I've got a sweet gig—but that's an understatement. To be more precise, one of the sweetest parts of my gig is Amsterdam. Not only does the whole HIGH TIMES staff cross the pond every November to throw the biggest pot party in the world, but I get to go there once or twice each summer and get my grow on. Lately, however, I've been going over just to pre-view aspects of the upcoming HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup. While this started as a cultivation-specific en-deavor, it has evolved and morphed into more of a mélange of Cannabis Cup essence. Just like the ter-penes and essential oils of a bud, what we're going for here is the full. high—everything you need to know about what goes on every year at the Cup and, subsequently, why you gotta make it to Amsterdam at least once (or 10 times) before you leave your earthly shell. So here's a taste of our upcoming 24th (wow!) Annual Cannabis Cup, including the can't-miss coffeeshops, new breeders and strains to test, and various places to Eat. Smoke. Love. This is it: The Guide. FIRST, Have NO WORRIES There has been much speculation and rumor about the status of cannabis in Amsterdam, the status of tourists and weed, and, more specifically, the status of the HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup this year. So allow us to put your fears to rest: The 2011 Cannabis Cup is on! All systems are go, as usual. But ... there may be some problems on the horizon in the coming years. Backed by the far-right party of anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders, the new coalition government that came into power last year wants to curb canna-tourism as part of a nationwide program to promote health and fight crime (while also ruining the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of Dutch citizens who make their living entirely from tourism). Of course, like any political game, this one is subject to change at the drop of a dime, and these efforts most likely will get quashed altogether as the local leaders of Amsterdam (such as the city's current mayor, Eberhard van der Laan) fight off these ridiculous bills, which would kill tourism and effectively render Amsterdam a ghost town. Currently, the Dutch government is trying to ban tourists from buying cannabis in coffeeshops and impose certain restrictions on its own citizens by the end of 2011. If the new policy actually passes into law, it would roll out in the southern provinces of Holland first (Limburg, Noord-Brabant, Zeeland) and make its way north to Amsterdam and the rest of the country next year. Still, Wilders' party has been trying to do this for decades without success, so most people in Amsterdam remain optimistic. However, if you haven't been to a Cannabis Cup yet, we hate to say it, but you may want to think a bit longer about it this year. The High Times Cannabis cup: A Brief History These days, there are loads of Cannabis Cup-style competitions going on around the globe, with more than a few happening right here within the borders of the United States. (God bless America.) However, there's only one true Cup event that happens every year, and that, of course, is our very own Cannabis Cup in the Mecca of Marijuana—Amsterdam. Our competition attracts the biggest names and players in cannabis from around the world, crowning a champion in five distinct categories and naming the best marijuana on Earth for the year. The name of the contest is the HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup ... and it's only a few months away. Dating back to 1987, the Cannabis Cup was originally created by then HIGH TIMES editor in chief Steve Hager when he became inspired by stories of the "spectacular California harvest festivals of the '70s." In those days, seed breeders were not nearly as prevalent as they are now, and the terms "seed company" and -seed bank" were virtually synonymous (whereas today, seed banks are largely distributors or retailers for many different seed companies or breeders). In the early days, there were only four clubs competing in the Cup: the Super Sativa Seed Club, the Sensi Seed Club, the Seed Bank and Cultivators Choice. Nevil, one of the legendary godfathers of cannabis genetics, founded the Seed Bank and quickly bought out Cultivator's Choice, working with those genetics and using some of them to dominate the first few years of competition. By the fourth Cup (1991), coffeeshops began entering thanks to the targeting of seed companies around the world via a DEA crackdown known as Operation Green Merchant, which forced many of them to go underground and withdraw (temporarily) from the competition. However, this opened the door for the public to join in on the voting, and thus began the modern era of the HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup. For the first time, anyone could come to Amsterdam and legally sample and vote on the best strains in the Netherlands. As time passed, the Cup grew to embrace what have truly become the world's best strains, with seed companies from all over the planet coming to compete. Coffeeshops & You Today, the main event, known simply as the Cannabis Cup, is composed of cannabis entries from Amsterdam's most elite coffeeshops. Cannabis Cup judges—meaning you and anyone else from the general public who purchases a judge's pass—visit each of these coffeeshops individually (as in a pub crawl) to purchase, smoke and judge that shop's entry. At the end of the week, the judges return to the Cup's main expo hall to privately cast their votes, and the winner is crowned the HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup champion. During