Tucked in the southeast Arizona desert, 40 miles from Phoenix, sits an unassuming olive mill named Queen Creek, a fully integrated olive grove taking its production from tree to bottled Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). From its 7,500 trees in the grove to several boutique shops in the Phoenix area, the company lives and breathes olive production and olive oil.
Ironically, owner Perry Rea’s career started in a different kind of oil business – motor oil. Living in Detroit, Mich. at the time, Perry was unhappy with the amount of time he had to spend away from home and family to meet his job’s demands. He aspired to run a family business.
In the late 1990s, Perry and wife Brenda Rea stumbled upon the opportunity to buy some acreage in the Arizona desert. After researching the olive market, Perry and Brenda loved the promise of its potential and dove in.
Building A Grove
In 2000, Perry and Brenda planted 1,000 trees ranging across seven varieties in their groves.
They installed an Olio Mio-50 mill that processed 50 kilos per hour. By 2006, as the groves expanded, they added a second Olio Mio-50 to double production. In 2013 they expanded again, adding an additional 4,000 trees to the grove and installing an Olive Max 33 to process 2.5 tons of olives per hour.
Today, the grove has an assortment of olive varieties chosen to spread out the bloom date, harvest maturity date, pollination, fruit size, cold hardiness and oil quality and profile.
Among the main varieties grown at Queen Creek Olive Mill are Frantoio, Grappolo, Pendolino, Maurino, Moraiolo, Coratina, Taggiasca and Mission. Also in the groves are Spanish lines like Manzanillo, Sevillano and Arbequina, the Greek Kalamata, and California’s Lucca olive.
Since Queen Creek bottles its own brand of EVOO, having a wide array of ripening dates, flavor types and intensities within these varieties is important to marketing the end product.
There are strict harvest guidelines for EVOO. For one thing, drops never are used. Instead, a large tarp is placed under the tree and the crew gently rakes the ripe olives from the branches into the tarp. From there, olives are separated from stems, twigs and leaves. Next, they are cleaned with a simple bath of fresh water. This is done to remove dirt or dust that might get on the olive during harvest or post-harvest handling. From there, the olives are put in a crusher and pressed within 24 hours.
“Fresh olives give you fresh oil. It’s as simple as that,” Perry said.
An individual olive tree in Arizona will come into production in about three years – that’s about one to two seasons faster than an olive in California or in the Mediterranean region.
Typically, trees bud in March and are in full blossom around the middle of April. The output is surprisingly small. If four percent of the blossoms become fruit, it will mean a bumper crop.
Queen Creek gets a good idea of expected harvest amounts by May. By then, olives are formed on the tree. They mature through the summer. One thing is for sure: nobody wants to eat an olive right off the tree. They are quite tart.
Owners Perry and Brenda Rea are proud to call their EVOO all-organic and pesticide free, but they can’t exactly take all the credit for it. The olive fly – a devastating pest of olives in most of its production range – is not a problem in central Arizona because it’s too hot for the pest to survive.
The same holds true of the many kinds of olive tree molds that tend to require fungicide or inhibitor applications in most other production regions. Those molds do no plague Queen Creek. Part of that can be credited to the grove’s location at the base of the San Tan Mountains.
The soil in the Gila River flood plain is perfect for producing olives: long, hot sunny days and cool desert nights.
Educating The Market
Tours of the olive operation are called ‘classes’ by the company. They educate each tourist with a short course in olives, olive production and olive oil.
The classes start in a demonstration olive grove, pass through the production facility and end up in a showroom where people can sample a wide range of olive oils, olive breads and other tasty treats.
As one of only 20 certified olive sommeliers in the world, Perry has an almost evangelical desire to teach consumers how to appreciate the olives produced in their groves.
For example, there are natural green olives and natural purple olives. Despite what your local pizza shop may tell you, there are no black olives. Again, marketing comes to the fore as consumers are informed that black olives simply are green or more likely, purple olives soaked in solvents like lye or something similar to make them black.
EVOO must meet strict acidity requirements. To be considered EVOO, the oleic acid content cannot exceed 0.008 grams per 100 grams – or 0.8 percent – in North America. Perry says the olive oil produced at Queen Creek typically runs about 0.3 percent free acidity as measured by oleic oil content. Queen Creek’s olives are “cold pressed,” meaning no heat or solvents are ever used in production.
In addition to its original location, Queen Creek has locations in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson. They also run a sizable mail order operation. It’s all in keeping with Perry and Brenda Rea’s desire to get good, natural EVOO in the hands of customers everywhere.
Turning Olives Into Olive Oil
- A hammer mill grinds the olives, crushing the pits, seeds and flesh into a coarse paste. The olive’s pits and seeds are important since they are keys to giving the end product its individual taste.
- Most of the oil comes from the olive’s flesh. Oil content ranges from 15 to 27 percent depending on the variety of olive and the maturity of the fruit.
- The paste is slowly blended for 30 to 40 minutes in a large mixer with spiral mixing blades. Known as “malaxation,” this process allows small oil droplets to combine and form larger ones.
- Next, oil, water and solids are separated in a twostep process. A centrifugal decanter spins the olive paste and that causes the heavier flesh, pits and most of the water to separate from the oil.
- Keep in mind that oil and water don’t mix. So next, the remainder from the centrifuging process is decanted into oxygen-free stainless steel tanks. The bottom of each tank looks like a funnel. That allows the water to separate from the olive oil.
- The oil is then piped into specially designed oxygen-free stainless steel tanks where it is kept until bottled for consumer use.
PHOTOS BY AZ-OLIVE MILL QUEEN CREEK UNLESS OTHERWISE MENTIONED