Spotlight Series: Katie Stem, Peak Extracts
Katie and her business partner Kate started Peak in 2014. Katie had been a medical cannabis user for ten years at that point, using cannabis to make infused chocolate to help her manager her Crohn’s symptoms. She knew that specific cultivars provided the results she was looking for while others didn’t so much, she wanted to create single strain specific products for other patients in the Oregon medical market. They transitioned to the adult use market in 2016 and were one of the first edibles processors licensed in the state.
Katie is also a Chinese herbalist and has developed a formula for a product called Rescue Rub which is said to help with everything from neuropathy to muscle strains to healing tattoos. The Peak Extracts chocolate bars are made with local, pesticide-free cannabis and gourmet 70% dark chocolate couverture. They are vegan, gluten-free and rich in antioxidants. Designed to deliver a unique, full-spectrum cannabis experience, Pure Peak CO2 Oil features Terp-lockTM, a proprietary process, and top-quality ceramic, glass and stainless-steel cartridges.
How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
The Oregon medical marijuana community was still pretty small when I got my card in 2005 to manage my Crohn’s disease. It was a tight knit group here in Portland and we did a lot of experimenting and sharing recipes. I began making strain-specific infused chocolates in 2006, and I realized immediately that some strains were fantastic for my pain and nausea but others were not. In 2014, my girlfriend Kate and I decided to start our business in the medical market, and invested in our first CO2 extractor. Our company did well selling chocolates and topicals to the medical dispensaries, and then when it went legal here we decided to expand further. We were the first licensed edibles manufacturer in the recreational market in 2016, and have been very busy ever since.
Tell us a little bit about your product or service
We take in material from local farms selected based on their values, quality product and growing practices, and turn it into a variety of strain-specific products. Our chocolate bars are made from gourmet 70% dark couverture and are divided into a rainbow of effects, color-coded based on whether they are indica or sativa dominant, and “bright” or “heavy.” We also have a line of terpene-rich tinctures and vape cartridges, also strain specific, so people can have the utmost control over their experience. Rescue Rub is our topical, developed during my years as a practicing Chinese herbalist. It contains 12 herbs plus cannabis, and is designed to treat trauma, pain, and inflammation.
What time does your day typically start and what does a normal day look like to you?
We usually start working at 8am, since the factory gets going at 8:30, it’s nice to get a head start. We have 10 employees and make thousands of units of product every week, and service around 150 accounts. That means that my partner and I do a lot of different jobs, so it seems like no two days are the same. My days are usually filled with managing product flow/inventory, sourcing material for extraction, doing design work for our ever-changing packaging and labels, and managing our sales and extraction staff. Kate and I communicate several times a day, as she oversees production on the factory floor, and packing orders for delivery. It’s literally never dull. Although the factory shuts down between 5-6pm, we usually have a few more hours of work to prepare for the next day. We often take a long walk and go over our day, and then do clerical, social media or design work until 9pm or later. Anyone who’s ever run a small business knows that the work is never finished, but having control over such an exciting and dynamic process is a fine reward.
What is your vision for your company going forward?
We are going to continue expanding our product line and reach into other states. We’re about to roll out some exciting hemp-based products, and we’re hoping to expand into Kate’s home state of Michigan later this summer. Our vision is to continue to offer the best quality product with the most customizable effects. As we move beyond Oregon, consumer education is going to be paramount. Not many other states have cannabis as entrenched into their culture, and we are excited to engage with a new wave of consumers that can benefit from all cannabis has to offer.
What would an ideal post prohibition society look like to you?
Cannabis was used for millennia as a medicinal tool, and I would like to see it available in a variety of forms to suit everyone’s unique needs. Much like all mainstream categories of packaged goods, I hope that there will be room for both craft, high end products and cheap, readily available ones. Oregon and Northern California have the perfect natural conditions to supply the world with the finest possible cannabis, and I would love to have that be our niche market, much like Bordeaux with wine. I’m hoping that in the next few years, cannabis will be legal nationwide, allowing our company to expand without having to have a new facility in each state.
