Date: November 17, 2015
Over the past 9 years, I have won 282 awards in olive oil competitions.
If you are wondering…yes, I’m very competitive, and I love winning, so I take this very seriously. I also strongly believe that winning awards plays a key role in your company’s marketing and sales, setting your brand apart from the rest of the pack (which we all want). It has not come easily, and I have not “just been lucky.” There are reasons why I’ve been able to win awards, and I believe they come down to extreme attention to detail, controlling the entire processes of your oil from tree to bottle, time, and just plain hustle and drive. The good news is, you can do it too, and I’m going to help you!
In a recent post I talk about how to produce award-winning extra virgin olive oil. You should read that post in addition to this post if you want all the steps to winning awards with your oil, you can read it here – The Ultimate Guide to Producing Award Winning Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 11 Steps. In this post, I will share exactly how I win awards by tasting, blending and choosing award-winning extra virgin olive oil.
- During the milling season I constantly taste the olive oils right when they are produced (most times only once), because there are times you can catch a really great oil. You want to tag that container or batch for future tasting (making it easier to separate out your “award winning oils”). On the flip side, you could find an oil that is flawed, and set it aside, so you don’t need to taste it again when picking your premium oils. Why is it flawed? Maybe the fruit sat too long before being milled, maybe the fruit was frozen, got hot, or maybe the mill was not cleaned properly and had rancid paste somewhere in the mill. This all said, I find the most difficult time to taste oil, and accurately rate it, is right when the oil has been produced because that’s when it’s most robust. It’s also when stronger flavors in the oil are amplified, making it hard to taste all the key characteristics of the oil like fruitiness, pungency and bitterness. So, unless I can make a definite decision on an oil, I wait until the oil has been racked. Drastic flavor changes can happen from the time the oil is milled to the time you taste again after it has been racked, which can be a span of 15 – 30 days sometimes. So if you can’t make a definite call on an oil when you first taste it, wait until it has been racked.
- Once your oil has been racked and you are ready to start tasting, you have to commit to tasting every single container/tank of oil you have. I’ve had over 200 totes of oil produced in a year, and I’ve tasted every single one to determine what oils would be used for competitions, blending and for segregation in different sales channels. This takes a lot of time. Right. Well, I’ve put the time in to do this, and that’s the difference! It’s simple.
- Once you are ready to put the time in and taste all your oil, get help doing it if you have more than 50 containers because you’ll need to track everything and your helper can take notes for you. Anything less you can do on your own. I taste by variety and can usually only go through about 10-15 containers a day before getting pallet fatigue. I have spread tasting out over the day to get more in too. If you are not feeling your best, I don’t recommend tasting. Wait until you are 100% well again, so all your senses are firing on all cylinders. Once you taste an oil, make notes immediately. One strategy I have is to use large colored tags to write notes on, then attached the tag to the container so it is color coded. My notes are right there for future reference, and different colors will mean different things. For example, you could make all your competition oils one color, and oils you plan to sell in bulk another. In a notebook, I also write down the container number and how I want to use it: competition, blending plans, etc… Here is what I make notes on for the tag:
- Fruitiness – ranked on a scale of 1-3 where 1 is almost no fruit, and 3 is very fruity (blow your mind fruity)
- Pungency/Intensity – ranked on a scale of 1-3 where 1 is delicate and smooth, and 3 is robust and grassy (at least a couple coughs)
- Bitterness – ranked on a scale of 1-3 where 1 is no bitterness, and 3 is way too bitter (like the bitter beer face guy)
- Balanced – Yes/No
- Nose – the smell of the oil ranked on a scale of 1-3, where very little nose is a 1, and a big floral fruity nose is a 3
- How to us it – competition, blending, a special customer, etc…
- Extra notes – “This oil kicks butt!” or “tastes old” or “holy cow this will win an award” or “re-taste something is off” or “what variety is this again?” or “needs to be blended out, way too bitter”….etc.
- Once you have tasted all your oil, made notes, and segregated your containers, then you are ready to start blending (if you need to), for all your bottling needs.
