Our head miller Bob Singletary is a pioneering figure in California’s extra virgin olive oil industry. Bob has been crushing olives and making olive oil for more than three decades. We asked Bob about his job and our fall harvest, which kicked into gear this week.
Olives produce oils with different flavor styles based on when they were picked — from a robust style initially to a more delicate flavor near the end of the harvest. How do you work with those different flavor profiles?
We keep computerized tabs on the olives every single truck delivers to our mill. We know how mature the olive fruit is for each delivery, as well as the acidity of the olives. We’ll then run each truckload of olives along a certain production line, depending on those characteristics. The load will stay on that line from start to finish. Right before the oil is sent to a storage vessel, I’ll taste it to determine which vessel it should go in.
What are you looking for when you taste the oil?
We identify the particular flavor profile of each batch of olives — delicate, fruity, or pungent — and then identify where the oil should be stored initially based on those characteristics. The milling team ends up tasting a lot of oil.
I’ve never estimated the amount. But it’s quite a lot. This season we’ll run about 800 truckloads of olives. Every load is set on a particular production line and the resulting oil is tasted. We are currently running five production lines, and each line of oils needs to be identified. Our system is set to alarm the miller at the beginning of each load that the flavor profile needs to be identified before the oil can move to the mill tank room for storage.
What is it like tasting all that olive oil?
It takes about 3.5 hours to run one truckload of olives. During that time, the oil is checked every hour on each line. Each taste is only a small amount. But over the season it amounts to a lot of sample tasting. I really enjoy this aspect of the milling job, because of the importance of selecting the right storage tank and the right profile of each batch of olives. I’m really lucky I enjoy our oil so much.
How do you maintain your ability to taste all that oil, without your sense of taste or smell getting burned out?
I’ve developed a routine over the years. I leave the production line and go off to a secluded area in the mill so I don’t have competing aromas in the air. I also know that early on in the season the oil is going to be intense, and so it’s easy to identify that oil. As the harvest progresses, the flavor profile will change in a fairly predictable way.
Every olive varietal and every flavor profile is segregated in a separate storage vessel in our tank room. Later, we’ll blend the oils to get the flavor profile we want for a single varietal or a particular blend of oils. Our new storage facility is all stainless steel and the room is climate controlled to keep the oil at 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Our tanks are sealed and the oil is nitrogen-blanketed to keep the air off of the stored oil. These procedures help keep our oil the freshest in the world.
How many hours a day and how many days a week do you put in during the harvest?
Our milling season lasts about 50 days, and our equipment is expected to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The satisfaction of accomplishing our goals is almost unexplainable for me. In the off season, our milling team works hard preparing each line for the harvest. It’s exciting to know how much oil you’re expected to run, and how many long hours it’s going to take to get that accomplished.
What’s it like when the harvest is completed?
When the season ends, it happens all at once. You’re working 14 hours a day per shift and you never expect that last load. When it happens, the letdown of the season is very strange. You keep looking for that next truck that never arrives. What a great job to have.
Your friends at California Olive Ranch