In the simplest terms, olive oil is made by harvesting fresh olives, crushing the olive fruit into a paste, and separating the natural oils from the olive pulp. But if you settle for the simple explanation, you miss out on the fascinating process required to produce one of the world’s healthiest foods. We’d hate for that to happen, so let’s take a closer look at how olive oil is made.
From the Grove to the Mill to You: How Olive Oil is Made
While the process may vary slightly from one producer to another, there are six main steps to making olive oil.
Step 1: Harvesting - Olives are picked throughout the harvesting season (August - December), with green olives harvested early in the season and darker, more mature olives harvested later in the year.
Step 2: Processing - Once harvested, olives are separated from leaves and branches, washed, and crushed by granite millstones or stainless steel hammermills.
Step 3: Malaxation - After the olives and pits have been crushed and milled into a thick paste, water is added and the mixture is churned slowly to allow the small oil droplets to combine into larger drops.
Step 4: Pressing - When the olive pulp and water are sufficiently stirred, the mixture is pressed in a mechanical oil press or spun in a centrifuge. Both methods result in the separation of olive oil from the water and pulp.
Step 5: Refining - The highest-quality olive oil produced from green olives harvested at their peak ripeness does not undergo refining. This unrefined product is classified as virgin or extra virgin olive oil. Lower-quality oil is refined using heat or chemicals. This process masks the less desirable flavor and delivers an end product commonly referred to as “light” or “pure” olive oil.
Step 6: Bottling - As soon as it’s extracted, olive oil is quickly stored in stainless steel containers and poured directly into bottles or packages designed to protect the oil from the harmful effects of heat, oxygen, and light.
Where are olives grown?
Since olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, it’s not surprising that almost 95% of the world’s olives come from Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece. But even though this region produces the bulk of the global olive supply, olives are also grown in the temperate climates of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the United States. US olives are primarily grown in Oregon and California. (We think California olives are the best — but you probably guessed that already.)
When are olives harvested?
When cared for properly, olive trees produce fruit every year. Harvest season traditionally runs from August through December, with green olives picked early in the season and black olives picked toward the season’s end. That’s right — green olives and black olives come from the same trees. There’s no difference in the olives themselves; the color difference is an indicator of the olive’s ripeness. But more than just determining the color of the olive, the maturity at the time of harvest plays a major role in the quality of the olive oil that is eventually produced.
When green olives are harvested at the peak of their ripeness — usually a two-to-three-week period in late August or early September — they produce the most vibrant flavors and contain the highest levels of polyphenols. As they ripen further, the flavors and healthy compounds decrease quickly. Due to this degradation, the highest-quality extra virgin olive oil will always come from olives harvested early in the season.
There is a trade-off with harvesting olives at their peak ripeness. Olives harvested at their peak contain less oil. The more an olive matures, the more oil it contains. For that sake of maximum yield, many olive oil producers allow lower quality olives to go past peak ripeness, a decision that increases the amount of oil extracted from each olive but decreases the fresh flavor and nutrient content of the olive oil produced.
How are olives processed?
As soon as olives are harvested, the time clock of freshness starts ticking. The olive oil industry’s leading producers have refined their collection and transportation methods to begin the extraction process within three hours of harvesting. This efficiency limits the natural degradation of the olives and reduces the resulting oil’s potential exposure to its natural enemies of heat, oxygen, and light.
Once the olives reach the processing facility, leaves and branches are removed from the harvested materials either by hand or by machine. From there, the olives are washed to remove any remaining dirt and debris and immediately transferred to the milling machine, which crushes the olive fruit and pits into a paste. For centuries, olive oil producers used granite millstones to grind the olives. But thanks to technological advances, modern producers prefer stainless steel hammermills that crush the olives with less heat-producing friction than the old-school methods.
What is malaxation?
Since olives contain roughly 60% oil, the paste that grinding produces traditionally has a thick, oatmeal-like consistency. To enhance the olive oil extraction, water is added to the paste, and the malaxation process begins. While the term “malaxation” sounds sophisticated (excellent for impressing your friends or scoring big points in Scrabble), it’s a fancy way to say “mixing.” This churning process usually lasts 20-40 minutes and allows smaller oil droplets to combine, which makes it easier to extract in the next step.
How is olive oil extracted?
Like the grinding step before it, olive oil pressing has changed over the years. Originally, olive oil producers would follow the malaxation step by spreading thin layers of olive pulp paste between burlap bags and stack those layers on top of one another. They would then use a mechanical press to compact the stack and collect the olive oil that squeezed out. Since this method did not use heat to separate the water and oil, the end product was referred to as “cold-pressed” olive oil — a term that is still used today, even though extraction techniques have changed dramatically.
In many modern olive oil production facilities, extraction is done by loading the paste into a large centrifuge and spinning it until the oil is pulled out and collected. While the unrefined olive oil produced is still the same as the oil produced by pressing, the centrifuge technology allows producers to extract far more oil than the rudimentary presses.
Is all olive oil refined?
To this point, most olive oil production follows the same steps. But it’s what happens from here that makes the biggest difference in the final olive oil product. Once the freshly squeezed olive oil is collected, the producer has the option to package it in its natural, unrefined state or subject it to an additional refining process. This refining determines the difference between extra virgin olive oil and regular olive oil.
When the oil comes from high-quality olives at the peak of their ripeness, the unrefined product is packed with polyphenols, organic nutrients, and natural flavor. Since it does not go through any refining, it’s called virgin olive oil. The highest-quality virgin olive oil can then be sent through a battery of physical and chemical tests to be certified as extra virgin olive oil — the gold-standard of olive oils.
Lower quality olives or olives harvested later in the season go through the same extraction steps, but after the oil is collected, it goes through a refining process that involves heat or chemical refining to remove any undesirable flavors or residual solids that may be left after pressing. This process produces olive oil with a neutral, bland flavor and fewer health benefits than extra virgin olive oil. Refined olive oils are traditionally marketed as “light” or “pure” olive oils.
How is olive oil packaged?
After extraction, virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil are immediately transferred to storage containers — traditionally stainless steel — to protect them from heat, oxygen, and light. Refined olive oils will follow the same path once their refining process is finished. At that point, the oils are packaged for sale. Many olive oil producers will use tinted or opaque glass bottles for additional protection against UV light. And while this traditional packaging preserves the olive oil’s freshness during shipping and store display, bottles offer little protection against oxygen and heat after they are opened for the first time, making it essential to store the olive oil in a cool, dark location.
La Panza olive oil — fresh from us to you!
Here at La Panza, we believe the packaging should be just as impressive as the extra virgin olive oil we produce. That’s why we created our innovative Pantry Pouch, a sustainable packaging solution that protects our fresh EVOO from offers protection from the air, moisture, light, and temperature that can degrade it. Each pouch features a built-in spout that allows you to pour only as much olive oil as you need without exposing the unused portion to oxygen.By following our careful, consistent production process, we are proud to grow and produce our fresh extra virgin olive oil right here at the beautiful La Panza Ranch in San Juan Creek Valley, CA. Whether you prefer the peppery kick of our Outlaw Blend, the buttery smoothness of our Chef’s Blend, or the well-balanced sweetness of our Estate Blend, you can find a La Panza extra virgin olive oil perfectly suited to your taste. Best of all, you can count on the fact that our exclusive Pantry Pouch will allow you to experience the freshness of our olive oil from the first drop to the last!