- I’ll blend according to a few things, #1) Profile: Maybe I want a buttery profile, or a really robust one. #2 Certain Variety: Maybe I need a certain amount of Koroneiki or other variety, so I’ll blend like varieties together and create a “lot.” In this case, a “lot” to me, would be a designated amount of oil that is set aside for a single use. This is really important, because if I find an exceptional oil that I want to use for competition, then I’ll go to every length to keep it separated from everything else, and not blend it. This oil would go into a special bottle or be the only oil I use under a certain label. Once it’s sold out, that would be it. This would make it special. If I had a Manzanillo label, and one lot that was my award winning oil, and another that was still very good, but not an award winner, I would designate and highlight the award winning oil with a special sticker, or some other unique way, and sell it as such. The last thing you want to do is highlight an oil as exceptional, and it not be: this could hurt your brand.
- Perform your blending, then give your oil a couple days to sit, because once you blend, that oil is going to change flavor again. I’ve blended thinking two oils or three oils would taste a certain way, then had them taste completely different from what I expected a couple days later.
- Choosing your award-winning oils to enter into competitions, the last step, and most important….obviously.
- Now that you have chosen all your “competition” oils, it’s time to taste them one more time. I taste all the oils I enter into competitions again before I put them into a bottle to submit just in case there has been a change in flavor, or maybe I’ve decided it needs to be re-blended. If I enter 10 different competitions in a year, I taste the oil every single time I go to fill bottles for a competition entry. Here is the key: I fill fresh bottles of the oil I’m entering for every single competition. I never pre-fill, unless the competition due dates are within two weeks of each other. Otherwise, your oil will start to change flavor in the bottle the longer it’s in there, and when it gets to the judge after being bottled for several weeks or months, it will not taste the same. So fill fresh bottles every single time you enter a competition. I do this myself, just to make sure everything goes right. Because if I don’t win on an oil, I want it to my fault and nobody else’s.
- Strategy in tasting and choosing your competition oils:
- Balance – oils that win awards are well-balanced. That means not too bitter, not too robust, not too buttery, not “too” of anything, but just right. I know, you are asking what is just right. That’s the hard part and where you have to educate your pallet. I recommend taking courses at UC Davis Olive Center and check out Sue Langstaff’s website and book, Olive Oil Sensory Science. Taste oils that win awards, over and over again. Ask judges how they judge to gain insight to the process. Taste lots of oils, not just the good, but the good, the bad and the ugly.
- Decide what flavor profile you want and enter it accordingly: delicate, medium and robust.
- Generally, I look for oils that have good fruit up front with some bitterness and a good pepper kick (pungency) on the end (a 2 on a scale of 1-3). NOTE: I have found that most judges like a more robust oil, however, the Amercian public likes oils that are more in the range of mild to medium. This has a lot to do with education, so as people become more educated on olive oil, I believe their tasting ability will become more complex, and over time will like those big robust oils.
- Once I’ve picked the oils I’m entering, I fill just a few days before the due date published. This way, my oil is the freshest it can be, before being judged. So I’ll gauge how long the shipping will take to wherever it’s going, then ship with only a couple days cushion. I also try to ship during the week, so my package does not sit over the weekend, in case it could get hot. So I ship with enough time to get to its location in the same week. I also keep the bottles cool as long as I can before shipping, pack them cold, and provide plenty of packaging to keep them cool.
- Don’t enter an oil just because you want to enter something. If you become known for submitting bad oils, then you will be known for submitting bad oils, and that will hurt your brand. If you know your oil is not award winning oil, don’t enter it. I know that sucks if you only have one oil you produce, but I would not take the chance of damaging your brand.
*Note – I’m assuming that you have submitted your olive oils to an approved lab for evaluation, and the results are within the parameters of your country, or state, meeting extra virgin olive oil requirements. Being in California, I go by the standards set by the COOC (California Olive Oil Council). You can view their standards here. I’ve been a member of the COOC for nearly 10 years now. You can also review the IOC (International Olive Oil Council) standards here and here.
*Lastly….Once you do win an award(s), you have to market the heck out of it to take advantage of all the hard work you put in to win. Ultimately, this is why you entered, right? So be ready to post it all over your social media the instant you win, send out a press release, take great pictures, post on your website, Facebook, Instagram and anything else you can think of to get the word out. I’ll talk specifically about the marketing strategies behind promoting your award-winning product in a future post, so keep an eye out for it.
Now, go win some awards! – Dewey
Helpful Links for tasting and racking extra virgin olive oil:
Link to Sue Langstaff’s website “Applied Sensory” – Sue is one of the best tasters in the world, also an expert in wine & beer. You can read her book Olive Oil Sensory Science here.
Link to UC Davis report: Filter or not? A Review of the Influence of Filtration on Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Fingers crossed you win a big award, or a few! Please feel free to contact me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.