An Olive Oil’s Color Won’t Tell You If It’s Good, But Will Tell You Other Things

Next month we begin our harvest. Our harvest teams will gather our olives and rush them to our northern California mill, where Master Miller Bob Singletary and his crew will crush them into extra virgin olive. So now seems like a good time to address a question we hear from time to time: Is an olive oil’s color a reliable indicator of quality?

The short answer: No. Color won’t tell whether an olive oil is good or bad. But color will tell you other things about an olive oil.

Because color can be an indicator of certain characteristics, such as when the olives were harvested, professional olive oil tasters use a special blue glass when they taste oils.  The blue tint is designed to hide the oil’s color so it won’t influence a taster’s judgment – although black glass might do an even better job!

Good extra virgin olive oils can be green … or golden. However, the two oils’ styles can differ. A green color can suggest a robust tasting oil that gives your throat a pleasant tickle when you swallow the oil. A golden oil might be delicate, buttery and mild in profile.

Color also will tell you other things, too, like when the olives were harvested. Those harvested early in the season, for example, are naturally very green – and so yield a greener oil.

“Olives picked early in the season tend to make green colored oil as they contain higher levels of chlorophyll,” Australian olive oil guru Richard Gawel writes in an FAQ.

“Olives harvested late in the season will typically produce more golden colored oils due to a higher level of natural occurring levels of carotene-like substances. Both oils may be technically equivalent in quality but very different in style.”

But even then there are wrinkles. Gawel notes many green oils become more golden when stored. The bottom line: “Don’t place too much emphasis on color,” Gawel says.

That reminds us: Avoid the temptation to buy olive oil that comes in a clear bottle so you can see its color.

“Light, together with heat and oxygen, is one of the enemies of olive oil. Light causes olive oil to degrade,” notes olive oil aficionado Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). “So dark glass that filters out light is very important. A metal container also is good. Clear plastic and glass are to be avoided.”

Specifically, heat, light and oxygen promote oxidation and can make an oil rancid. That’s why we package our extra virgin olive oil in dark green bottles and boxes.

But not all olive oil companies do that. “Many curious consumers want to see the color of the oil (even though the color is not an accurate indicator of quality or taste), so producers often use clear glass,” olive oil expert Fran Gage writes in her book The New American Olive Oil (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009.

Bon appétit,

Your friends at California Olive Ranch