Answer: Inspiration, Despair, Two Explosions and Eight Years of Research.
You'll find this under the "How to Producing Great Oils" section in all the manuals and industry bibles on The Principals and Modern Practices of Producing Edible Oils. All the experts in the field specify this as the best method too.
Well, of course they don't. However, it's the answer we came up with. Developing anything from scratch underlines the shortcomings of established expertise and equally the importance of sticking to your guiding principles. We are not saying that experts don't know what they're talking about: they do. Except, they really only know about the known and the established, not the new. For the new you need to do your own research and become your own expert, otherwise you will just accept the tried and tested practises and end up compromising your own vision.
And that's where the GOOD story begins; with our vision of producing the best quality, healthiest and tastiest cooking oil and with the experts telling us how it should be done. The problem was that the industry's standard practises would only compromise our goal. So with a blank page in front of us, we started to write our own rules and find our own answers. Little did we realise it would take inspiration, Despair, Two Explosions and Eight Years of Research.
When Glynis and I bought Collabear Farm in 1996, we never set out to produce a cooking oil. Like all the best journeys, we never had a specific destination in mind. All we knew was that we wanted to grow a sustainable crop, and coming from farming families, understood that we would have to turn a profit if we were going to have a chance of surviving.
Fortunately for us, hemp had recently been reintroduced into the UK by an established agricultural merchant. It fitted our requirements perfectly. Hemp is hugely beneficial to the environment, easy to grow and can be used in an impressive range of commercial, eco friendly products. It meant we could grow a crop that was both sustainable and profitable. Hemp was the forgotten super crop, and we were excited about becoming one of the first farms to reintroduce it to Britain.
The more Glynis and I began to understand about the crop, the more successful we became at growing it for fibre, the more we realised we were missing out on the most fascinating element: the Seed.
Although well documented now, the nutritional gem contained inside the shell had been forgotten in much the same way as the fibre had fallen from fashion. The seed contains Omega 3, 6 and 9 in exactly the right ratio for it to be absorbed into the body. According to numerous studies that means it is good for arthritis, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, skin and hair.
It was then that we thought about crushing hemp seed into oil. Coming from an Italian background, olive oil had always been an important part of our family's food. I knew that something could be healthy for you and taste good too. With hemp, we knew that the basic ingredient was healthier than olives. We also knew that the seed tasted fantastic when we picked it directly off the plant.
Hemp oil did exist, but only as a medicinal supplement found in health food shop. It tasted disgusting. It was definitely not something you would want to pour over a salad. The reason why it tasted so bad is because they were using the same hemp seed that is imported each year into the UK for Animal Feed - mainly birdseed. It doesn't taste very nice and isn't intended for human consumption.
Easy, we thought. How difficult can this be? All we have to do is crush our beautiful seeds to make a delicious nutty oil, which also happens to be a Nutritionist's dream. I became determined to make an oil that was tastier, healthier and of the highest quality than anything else on the market. Inspiration, optimism and a healthy dose of naivety prevailed.
What Oil to Make?
When you look at the Oil Selection on a supermarket shelf, there is a pretty confusing choice. Vegetable, Sunflower, Olive, Corn, Rice etc, with varieties that are Cold Pressed, First Pressed, Virgin, Extra Virgin, Single Estate, Medium and Light, Mild and Light or Pure. They all have different cooking properties, nutritional properties, taste different, but don't give you much of a clue why one is more expensive than the other. The choice of oils in the last 20 years has grown quickly. The explosion in demand for Olive Oil only began to happen in the early nineties. Up until that time most people in the UK bought Olive Oil in the chemist to cure earache.
The same dazzling choice can be found in the Healthy or Nutritional Supplement Oil selections available in Health Stores. There may be some bad science and suspect claims on the packaging, but none the less there is a huge range of products put on the market with good intention. As a customer, you could be easily forgiven for being totally perplexed about what to buy. In fact, if you're anything like us you leave the store in a state of total despair wondering if you should be still alive given that you haven't used any of these oils before.
In truth, we didn't do any market research, focus groups, business planning or product profiling. We just figured we could make a fantastic oil from our seed that was straightforward, honest and tasted delicious. This still is our guiding principal. We felt strongly that we were making an oil for cooking and that if we got the taste right, the nutritional properties would stack up too.
The nutritional properties of Hemp Seed are almost too good to be true. Look on the Web and there is a huge volume of information out there. We have always been interested but pretty sceptical about this. We'll explain why we changed our minds later. But in the meantime, taste was our guiding interest.
How to make oil.
There are two ways of making oil. The way mankind has done it for centuries and the modern way. There are practical reasons for choosing one over the other.
