Strains & products

The California pre-roll battle royale 2021

Published on April 16, 2021 · Last updated April 5, 2022

I think all of us in California can agree: buying a good dispensary pre-roll can feel like a crapshoot.

Pandemic restrictions notwithstanding, consumers have never really been able to smell or see samples of pre-made joints like they can when they shop for flower or concentrates.

For one, there are packaging regulations. Plus, supply issues resulting from pandemic demand, and the slow pace of new farm licensing.

This is all to say, how does one know if the doobie they’re buying is any good?

Since pre-rolls are like the hot dogs of cannabis, Leafly rounded up a panel of Bay Area cannabis professionals to independently nominate their favorite brands, put them to the test, and set the record straight. The top three winning pre-rolls are guaranteed worth your time and money, and this is how we figured it out.

California pre-roll battle royale judges

Decades of combined industry experience sat in judgement of the state's joints. (Leafly)
Decades of combined industry experience sat in judgement of the state’s joints. (Leafly)

Two nominees per judge; 9 total

Every judge nominated two flower-only pre-rolls of their choice they thought could take gold, with a range that includes indoor and outdoor, indica and sativa options.

Some were from pre-roll-specific brands, like Island and Juniper, and others from larger companies more focused on flower and/or extracts with joints on the side, like Alien Labs. Other popular nominees include the likes of 710 Labs, Wonderbrett, Archive California, Henry’s Original, and UpNorth. This contest could not be bought. Leafly spent almost $800 of its own cash equipping each judge with all nine joints, sourced from retail stores.

The rules of the royale

For the sake of smokers statewide, our judges threw themselves into a grueling week of smoking all nine contestants. We convened on video chat in the evenings to parse out the best options using airtight judging criteria, which has been included in this article, for science.

This was not a blind test, so all aspects have been taken into consideration using a rubric that evaluates not only how tasty and potent the cone smokes, but also aesthetic and production choices.

  • How thoughtful is its branding?
  • Does the joint itself have structural integrity?
  • Is this doob tube even airtight?

It should be noted that while potency part of the judging criteria, the numerical value of cannabinoids was not considered.

We convened on Google Hangout on three separate occasions to prevent anyone from falling asleep, smoking an average of three joints per session. We were mindful not to smoke too many with similar effects or with similar terpene profiles.

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Some joints seemed promising in the tube, but couldn’t deliver once lit, lacking flavor, impact, or airflow. Others surprised us, and rarely was there a unanimous decision on which was best. Some likely would have scored higher had they not been manufactured a year ago.

After individually scoring every j, totals were averaged to determine the overall winner that exemplified all aspects of a pre-roll worthy of your hard-earned greenbacks.

The California pre-roll battle royale 2021 – Winner

710 Labs' Stardawg Pie #9 combines exotic, indoor, high-grade flower, hand-rolling, and freshness—for the win.
710 Labs’ Stardawg Pie #9 combines exotic, indoor, high-grade flower, hand-rolling, and freshness—for the win. (Leafly)

The proof is in the pasta: 710 Labs’ Stardawg Pie #9 squeaks out a victory against heavy-hitting Alien Labs, and Wonderbrett.

Despite having the lowest-testing THC of the bunch, the Stardawg Pie was bursting with terps and structurally sound, lending itself to a smooth hit and potent relaxation. Unique “mascara”-like packaging, a crutch made of dry rotini pasta, and overall freshness also helped the brand beat out fellow frontrunners. 710 Labs is most known for its reputation in the solventless concentrates market, but the hash starts with the best flowers.

As judge Terryn Buxton put it, “I can taste the f*** outta this!”

David Downs said, “It made me so high I have to lower other scores for high.”

710 Labs Founder and CEO Brad Melshenker tells Leafly that he made the doinks for people like himself, and other self-identified pot snobs.

“I was convinced the pre-rolls would be too dry, poorly rolled with too much paper, and were probably made using shake or dried out lower small buds. So I said, ‘We are gonna put something out that I would want to buy,’” he says.

