Extra virgin olive oil is made by crushing olives and extracting the oil from the olive while maintaining a temperature of less than 27 C (80.6 F). Today we will walk you through the entire process. A quick rundown of what we’ll cover:
Step 1: Harvest
Step 2: Transport
Step 3: Milling
Step 4: Decant and/or Filter
Step 5: Bottle and Label
Step 6: Transport
A Quick Lesson About Olive Trees
Extra virgin olive oil is only made with the olive fruit which grows on the olive tree. Yes, olives are a fruit! One of the most beautiful and ancient plants, the olive tree can live for thousands of years and are drought tolerant. Olive trees are notoriously slow growers, they need to grow 4 to 7 years before they can yield any fruit.
Here’s an example, if you plant an olive tree in 2016 and it grows at a fairly normal rate you can expect to get a very small harvest beginning 2020, however, it’s likely the tree will not produce a full yield until 2022. As olive trees grow older they produce more fruit.
All olive trees are different and have different harvesting schedules. In addition, not all farmers can harvest their trees every year. Some trees only produce an abundance of olives every 2 years. The Smithsonian writes regularly about agricultural findings, here’s a piece about an olive tree between 4,000-5,000 years old! How’s that for healthy. Read more about these amazing trees here and here.
A Lesson in Producing Extra Virgin Olive Oil
*Read the International Olive Council’s complete standards for extra virgin olive oil here*
Step 1: Harvest the Olives
The first step in producing high-quality extra virgin olive oil is harvesting the olives, this step is crucial because it’s one of the defining factors of an extra virgin vs regular olive oil.
In Italy, Harvest season starts in September and ends in December. A day picking olives begins at sunrise, (approx. 6:00 am in early fall) and lasts until sunset or until the daily goal is met. It’s not uncommon for farmers to harvest at night in order to get the harvest in. We only harvest for 6 hours at a time in order to keep the quality of our product high.
Larger companies usually have teams of people out picking the fruit using large machines.
This brings us to a very important topic.
How to Pick Olives
There are quite a few options for picking olives which include the following:
- Tree Shaker
- This device shakes the entire tree.
- Branch Shaker
- This device is the size of a weed wacker and shakes individual branches.
- Electric Olive Harvester
- This device opens and closes like a mouth. It disturbs the branches.
- A Tree Rake
- Think of the olive branches as a mess of curls you have to comb through and the rake is your brush.
- A Stick
- Yes, a stick, you hit the branches to knock the olives off. Don’t worry, you aren’t hurting the tree if you do it properly. In all scenarios, nets catch the olives below the tree. The nets are emptied into small crates or large half-ton bins.
Step 2: Transport the Olives
The second step in producing high-quality extra virgin olive oil is to transport the olives to the press. Olives are heavy and moving them can be challenging. Locals making olive oil for personal use usually keep the olives in crates, load them into the back of their car and drive slowly down the highway to the press. Larger companies use forklifts to move the giant half-ton bins into a van, truck, or trailer then transport the olives to the press.
Step 3: Milling (AKA pressing)
The third step in producing extra virgin olive oil is the most exciting part: milling the olives. This is the moment we find out how much oil we’ve actually made and if it’s any good. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.
A fun fact about the olive oil industry, many individuals & companies in Italy use a community mill, and it’s first come first serve unless the company or individual makes an appointment for milling time. Since olives are usually picked during the day, the line at the press at night can last for hours. Many presses stay open well past midnight to accommodate everyone.
Let’s break milling up into digestible chunks.
Upon arrival, the olives are poured into the deleafing machine. The deleafer is a machine that removes any stems, branches, or leaves. They then weigh the olives and you’re put in the queue for the press.
A forklift dumps the olives into a giant hopper. The hopper is often in or on the ground to make it easy for the forklift to empty the bin, however, they can be raised in the air. The olives then move up (or down) a ladder.