the en-tire week of the Cup, events are held at our main convention center, including musical acts, grow seminars, talk shows and stand-up comedy. By purchasing a judge's pass, each person is allowed entry into the expo hall every day of the week, as well as access to all of the major parties and concerts held nightly at vari-ous venues around Amsterdam. At the end of the week, everyone reconvenes at the HIGH TIMES party, which includes a concert and the awards ceremony. Seed Companies & The Breeders Cup - Cannabis Samen Beyond the Cannabis Cup champion, a number of other awards are handed out, including perhaps the most prestigious of Cups from a breeder's standpoint: the Indica, Sativa and Hybrid Cups in the Breeder/Seed Company category. When the onslaught of seed companies re-turned to the market, HIGH TIMES decided to incorporate these specialized categories of competition into the Cup, because Amsterdam also attracts the world's best growers and breeders of cannabis. However, it should be noted that some coffeeshops have their own seed companies and subsequently enter the Breeders' Cups as well—not to mention the two hash categories they can also enter as seed companies. This is why you'll sometimes see one name or strain winning more than one award. Only breeders with seed companies can enter these Cup competitions, as the winning strains' seeds must be readily available to the public for purchase. This year, we have a new wrinkle to add to the world's foremost cannabis competition—our new scoring system, which will be used by our expert panel of judges to score the entries in the breeders" categories. Implementing Version 1.3 after trial runs this past April at our Denver Medical Cannabis Cup and in June at our San Francisco Medical Cannabis Cup, the goal—as always—is to keep the competition as fair, accurate and transparent as possible. So here's a sneak preview of how the expert judging will be conducted for the Breeders' Cups. Categories This year, also for the first time, we'll have five categories for the Breeders' Cups: not just the traditional Cups for indicas, sativas, import hash and Neder (domestic) hash, but also a new category just for hybrids. As a result, we're going to attempt to limit the sativa and indica entries to genetic lineages that are greater than 70 percent in each putative species. Entries from dispensaries in the Indica and Sativa categories will be required to provide the parentage back to the grandparents (two generations) to ensure that they're being properly categorized. Hybrids, therefore, will count as any combination of indica and sativa below 70 percent (i.e., 60/40, 50/50, etc.). This year, we'll be capping each category at 40 entries. We will also be asking seed companies and breeders to complete a more comprehensive entry form containing information about their entries, such as lineage, flowering time, nutrient regimen and grow system (just to name a few). Judges The expert judges in the Breeders' Cups are se-lected in a very straightforward manner: For each category, one expert member from the HIGH TIMES staff will act as the coordinator for a specific category. The coordinator will head a team of two -official judges" who will each be an expert or professional from the cannabis industry. The official judges will first convene a week before the awards ceremony is scheduled to take place. At that time, they'll get to meet their counterparts and receive their judges' kits, which will include all the samples for their category as well as the official score sheets. After a brief tutorial on how the new scoring system works, the judges will have a full week to sample and score their entries. The judges can smoke and test the entries with their counterparts or tackle the task solo. Judges are also free to solicit any outside opin-ions or consultations they deem fit. At the end of the week, the judges submit their score sheets to the official HIGH TIMES judging director. These score sheets will be submitted at the Judges' Dinner, where all of the judges convene to compare notes, submit their final tallies and find out who this year's winners will be. Scoring The basic premise of the new scoring system is to have each judge utilize two separate score sheets. One sheet will be for qualitative scoring and the other for quantitative scoring. The qualitative score sheet will keep each judge's individual preferences for cannabis intact. After all, every individual is chemically distinct, and the same sample of cannabis can produce very different effects from one person to another. The quantitative score sheet will rely solely on measurable and observable concrete data. Thanks to new advances in the cannabis industry, we now have the ability to lab-test every strain that enters the Cup. This takes the guesswork (or an individual's opinion) out of determining things that can be factually asserted, such as THC potency, CBD levels, age/cure of the cannabis and how well it was flushed of impurities during its finish. The five categories on the qualitative score sheet will look something like this: Visual Aesthetics, Aroma, Taste, Stone/High (for indica and sativa, respectively) and Flush/Burnability. The three categories on the quantitative side will look something like this: Potency (THC), Medicinal Value (CBD) and Storage/Cure/Age (CBN). The quantitative scoring will be conducted by the judging director using the results from the lab testing. These results will not be released to the judges until after all of the official score sheets have been submitted. Each category will be scored 1 through 5, with 5 being the highest possible