Brad Melshenker, 710 Labs

Stardawg Pie was a natural fit, due to its grape-heavy flavor and high resin production, of which 710 Labs only uses top colas rolled with as little paper as possible, with a pasta noodle crutch that maintains airflow without getting clogged and sticky.

What’s not to like? The biggest downside, however, is access. Hash is 710 Labs’ bread and butter, not joints. In fact, for quality control, only two employees produce the pre-rolls, which makes scaling up near impossible if the quality is to be maintained.

The California pre-roll battle royale 2021 runners-up

Second and third place, Alien Labs’ Atomic Apple, and Wondebrett’s DJ Short Blueberry, could have easily taken gold as well, and are scaled to be much more consistently available and widely accessible.

The top five pre-made smokes are all produced by flower companies, not pre-roll-focused brands:

2nd place: Atomic Apple, Alien Labs, 48.8/55 ave. points


At just 0.1 points behind, Alien Labs’ Atomic Apple is an equally delicious option.

3rd place: Blueberry, Wonderbrett, 48.5/55 ave. points


Despite a 2020 packaging date, judges all fawned over the bright, blueberry nose. The smoke left all of us pretty silent, but aroma didn’t fully translate to flavor.

4th place: GMO, UpNorth, 48.4/55 ave. points

This was one of judge Xochi Segura’s favorites for its stony effects and garlicky terps.

5th place: Lemon Cane, Archive California, 47.6/55 ave. points

Despite its middling position and a relatively older packaging date, the Archive Lemon Cane was lauded by Ellen Holland, “tastes amazing, super smooth lemon is present, but not overwhelming,” and was the winner for more than one judge.

6th place: Biscotti, Juniper, 35.3/55, ave. points

After the top five, the bottom five dropped off. Xochi Seguara called this outdoor flower “deceptive,” with strong packaging and a fragrant nose, but lacking when smoked.

7th place: Chem Jam, IC Collective, 34.6/55 ave. points

So psyched to taste an IC Collective, we forget to check the manufacturing date. This joint was from October. Ellen Holland said, “Nose is OK especially considering the age of our sample, but hard to ignore the unpleasant taste.

8th place: Donut Shack, Island, 33.6/55 ave. points

David Downs noted his tube wasn’t airtight. It’s also a smaller joint and not tough enough to hang with the big dogs.

9th place: Black Mamba, Henry’s 31.3/55 ave. points

“I liked the unprocessed paper, and the Clean Green logo.” Xochi’s doob tube was warped.

Better pre-rolls to come

David Downs said it best, “It’s hard out here for a pre-roll. The best pre-roll brands don’t exist yet.”

Neither the winner nor any of the top five contestants come from a pre-roll-centric brand. The two biggest determinants of a killer joint are starting material and company infrastructure. Old, dried-out weed can’t be hidden in a paper. The company also has to have the means to quickly and consistently get their joints from the packaging facilities to the shelves.

Judge Xochi Segura speculated that smaller farms may be the way to go. Judges agreed that pre-rolls are often an afterthought for many brands, or an inexpensive teaser rather than a true representation of brand quality.

Speaking as a budtender, myself, I see high-quality pre-rolls go for a minimum $15, when many consumers don’t want to spend more than $10. Investing in quality pays off!

What brands should be in our next battle royale?

We surveyed some big names in California prerolls, but nine contenders barely scratch the preroll surface of a state with as much cannabis as California, so we ask you readers: what brands should be in our next battle royale?

The Jeeter?

Jay-Z’s Monogram No01 handroll?

Whatever you chose, please be sure to check those manufacturing dates!

Comment below with your favorite pre-roll brand and why.

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Amelia Williams
Amelia Williams
New York-based freelance cannabis journalist Amelia Williams is a graduate of San Francisco State University's journalism program, and a former budtender. Williams has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle's GreenState, MG Magazine, Culture Magazine, and Cannabis Now, Kirkus Reviews, and The Bold Italic.
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