From the ladder the olives are dumped into the asher. The olives must be washed before they are crushed. The washer will also help get rid of any leftover debris such as pebbles or leaves that could not be disposed of in the deleafer. The olives travel up a second transportation belt which sprays water at high pressure. They are dumped into a secondary hopper.
From the secondary hopper the olives travel up another (covered) ladder into the slicer. This machine cuts the olives into small pieces before they are moved into the crusher in order to making crushing easier.
The Crusher (AKA kneading)
The sliced olives arrive in the crusher and are crushed in what looks like a sideways washing machine/ice cream maker combo. The perpendicular cylindrical arm moves around and around crushing the olives into a paste (think olive tapenade) for anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes depending on who is operating the mill.
The Centrifuge (AKA Extractor or Press)
The part you’ve been waiting for, the olive paste is finally pumped through to the centrifuge. The centrifuge is a machine with separates vegetable water and solids from olive oil. The centrifuge is a giant steel tube so unfortunately, you cannot see what’s happening inside. There are several different types of centrifuges (2-phase, 3-phase, 2 ½ phase) but we won’t get into that today. Read all the specs for these machines here.
If we are being honest, the term ‘pressing’ olives is antiquated because olives aren’t actually ‘pressed’ anymore. Advances in technology have allowed us to create machinery that extracts the oil from olives in a more efficient and hygienic way. The correct term is ‘milling’, however, many (including us) still use the term ‘pressing’ because it’s familiar.
Extra virgin olive oil exits the centrifuge and is pumped into the filter which will catch anything coarse leftover from the centrifuge (i.e. leftover pits or skin).
The extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is then pumped through the separator which will remove any remaining traces of water. The EVOO exits the separator from a spigot or large hose and begins to fill containers and/or tanks. About an hour has passed since the olives were dumped into the hopper and you can finally taste the product, it’s truly a wonderful feeling.
Step 4: Decant and/or Filter
The fourth step in producing extra virgin olive oil is decantation and/or filtering. This is 100% up to the producer. We follow a partial decantation and filtration process.
Decanting means the oil is left in a tank(s) for several days/weeks/months which allows the particles to settle.
Filtering is the process of moving extra virgin olive oil through another object, such as special paper filters, in order to rid the oil of defects and sediment. However, even after EVOO has moved through a filter tiny particles may remain in the oil.
Novello (AKA Olio Nuovo)
Novello or Olio Nuovo Extra Virgin Olive oil is fresh, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. It’s the oil that comes directly out of the mill.
Novello can (and should) be consumed immediately after it’s pressed. Some people love the taste of novello because it’s dense and contains particles of olive. It’s delicious, however, must be consumed within 2 months of milling because the particles of olive make the product more susceptible to spoiling.
So, why decant or filter?
It’s highly recommended by most olive councils and organizations to decant and/or filter extra virgin olive oil in order to ensure the product is shelf-stable. When EVOO is filtered it is moved through a series of plates that catch the particles of olive. The oil that comes out will look clear or less ‘gritty’. When stored in a bottle or tank little or no sediment will collect at the bottom because it has already been removed in the filter. There are pros and cons to both decanting and filtering. Both processes create incredible oil.
Step 5: Bottle and Label
The fifth step in producing olive oil is bottling and labeling. We believe this is the least exciting part of producing oil because it can be even more frustrating than harvest. Yes, we get to see the final product, however, bottling always seems overly complicated. Bottling also brings emotions of nostalgia because we build so many memories with friends, families, and workers during harvest. We create a little tribe that works their butts off to create a high-quality product, and then it ends.
Step 6: Transport
The sixth and final step in producing extra virgin olive oil is transport. This can be to customers, wholesale accounts, or others. For us, it’s to our warehouse in the U.S. where our products will then be shipped to you!
We hope you enjoyed learning about how extra virgin olive oil is made. We truly love sharing the process of producing this amazing product that’s consumed by millions around the world every day. You can also watch this entire process on our Instagram. If you learned something new or have opinions on this topic, please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts! If you’re on Instagram or Facebook don’t forget to tag us and use #EXAUoliveoil so we can repost!
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