There’s no chocolate river running through the new Altai Brands facility in Salinas. It’s missing a hoard of diminutive green-haired employees, there are no booby-trapped candies that expose children’s flaws, and as far as we know the company has yet to develop a snozzberry flavor. But still, Altai is the closest thing in existence to a Wonka-esque cannabis-infused chocolate factory—and co-founder Rob Weakley is its Willy (sans purple velvet suit).
Named for a Siberian princess, who, when unearthed from the permafrost, was discovered to have died of cancer and buried with cannabis, making it perhaps the first discovery of medicinal marijuana ever, Altai Brands specializes in super high-end, low-dose, artisanal edible cannabis products. These are not the homespun, hand-wrapped and overtly wacky candies and edibles you might see in local dispensaries. Don’t think KeefKats or 4.20 Bars. Instead, they’re rather refined chocolate bon bons, bars and coins, bergamot-tea hard candy soothers, and crunchy little pips, all enclosed in attractive (child-proof) packaging. They’re so chic, you have to look closely to even know they’re weed, which is both clever and maybe a little crazy. But that’s the direction Weakley sees all of this going.
The former co-founder of the Coastal Luxury Management Group, which is behind Faith & Flower, Los Angeles Food & Wine, and Cannery Row Brewing Company in Monterey, moved on from building a restaurant empire to jump head first into the weed game. “There are a lot of parallels between the culinary world and the cannabis world,” he says. “Having been in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years, I already know what needed to be done. In the cannabis industry, the rules are still being written. It’s exciting being a part of that conversation.”
Since only medical marijuana use is currently legal in California, Weakley is quick to remind anyone that this is all completely legit. It has to be, especially for an upstanding family man from a fairly small community (there isn’t much to hide behind on the Monterey Peninsula). Altai doesn’t grow weed or sell it; instead, they receive oils to use and “supply” products to dispensaries. They have an in-house publicist, for crying out loud.
One of the partners, Gavin Kogan, a well-known cannabis attorney in Monterey County, helps on the legal issues. And a third partner, Mark Ainsworth, a San Francisco-based former Ritz-Carlton pastry chef who was last making commercial baked goods for Whole Foods, is the chocolate man. Cue the Oompa Loompas now. These three are used to delivering a certain kind of elevated experience to their customer, and so it shall be with their edibles. Weakley did, after all, help create one of the most luxury-branded food events in the city. If he can get Thomas Keller to do a lavish shellfish bar on the LAFW red carpet every year, you better believe he’s going to make sure his sativa-laced chocolates are some of the best out there.
And that’s what piqued our interest. If the weed industry is getting more serious about food—there are only a handful of artisanal edible manufacturers out there right now—it’s time the food experts get serious about edibles. If for anything, for the flavor. But since we are not California card carriers, we can only sample the “unmedicated” chocolates sans loopy side effects. We’re no Maureen Dowd, after all, nor are we in Washington or Colorado. The result: simply as chocolates, these are as good as, if not better than, any confection on the market.
The dark chocolate bon bons come in stylish tins that, only with careful observation, subtly say “sativa” and “indica” on them. The ingredients listed are ones we’d like to see in any sweet: real Tahitian vanilla, Mediterranean sea salt, and single-origin chocolate from Peru. Fillings include silky sea-salt and milk-chocolate caramel, dulce de leche, or bittersweet chocolate truffle, and each candy has its own colorful abstract swoosh of paint on top. The elongated single-serving Alt Bars are filled with bitter sweet chocolate, peanut cream with a layer of crushed peanuts, or vanilla with crisp rice for a bit of sweet crunch.
If all “medicated” edibles are going to taste this good, we might have to get those migraines re-evaluated.
“Mark designed all of the confections and is responsible for the ingredients,” Weakley says. “He spent months and months in the test kitchen. We had a multiple sample sessions with unmedicated versions. Trying to get the flavor exactly right.” Of course, it was probably a lot more fun when the medicated testing began.
Altai’s parent company, Indus, also holds exclusive rights to distributing Dixie Elixirs products in California. The brand is well-known among the edible-loving set for its handcrafted products like the Toasted Rooster: a pepita-lined dark chocolate bar with such a sophisticated child-proof package, even a something-something-year-old woman couldn’t open it (ahem).
Weakley, who was recently in the midst of legal struggles with Coastal Luxury Management, seems much more relaxed these days. With a pool of investors, he and his partners opened their manufacturing facility in Salinas, and even went to the city planners to make sure they were ok with it. (Again: the psychedelic chocolate river is a no-brainer here.) Since it’s all within legal boundaries, Altai began production this year, and the bon bons and chocolates are now hitting the dispensaries.
Each Altai product is triple tested—meaning the cannabis flower, oil, and finished product—for consistency and potency. The dosage is kept low, either 10 or 25 milligrams of active THC per dose, which isn’t much to a regular pot smoker or edible eater but can be strong for a novice. Since we didn’t sample them ourselves—and surely wouldn’t be able to write this right after if we did—we have it on good authority that one bon bon or Alt Bar is probably enough to feel the effects.
“Once I started reading about the benefits of cannabis it became clear that marijuana is something that a great amount of people were using for health and well being,” Weakley says. “It opened my eyes to ways that people can dose and ingest as well as all the science behind it. We know that with our products, our customers will get something that tastes delicious and is consistent. In California, Altai is for the patients who enjoy fine ingredients, but also for those who haven’t tried edibles in a long time for one reason or another.”
Legalized marijuana is one of the fastest growing industries in states like Washington and Colorado, the latter of which boasted exponential tax revenue dollars since laws for recreational/personal use went into effect in 2014. Until—and if—California follows suit (it will be on the 2016 ballot), L.A. cardholders can partake in the Altai products via Greenly, a delivery-only service based in Marina del Rey. Should you find yourself on the Monterey peninsula, there are plenty of dispensaries now selling the product as well (keep an eye here for more local shops).