score. Categories will be weighted so that the characteristics that most define ideal cannabis count more in the final tally. The weighted multiplier will not be given to judges until they convene at the Judges' Dinner to tabulate their score sheets with the judging director. The highest possibl score an entry can receive is 100 points. The two scores from the qualitative and quantitative score sheets will then be combined for a total score for each entry from each individual judge. The average of the three judges' scores will determine the winning entries. Katsu If there's one coffeeshop you make an effort to get to this year, let it be Katsu. Katsu offers one of the largest menus of any coffeeshop in the city. With 27 different cannabis strains and 18 kinds of hash (and these numbers will likely be higher during the Cup), this place is well worth the visit! Intimate, colorful and casual, Katsu is located in an area of Amsterdam known as De Pijp ("the Pipe"), about a 20-minute walk from Dam Square in the city center. At night, Katsu is a social hub, while by day it's cozy and laid-back. The shop sits on a quant pedestrian street lined with trees and cafés adjacent to Sarphatipark and close to the Museumplein, making the trip even more worthwhile if you're touring around town. Perhaps the best aspect of Katsu is its common-sense approach to sales. Unlike traditional methods of selling cannabis, where the cost of a gram varies depending on quality, Katsu employs a system in which all prices are constant—either 10 or 20 euros—and the weight of the bag (anywhere from 0.9 to 5 grams) varies depending on the quality of herb being purchased. Its a very unique system, but one that allows Katsu to have prepackaged bags of cannabis awaiting customers, as opposed to budtenders having to weigh out each order individually. This ensures that the line at the bud bar is very short, keeping customers happy and the cof-feeshop less crammed with people standing around waiting to get their goodies. Ten euros buys you a gram of Lavender or Big Buddha Cheese, while 20 euros can score up to 5 grams of blond Moroccan hash. Other popular strains include Northern Lights #5, OG Kush, Nevil's Haze and landrace Jamaican. All in all, Katsu is a top-tier coffeeshop with a friendly and knowledgeable staff that has no qualms about offering suggestions, explaining the menu, or just chatting about marijuana and Amsterdam in general. The locals who frequent the establishment are usually transplants from other countries, and a quick glance will tell you that they've been in the Dam for a long time, which is always a clear sign you're in the right spot. Stones Cafe Coffeeshop Stones Café Coffeeshop is quite literally a diamond in the rough. Located in the raucous and rowdy heart of the city, among streets packed with bars and coffeeshops and adjacent to the infamous red-light district, Stones Café is a dream come true for the party-going pothead. Stones is also among the rare places that offer both a coffeeshop where you can buy high-grade cannabis and a bar just a few doors down (see the Top 10 Bars list at the end of this article) where you can drink and smoke said high-grade herb. As far as the smoking goes, Stones Café boasts a cannabis menu of around 25 items, with a split of about 15/10 weed to hash. The cannabis is always above the Amsterdam average, with menu regulars such as Dr. Grinspoon, OG Kush and a nice selection of pure water-extraction bubble hashes. Still, one of the more popular sellers at Stones Café is the fresh-baked Space Cakes (not for the faint-hearted). For Americans coming over to Amsterdam, Stones is a favorite destination as it's largely English-speaking, being partly owned and operated by UK natives. Great music is always playing, and if you're looking to make some new friends, you can't beat its central location. But what keeps most customers coming back are the friendly staffers and easygoing ambiance of this lounge-y shop right in the center of coffeeshop heaven. Don't worry—you couldn't miss this one if you tried! Voyagers The name says it all. This fiery little coffeeshop is literally built for the voyager, with a host of inexpensive, communal-style rooms for rent directly above the shop. A newcomer to the Cannabis Cup, Voyagers is perfectly situated directly across the street from Amsterdam's Cen-tral Station and an easy first stop for those coming into town via train or starting their coffeeshop crawl at the city's center. Packed daily with a young, trendy crowd, this spot is a favorite of the wanderer who wants to sit down and take a load off. The menu has been extensively overhauled of late, and Voyagers expects to make a serious run at the Cup in 2011. The menu includes fan favorites ranging from chronic Diesels to rarities like King Kong, and Voyagers also stocks strains from All-Star Genetics—another up-and-coming seed company that took home a Cup in 2009 (third place in the Indica Cup with Kushdee). We expect big things from both All-Star and Voyagers in 2011. Another Brit-owned shop in the Adam, the music here is always up, with some of the best electronic and reggae beats in town. And this year, just for the Cup, Voyagers will be running special package deals for Cup-goers that include rooms at super-reasonable rates (35 to 70 euros per night), free Internet (in the rooms and coffeeshop), and smoking boat trips down the canals (highly recommended). Whatever it is you're into, you'll likely to find it at Voyagers, making this coffeeshop a seriously good time. A favorite with the HIGH TIMES staff, The Noon is a tiny coffeeshop just off the Leidse-plein