What was your first experience with cannabis like?
I was one of the last of my peers in high school to try cannabis. I would hang out with them while they were stoned and act like Lassie— herding them away from danger and towards the snacks. I was 17 when I smoked for the first time, with my drama teacher. We were on this magical stretch of the Snake River Canyon, and we hiked for hours and talked about philosophy, spirituality and nature. It was a high bar to set for all future experiences and I’m grateful I got such a spectacular introduction.
Tell us about some of the challenges you face working in the cannabis industry
The biggest challenges have been around changing for unreasonable regulations. It was very difficult to get a permit to use our extraction system within the Portland city limits, exacerbated by the fact that at the time we had an all-female staff. They assumed that as women, we couldn’t possibly know how to run such a large (and loud!) piece of equipment. Banking has been another giant hurdle. Luckily, we do have a bank account now, but it requires a hefty monthly maintenance fee, quarterly audit and a three hour drive to make a deposit. I’m hoping that soon both banking and the draconian 280E taxation will be resolved.
What are some solutions you've found?
I’ve found it’s best just to channel my inner labrador retriever, and not get flustered by the thrice daily “cannamergencies” — abruptly changing packaging rules, sexist inspectors, etc. We’ve learned to pivot with ease, and to not become discouraged when we hear the word “no,” unless it’s something unethical or illegal, of course. And as for the sexist inspectors, we have male friends that are willing to come in and pretend to work for our company to assuage them. It’s upsetting how often we’ve had to resort to that play.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about cannabis?
Your response to cannabis will be affected by your own individual endocannabinoid system, which in turn is shaped by genetics, time of day, past illness, and even past antibiotic use. Not only that, but each strain of cannabis has its own unique effects. It’s literally infinitely customizable to the experience you want to create, and we have more control than we think!
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about your product or service?
Our dedication to strain specificity and terpene retention sets us apart in the market as a company that can provide consumers with unparalleled control over their cannabis experience.
If you could go back in time and do it all over again, what (if anything) would you do differently?
There are a couple of our products I wish I had released years before we did, such as our tinctures. I had no idea the demand, or the utility for me personally.
What is your favorite way to consume cannabis?
Ironically, our newest product is the one I use the most, our strain-specific tincture. I love to combine them to achieve different effects. For instance, we have an amazing Bright Sativa 23:1 CBD tincture that I use during the day, and add a couple drops of the heavy indica 2:1 tincture for pain as needed. It’s long lasting, delicious, and as we expand our line there will be even more varieties to experiment with in combination.
Concentrate or flower? Why?
I mostly use our vape pens these days, although I could never give up flower vaporized in my vintage volcano. Our CO2 oil is delicious and as I curate the strain collection, I always have access to my favorites. I also find I have less issue with allergies because any molds or mildew are eliminated by the extraction process. The only disadvantage is that it’s vaporized at a higher temperature, which will damage some of the more delicate compounds that make each strain unique.
Do you think cannabis legalization will change the world for the better? Why?
Carl Sagan characterized cannabis as an introspective drug, and I agree that it has an enormous potential to counteract some of the unsavory aspects in our current social climate. People in pain, emotional and physical, tend to be more selfish and reactive. Cannabis eases so many conditions and brings calm and relief, as well as a shift in perspective. I’m hoping that we will use this powerful tool to fight against suffering and lack of compassion, and cannabis will usher in a kinder, more thoughtful society.
What advice would you offer to another woman who is looking to get into the industry?
Don’t give up when someone says you can’t do something! Find some trusted allies in the industry and have regular meetings with them about what you’re learning. Try not to be too protective or proprietary— I’ve found that the more I share, the more I learn about possible flaws in my thinking or process. It’s a brand new industry, and we’re all going to grow together very fast.