM is unable to make concentrates like quality clean butter or oils, tinctures, smokable oil, wax and shatter.  Being an open system it allows the vapors to escape into the air creating a reasonable amount of pungent odor.  The nature of the open system also means it operates at higher temperatures that’ll not only cause some uncontrolled decarbing it will destroy a good portion of the powerful and tasty terpenes.  In short, if you’re simply looking for something that infuses butter and oil, with the plant matter emulsified in, and don’t want to use a slow cooker or a pot on the stove to do the same thing, this will work.  My main problem with this process is the resulting green chlorophyll sludge flavor in my final product and this is a deal breaker for any quality output.  The main advantage is that it’s super easy or beginners to use.

Next easiest and affordable tools are alcohol distillers.  An alcohol distiller can be used to make low quality cannabis oil by heating the alcohol solution to evaporation and reclaiming a good portion of the alcohol in an external collection vessel.  These are not designed to make extractions, but many people use them because of their speed and volume of production.  Because they are designed for alcohol distillation, and not cannabis oil production, there’s no design consideration into how to remove the oil from the unit when its finished.  Removing the oil from a distiller can be messy, troublesome, and wasteful.  The distillers work at normal atmospheric pressure and without the assistance of vacuum.  This means they work at higher temperatures and compromise the quality of the final product making it impossible to produce anything high quality or smokable.  Additionally,  there’s no way to see inside and observe the operation’s progress.  Continuous monitoring of the final product is important to achieve the exact desired concentrate consistency and avoid burning the oil.  The main advantage of using a distiller is they are cheap, easy, and fast.  The main disadvantage is they are limited to only maki