that has phenomenal cannabis all year round, but especially during the Cannabis Cup. Known for its delicious Blueberry buds (a Cup winner in 2000 and 2001), last year The Noon had a Sleestak that was out of this world. Its rare to see HT staffers dropping good coin on herb in Amsterdam (think about it—why would we?), but when we get to The Noon, hundreds of euros are spent in a matter of minutes. Although it has a smaller menu than most coffeeshops and is more of a local hangout and bud-buying depot, there are always one or two very good strains available here. Go in and ask the budtender for a quick smelling tour of the inventory and you'll soon find what you're looking for. To make a good thing even better, The Noon is just down the street from the Waterhole (see the Top 10 Bars list at the end of this arti-cle), a place that allows both drinking and smoking herb. Priding itself on good genetics and well-cured buds, The Noon is a coffeeshop that won't settle for run-of-the-mill. Amsterdam herb. These guys are serious about their product—and when you're dealing with thousands of Cup-goers every November, those are our kind of people! New Seed Company Profile: Karma Genetics After taking home a Cup (in a very close race) in 2010, Karma Genetics figures to make a big run this year, challenging the usual stalwarts with a new and (for Amsterdam) exotic blend of boutique strains. Founded and run by a man named Karma somewhere in the south of Holland, Karma Genetics works closely with breeders around the world (including the US) to create new, fresh genetic lines of today's most popular varieties. Last year, Karma took third place in the Indica Cup with White OG, his cross of OG Kush and the fabled strain dubbed The White. In 2011, he's working with various Jack Herer and Sour Diesel phenotypes (including a San Fernando Diesel) as well as one interesting breed known as Happy Brother. But what really piques our interest in Karma is his philosophy on growing. An all-organic farmer, Karma believes in the power of nature and in keeping his gardens as natural as possible. When working with good genetics, this approach often unlocks the plants' fullest potential and creates buds that have the true essence of each strain's flavor, aroma and high. On top of this, Karma isn't a big fan of feminized seeds, believing (as many do) that feminizing seed crops is detrimental to the evolution of the cannabis gene pool and can have disastrous results on the preservation of landrace strains or older, prized lineages. For a breeder, this philosophy is understandable—but for the owner of a seed company, it's one that presents its own unique challenges, as market demands and the constraints of doing business are generally hard to resist. Still, Karma himself is as dedicated and honest as they come, and Karma Genetics has as much promise—if not more—as any seed company that's come into play in the last five years. What many Amsterdam visitors often don't realize is that coffeeshops selling cannabis cannot, by law, also sell alcohol. Bummer ... but that doesn't mean you can't drink your booze and smoke your weed in plenty of other 420-friendly establishments! Here's our list of the top 10 places that will let you blaze away while enjoying some sweet nectar at their bar. NES-Cafe- Located on Nos just off Dam Square in the city center, this pool-hall-style bar allows for beers, joints and a little scratch. Bar Remember Hey, remember that time we bought weed legally in Amsterdam and then went in that bar and started doing shots, and then we rolled a blunt and then ... uh .... The Bittersweet - This nightclub really gets pumping after midnight. A trendy spot with loads of single guys and gals (seriously-this DJ factory has two floors, plus a "special" smoking room on the top floor). Salty Dog - This one is across the street from the Grey Area, which you will certainly visit if you're at the Cup. So if you need some liquid courage, mosey on across the street and smoke some Grey Area bubble hash while pounding down a pint. Wonder Bar - Ever get stoned and wonder? Well, now you can. The great thing about this place: It's also a hookah bar. Beer. Weed. Hookahs. Do it. Mr. Coca's - Located in Rembrandtplein,.this spot not only sells booze and allows smoking, but it also serves food ... Australian food. For a new and unique experience, check out Mr. Coco's! Stones Café Bar - We mentioned this one earlier in our coffeeshop section, so just to reiterate: This UK-vibe bar gets down with a great selection of beer on tap, good music and tons of smoking. Not only that but its fairly big inside and centrally located. A must-hit joint. The Waterhole - Located in the Leidseplein, this spot is an old-school, down-and-dirty biker bar that has no qualms about letting the crowd Coke up while shooting pool and listening to some good of rock 'n' roll per-formed live every night. Barney's Uptown - If you know about cannabis in Amsterdam, you know about Barney's Farm. But did you know that Barney's not only has a coffeeshop, but also a wine bar (which sells Barney's seeds, by the way) and a bar/restaurant? In fact, the bar is right across the street from the coffeeshop (convenient), and you can smoke herb in there all night ... while drinking and eating. Score! Top Secret - No, really, it is. This little place is one of Amsterdam's best-kept secrets, and it's where you can find HIGH TIMES staffers together with our local pals, congregating [or, more aptly, lounging around) into the wee hours of the night. But here's a hint for you savvy Cup-goers looking to hang with us late at night: You have to get lost to find us!