With the recent focus on the beneficial health-related properties of blueberries, this berry is in demand.
Sales venues aren’t the only methods in which blueberries find their way to consumers; however, some make their way via wholesale distribution to food processors. A few continue their journey — or perhaps divert it — to reach unique, value-added specialty markets.
“There is a big industry associated with any fruit-growing operation,” said Jonathan Davis, president of GLCC Co., based in Paw Paw, Michigan. “There are people dedicated to selling just the fresh fruit, and this tends to be the absolute premium product, but all the rest of the crop is purchased by juice processors, who are always located right in the fruit growing regions, who usually make a variety of finished products, including puree, puree concentrate, juice concentrate, essence, and more.”
GLCC Co. is known as a maker of flavors. Davis is the chief flavor chemist. The company specializes in blending fruit juices and essences into concentrated flavor products.
“We do source blueberry concentrate entirely from United States — and occasionally Canadian — sources, and often locally when it is available,” he said. “GLCC Co. buys blueberry concentrate and some essences.”
Herbalist & Alchemist, a Washington, New Jersey-based manufacturer of dietary supplements, makes over 300 practitioner-quality herbal products. Founded by David Winston, a renowned herbalist, educator and ethnobotanist, the 35-year-old company uses the equivalent of several hundred pounds of blueberries annually.
“Herbalist & Alchemist produces traditional herbal products using certified organic or ethically wild-crafted botanicals with scientifically confirmed quality, working with Rutgers University on botanical identification. The criteria for quality “include a series of tests for purity, as well as sustainable agricultural practices being practiced by our suppliers,” said Beth Lambert, CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist.
Blueberries not destined for the fresh market are processed in some manner. But the life cycle of blueberries doesn’t simply end when they are pressed for juice.
Pressing fresh berries and using an enzyme to break down pectin results in blueberry juice. Filtering and pasteurizing the juice results in single-strength blueberry juice, according to Davis.
“Most blueberry juice is not held at single strength, but is instead concentrated. This literally means applying heat and evaporating off the water,” he said.
Blueberry essence is derived from blueberry juice concentrate. Juice is evaporated off in a series of steps, and finished at about 65 percent natural sugars. The heat used removes much of the flavor from the juice, however. This essence is condensed off and collected during the first evaporation step.
“This separates the water from the natural flavor chemicals that have been evaporated from the juice, which are usually collected at about one gallon per 150 to 200 gallons of incoming juice,” Davis said. “This product is called water phase essence or aroma, or most commonly, ‘blueberry essence.’”
Puree is made from grinding berries and sieving them to remove seeds and skins. Puree has a sugar content of about 10 percent, and bakers and dessert manufacturers eat it up, according to Davis. It has great flavor and texture, but doesn’t freeze well, limiting shelf life. It tends to settle out, too, and can turn brown, so its appearance isn’t always pleasant.
“Puree is occasionally used in drinks, but typically (for) the so-called ‘new age’ or up-market beverages,” Davis said. “Most juice manufacturers and blenders find it much easier to use blueberry concentrate instead of puree. The product is much easier to store and ship, readily available year-round, and it is filtered clear so it makes a nice clear drink without any sludge settling to the bottom of the bottle.”
Taking puree and concentrating it results in blueberry puree concentrate. This product has the water removed, and is about 30 percent natural sugars.
“We help people make great blueberrybased products, and we are a buyer of blueberry concentrate and essences for (that) purpose,” Davis said.
GLCC takes the already processed blueberry concentrate and essence and creates flavor bases for other product manufacturers. Blueberry flavor, whether naturally derived or not, isn’t only a product of blueberries.
“Typically we make blends of juice and flavors. The components of these flavors are natural but mostly not from blueberry. There are many other sources in nature for flavor chemicals, which go to make up the profiles of blueberry flavor, so that’s what we use in combination with the juice to make a blueberry juice drink or wine base,” Davis said. “The end result is actually much stronger in blueberry character than you could achieve with the juice itself — or even the puree, in the case of fermented products like beer or wine.”
Another GLCC product is straight blueberry flavor, which often contains blueberry essence. It’s used by beer makers, who add blueberry puree to their wort, but find flavor lacking once the product is fermented. The company’s Natural Blueberry Essence WONF (with other natural flavors) is often the solution.
“One problem with making wine and fermented drinks out of blueberries is that so much of the flavor is very volatile, and, as a result, the finished wine, beer or cider has very little blueberry flavor left,” Davis said.
The blueberry products created by Herbalist & Alchemist are all natural, and the ingredients undergo rigorous testing and quality control. The blueberries sourced are used in various preparations.
“Blueberries have a very short season. Farmers, even the large farmers, are focused on what they need to do to satisfy the high-margin fresh market to the consumer. With very few large exceptions, they do not have the equipment necessary to freeze, concentrate or dry their crops, so in order to be able to make product throughout the year, we primarily work with suppliers who have this capability,” Lambert said.
Herbalist & Alchemist’s Blueberry Solid Extract is “a unique product, developed to create demand for New Jersey blueberry crops,” Lambert said. “Blueberry solid extract is very high in antioxidants and quite delicious. It’s a concentrated paste that can be used on toast, added to hot water to make tea or eaten right from the spoon.”
Herbalist & Alchemist, in partnership with Rutgers University and New Jersey blueberry growers, has worked to promote value-added and nutraceutical uses for the state’s blueberry crop. Their Blueberry Solid Extract is part of that initiative.
The company also uses blueberries to craft Hawthorn Solid Extract for cardiovascular health, Pomegranate-Goji Berry Solid Extract for antioxidant support and Insight Compound for healthy vision. Their trademarked Bio-Specific product formulation process is used to make extracts, which have very high mineral content.
“The need for quality suppliers to this market is great,” Lambert said. “However, the need for quality processors who offer pure blueberry products is even greater. This presents a terrific opportunity for growers to develop a small cooperative to fund the needed equipment to produce high quality blueberry material to be used by manufacturers throughout the year. There are opportunities in the wholesale supply market that do not demand the ‘perfect berry look’ as a direct consumer demands.”