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How an expert psilocybin tester chooses award-winning mushrooms

The first-ever “Psilocybin Cup” received more than 50 magic mushroom submissions.

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multicolored glowing mushroom

Over the weekend, plant medicine enthusiasts, especially those interested in magic mushrooms, logged onto their computers to participate in a novel event: the inaugural Psilocybin Cup.

Organized by Oakland Hyphae, a consulting firm and incubation laboratory in Oakland California, dozens of magic mushroom cultivators submitted their mushrooms to Hyphae Labs. In 2019, the City Council of Oakland, California decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms and other psychoactive plants and fungi.

At Hyphae Labs, scientists tested samples sent from more than 50 growers to determine how much psilocybin and psilocin, two of the hallucinogenic compounds found in magic mushrooms, were in each mushroom.

The winner was announced on Tuesday during the Psilocybin Cup, after three days of virtual lectures from experts in the community on everything from equity and representation in psychedelics to the science of plant medicine.

How to judge a magic mushroom

The Psilocybin Cup was an “unconference for mycology and plant medicine enthusiasts.”

Oakland Hyphae

Because Oakland is one of the few cities in the country that has decriminalized hallucinogenic mushrooms, it seemed like an appropriate location for this kind of side-by-side comparison. And according to Ian Bollinger, a biologist and researcher with Hyphae Labs, that’s exactly what makes testing so important.

“The whole idea of us doing this is for harm reduction,” Bollinger tells Inverse. “People are in spaces where these things are decriminalized and people are actively going to pursue these things on their own.”

Currently, people tend to evaluate the quality of a dose of magic mushrooms by weight, and from that, they extrapolate how much psilocybin there is from that weight. Psilocybin is the most well-known psychedelic compound in mushrooms.

But, in reality, the amount of psychedelic compounds in any given mushroom is going to depend on the cultivar, how it was grown, how old it is, and a variety of other factors.

There are over 200 hundred species of Psilocybe mushrooms and an unknown about of subspecies selectively bred by enthusiasts. “Cultivar” is short for “cultivated variety" which is the technically correct way to describe these subspecies — but many people tend to be more colloquial and use the word “strain.”

Why even have a Psilocybin Cup?

There are several reasons it’s important to figure out how much of these hallucinogenic compounds are in various mushrooms, especially as their medicinal uses are better understood.

It’s important to standardize dosing; so people understand exactly how much they need to take to achieve a certain therapeutic effect, Bollinger says. There’s a similar effort being made in the world of marijuana, where standardizing THC doses is considered a path toward more sustainable and more helpful treatment.

Dried psilocybin mushrooms, or “magic mushrooms.”

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Further, most studies examining psilocybin are using chemically created compounds that aren’t exactly psilocybin but turn into psilocybin once ingested. That means the experience a person has after taking mushrooms may not be exactly the same as what someone experiences in a clinical trial. Essentially, because these compounds are so appealing to people and have been shown to have so much therapeutic potential, we need to understand them as completely as possible if they’re going to be ingested.

Regarding dosing, Bollinger says that there’s a wide gulf between a microdose — such a small amount that you don’t feel the psychedelic effects — and a very large dose (or what he calls an “unlock the mysteries of the universe dose”).

“I think in terms of therapy, we’re looking at something in between those two,” Bollinger says. “There’s value in the low dose and there’s value in the high dose, but we need to understand these things better to be able to say, ‘what is a high dose? What is low? And how can we guarantee that we understand these things better?’”

To determine the amount of psilocybin and psilocin in each submission, the scientists of the Psilocybin Cup used a technology called High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).

An HPCL machine is essentially a high-pressure filter. According to Bollinger, when a sample is first injected into the HPLC it is shot into a “solvent river” that takes the injection into a packed filter of carbon named after its shape: a column. This acts as a porous membrane that some compounds get slowed down in due to chemical interactions while others slip by unimpeded.

This separates the substances from each other. They are then taken by this “river” to the analysis array — this shoots a variable wavelength laser at the liquid and examines how much of the light gets absorbed. The amount of absorbance of a specific frequency of light correlates to the number of compounds present in the sample. If you use a pure certified reference material (also known as a “standard”) then you can determine and quantify the presence of compounds based on their absorbance detection.

What comes next — A similar scientific process happened as researchers sought to analyze the medicinal properties of cannabis, though Bollinger hopes this time the process can be more holistic and equitable.

And much like what happened with cannabis and THC, there’s been laser-focus on one compound in magic mushrooms — psilocybin. While it’s certainly important to understand the compounds that produce such a strong psychoactive effect, it’s also important to understand the other compounds, both individually and how they interact together.

The results of the Psilocybin Cup.

“We want this testing to be accessible to people beyond pharma and ivory towers,” Bollinger says. “And transferable, something that people can do in their own communities.”

He adds that with cannabis, much of the testing is considered Intellectual Property, and thus limits who can test their own products. Further, the lack of standardization in cannabis testing has been problematic for the industry as a whole. That’s something he and the Oakland Hyphae team hope to change when it comes to mushrooms.

“We post all the results on the website,” Bollinger says. “And we’ll talk to anyone who is interested in doing this in their own communities.

As for the Psilocybin Cup? Magic Myco farms came in first place for their cultivar Tidalwave while Chip Forseyte came in second for the cultivar Fuzzy Balls. Last but not least, was the culivator Blackapple411 with their third place cultivar, Penis Envy.

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