Have you ever wondered how olive oil is made? How about how the trees grow, and how they are harvested? At Cobram Estate, one of the things that we pride ourselves on the most is being a vertically integrated company. This means that we not only produce award winning olive oil, we do everything from raising them up in the nursery, to planting them, and ever all the grove management. For all you secret agriculture nerds out there, and everyone that is passionate to learn more about the story of food before it hits the shelves, here is a step by step process in how we at Cobram Estate make out Best of Show EVOO.
If you want to raise them right, you’ve got to start them young. That’s one of Cobram Estates key foundational pillars of our farming practices. We know that in order to make the most exceptional oil, we need to grow the most exceptional trees. To grow those trees, we need to nurture them from their very first roots. Having our own nursery allows us to make sure each and every varietal of olive has specialized care and nutrition to ensure that it has strong, healthy roots and trunk. Like humans, if a plant is healthy, it will be able to resist potential risks to its health later in life, protecting it from pests and diseases alike.
Planting our Groves
Once our little trees have spent at least 18 months being nurtured in our nursery, it is time to get them planted. Prepping for planting is one of the most exciting times, there is nothing more satisfying than mowing and disking a fresh plot of land to ensure that the soil that our trees are going into is ready.
Olive trees, unlike humans, blessedly speed through the “terrible twos” and pretty much skip right into the joys of adolescents. This is because as soon as the little 2 foot tall trees are removed from their pots and planted in endless dirt, the root bulb explodes out within a couple of weeks of planting and our little guys can triple in volume. All they needed was a little room to grow!
Roughly 2 years after planting, our trees are ready to show us what they’ve got. Fruit set begins with flowering in May. More is always better in our trees minds, and you should see the flower coverage. Their silky green foliage gets overtaken by tiny fluffy white blossoms, making them look like a sea of cotton balls. The reason for this gross excess of flowering is because olives are actually wind pollinated, meaning that they rely on the breeze to carry pollen to other flowers to pollinate them. After pollination, fruit set takes place around middle of June, and then pit hardening in early July.
Once the fruit is set and the pit has formed, we enter the oil accumulation phase. This starts at the beginning of August and carries on until the fruit is harvested. We monitor the oil accumulation by going out to the groves and taking weekly samples of the olives and bringing them back to our lab and testing to see how much oil is present. We then use this information to plan what groves to pick when so that we are always harvesting the fruit that is at its peak oil accumulation.
We use mechanical harvesters rather than the traditional hand harvesting method. The reason for this is twofold; the first reason is timing. Mechanical harvesters are able to harvest a grove in a fraction of the time that hand harvesters can, meaning that we are able to get fruit off the trees and into the plant much quicker than if we handpicked all the trees. The second reason is volume. Using mechanical harvesters allows us to harvest a much larger number of trees, meaning that we can produce even more super fresh EVOO.
All of our Californian groves are within an hour of our mill, which is located in Yolo County California. Because of this proximity, we are able to get the fruit from the trees, through the mill and turned into oil within 4-6 hours. Our oil comes pouring out of the separator green and still warm from the sun.
The Processing Plant
Making olive oil is as simple a process as it gets. Take a healthy, fresh fruit, crush it to break apart its cellular structure and release the oil, and then separate the oil from the rest. No chemicals, no additives, nothing fake or phony. Our mill uses state of the art milling equipment to maximize our efficiencies while maintaining an outrageously high level of quality. The olives journey begins with a trip up a conveyor belt and into a leaf blower that is essentially a giant blow dryer that removes any excess twigs of leaves from the olives. Then they make their way through a color sorter which removes any undesirable olives (ie too small, too dehydrated, too ripe), so that only the cream of the crop are used to make our EVOO.
From there the olives are crushed in a hammer crusher, pit flesh and all, until the paste reaches a perfect tapenade like texture. From there it piles into a giant bathtub like structure called a malaxer. In there, it is churned by rotating paddles that allow the tiny oil globules to conglomerate into larger and larger drops until they form full puddles of oil on top of the paste. This normally takes around 45 minutes.
From there it is off to the decanter. Similar to the Gravitron ride at the Fair, the decanter takes the paste and spins it foolishly fast. Because of the difference densities of the paste, the denser pits and flesh are flung to the outside of the ring, and the water and oil remain in the middle. The oily water mixture is then allowed to flow out of the decanter and into the vertical separator which does the exact same thing but faster, separating the denser water from the oil. The oil then streams out of the separator in a gushing green stream… and that’s it folks, that’s how you make fresh, raw, gloriously unrefined EVOO.
We do not filter our oil because we have found that filtering can reduce certain flavors because it removes some of the antioxidants in the oil. What we do instead is a process called racking. Racking essentially allows the oil to settle naturally, and then siphoning away any residual water or fruit particles (called sediment) that remain even after the vertical separator. Once the oils have been racked, the most important goal is to keep the oil fresh by avoiding oxygen, light and heat. To accomplish this we store the EVOO in our tank farm which consists of large stainless-steel tanks. We keep the building at 61 degrees Fahrenheit to keep it cool, but not cold enough that the oil will solidify, and then we cap any extra head room in the tanks with a layer of nitrogen to keep the oxygen off the oil. Stored correctly like this, an oil can maintain its freshness for over a year (depending on the oil). Despite this, we firmly believe that fresh is best, and so by the time harvest rolls around, we have used up all the oil that we produce and only ever bottle the freshest newest oil under our name.
We bottle every bit of our oil to order. We do this because oil stores much better in our stainless-steel tanks than it does in bottles. This allows us to label each batch of bottles with a unique and accurate “Best Before” date, which we establish in our lab prior to each bottling run. We also put a "Harvest Date" on all our bottles. The reason we do that is so when you pick up a bottle of Cobram Estate, you should be able to tell exactly when it was harvested and also exactly how long its freshness will last.
Now that you have been armed with the knowledge you need to make you a true expert at sniffing out the best EVOO’s out there, it is time to get drizzling and enjoy!
It doesn't get more Tree to Table than that!