The Ancient method is to press oil from the Olive, Seed or Grain physically - be it under a stone or with a mechanical press. The crude oil - a mix of oil and solids - is allowed to settle. Gravity is the best filter around. Pure oil is siphoned off the top and that's it. The taste is as close to the original raw ingredient as you can get. The draw back is that it is slow, inefficient and wastes a lot of oil. Most importantly it relies on good quality ingredients to produce a good quality oil.
The modern way is to extract oil chemically and then refine the crude oil by Degumming, Bleaching and Deoderising. This refining process uses high temperatures and Alkali (fuller's earth) to control the quality of finished product. I won't go into the process here, you can look it up, but the advantage of this method is that it doesn't matter what the state of the raw ingredient is, because the process in effect reconstitutes the oil. This is important for mass production. For example you can have a ship load of Olives or Rapeseed of variable quality that in a perfect world would be rejected, but then the cost of the finished product to the customer would be much higher. So the refining process produces a homogenous product at a reasonable cost to the customer.
There is a variation to the modern method used for most commercial "Cold Pressed" oils like Olive Oil and Rapeseed Oil (not 'Single Estate Oils or some Specialist Rapeseed Oils), which is to use a mechanical press to extract oil, sometimes known as the first pressing, and then to extract more oil from the press cake chemically. The crude oil is then refined in the way already described.
The one serious problem with refining oil is that the high temperatures used over a long period create Trans Fats. These are the bad fats that block up arteries and make us fat. In the US food manufacturers have to declare Trans Fats in their products. In the EU there is growing pressure for foods to be labelled with the Trans Fat content, which is causing some sleepless nights to a lot of oil processors.
Hemp Seed Oil is probably the healthiest oil nature has come up with. It is very rich in Polyunstaturated fats, which are made up from an impressive array of important essential fatty acids (GLA, Omega 3,6,&9). It has half the saturated fat of Olive Oil and it has a delicate nutty taste, which you don't want to mess about with. Like many of the best things in life, it is beautifully and simply constructed and must be treated with respect.
Clearly the Ancient method was the only way to make our oil.
This meant that the taste of the raw ingredient was crucial. And using hemp seed available on the open market wasn't an option.
Producing Hemp Seed for Food.
Although there had been a fast growth in the consumption of hempseed oil as a nutritional supplement in Europe and particularly in the US, the definitions of quality in hempseed used at the time were the most basic of the criteria used for grain trading - description, size and purity (physical cleanliness). This took no account of the structure and condition of the oil inside the seed. In other words, seed that was being used for animal feed was also being used for human food. There was no standard by which quality could be genuinely assessed, which would account for the disappointing taste and unreliable quality of oils on the market.
Not that this concerned us particularly at the time. We knew we had to grow our own seed to make sure we got the taste right. Given that we controlled the raw ingredient we had control over our own quality.
Growing Hemp for Seed
There are dozens of varieties of hemp approved by the EU and the UK Home Office for cultivation. Each variety has different properties and like any plant each variety of seed has a different taste. Allowing seed to mature on the plant means harvesting is much later in the season. The more mature the hemp plant, the tougher the glues are that are integral to the fibre. In other words the fibre is already on its way to become rope naturally. Finally, the later in the season, the more volatile the weather and the harder it is to gather the crop.
These were the farming challenges. We had excellent support from our neighbours, be it encouragement, practical help or engineering expertise. There was a lot of trial and even more error. Plenty of burnt out machinery - Hemp fibre if handled at the wrong time or in the wrong way can destroy machinery with astounding ease - and plenty of sleepless nights. One variety of seed we grew tasted fantastic, but matured very late which meant an entire seed crop was blown off the plant as strong autumn winds raged through the night. There's nothing quite like looking at a years work wasted on the ground.
However what came out of this 5 year period was a system of cultivation that we knew was reliable, produced the right quality, tasty raw seed and that we could take to other farmers to use. To begin with, farmers grew hemp for seed locally for us in Devon, but in 2006 we loaded our combine harvester, drying machinery and a gang if men to harvest our first crops in East Anglia. These farms now have the experience to handle all aspects of growing themselves.
Capturing the Taste
There's nothing quite like the taste of vegetables fresh from the garden or fruit that has only just been picked. The best food captures this moment and doesn't need anything to complicate it.
Hemp seed picked directly form the plant has a delicious nutty taste. This is the taste that inspired us to make our own oil.
In temperate climates, preserving seed well means really close attention to detail when drying and conditioning at harvest time and careful storage conditions through the year. This has a huge influence on quality. From the beginning we harnessed the experts in grain trade in the best techniques available for drying and conditioning our seed.
And it's not so simple. Even with a brand new purpose built mill, designed to deal with this problem by the best experts, it didn't work well enough for us. Our significant investment just didn't work and the experts shrugged their shoulders.
With no intention of using a refining process, the quality of our raw seed had to be impeccable. Figuring this out took us 3 years. This may seem like a long time, but developing a technique that can be used as a standardised robust method means finding the simplest method possible. Sometimes the simplest things in life are the hardest to achieve.
There is a great deal of experience in the world with Cold Pressing oil. But you've guessed - not with Hemp Seed. Or rather, only for almost medicinal use where taste is not an issue. This is why we realised we needed to press our own oil. We had a lot of early success with our first presses. Germany has a long tradition of pressing oil seeds for food and there is a great deal of useful expertise that we called on. It was only as our confidence grew that we could see the design of an oil press makes a huge difference to the taste of an oil by the way it applies pressure to the seed being pressed.
So we upgraded to a new type of press. Confident in the trials that had been done on our seed at the German plant, we installed two brand new presses in Devon and started them up. Expecting problems, as with any new machinery, we calmly watched as they groaned into action. They sounded like a ship at sea breaking through an ice shelf. Thumps and cracks started to get louder and louder and reverberating throughout the building. Starting a Cold Press is always a game of nerves. There is a pain threshold the machine needs to go through in order to settle into a happy routine. But this pain threshold was going beyond the limits as the cracks got sharper and louder. The colour was draining from our faces when in a split second the end of the first machine exploded and we dived for the off switch.
Weeks later, repaired and ready to go again, we figured we would fly the experts in to start up again. The same routine, although this time they got to the 'Off' switch just in time. We all looked on. I can remember the face of the engineering foreman who ran the workshop next door to us, a man who delights in the most modern precision engineering and is passionate about rebuilding steam engines from scratch, as the cold press experts reached into their tool box for an Angle Grinder. As we witnessed huge lumps being hacked out of the stainless steal screws that press the seeds, we knew we were in trouble again.
It took another 4 months to rebuild the presses ourselves and really understand the optimum design and engineering for hemp seeds. It's one thing to Cold Press seed, it's an entirely different matter to do it really well.
The Finished Article
Given we were using the most basic and ancient method of finishing oil, gravity, we had few problems: we simply allowed crude oil to settle before siphoning off the pure oil. However, it is a slow process and we were running out of settling tanks, which take up a huge amount of space.
With this in mind, we hoped we could try the same process used by First Pressed Olive Oils. Centrifuge. It's an old technology, which simply uses its own gravity to do the same job as settling. There are some leading engineering companies with huge experience in all kinds of applications that have made Centrifuges for years. Of course you've guessed it. The one thing they haven't worked with is Hemp Seed Oil.
With the Centrifuge experts assembled at our Mill and a shiny machine hooked up ready to test, we began. Confident in the expertise at hand, we were keen to see the first results. There's a type of conversation that flows in these situations, where the experts confirm their credentials by telling stories of other jobs and the customer nods knowingly taking reassurance from this past experience. And so it was for a while. Bang. The top of the machine blows off and there is 350 litres of oil exploded over our pristine finishing room. Jackson Pollock would have been proud.
It's only at this point, oil dripping on our heads, that we learn that First Pressed Olive Oil has to be heated to pass through a centrifuge. We never allow heat to be applied to our oil - this is what makes it so robust and suitable for cooking and means it is not compromised in any way -it's the first thing we say to anyone involved in the GOOD OIL project. So we got our mops out, asked the experts to leave and bought some more settling tanks.
So what does make a GOOD OIL?
If you start with bad ingredients, you can process an oil to make it taste ok, but you have to accept compromises. It's easier to process oils that are not very good for us and are high in Saturated Fat. The production of Trans Fats is seen as an acceptable risk. Oils that are high in the good fats, Polyunsatruated Fats, have also to accept that these fats are reduced during the refining process.
If you start with the finest ingredients, use the simplest technique available, and in the case of the best oils ensure there is no heat used, then there is no compromise.
Not only do we not use heat when we make our oil, but we make sure that our seed is dried with the minimum amount of heat. This is why GOOD OIL is suitable for cooking and doesn't have to be treated any different to other oils. It's robust because if its quality.
How do we know we're right?
There is a lot of information available across the world about Hemp Seed Oil. It has never really hit the mainstream, because the availability of hemp seed oil was limited and to be honest, it never tasted good enough.
GOOD OIL has been used by chefs, nutritionists, the RSPCA (to restore health to their worst cases), prescribed by surgeons to patients undergoing surgery and most importantly used by our customers in everyday cooking for four years.
In that time we have had a lot of feedback about the nutritional benefits of GOOD OIL which we have always been aware of, but wanted some independent assessment. We asked Kings College London Department of Nutritional Sciences to assess the nutritional attributes of GOOD OIL. Professor Tom Sanders, the leading authority in nutrition, confirmed our own beliefs and found some more exciting facts as well.
We're going to publish the findings [PDF] next month, but it has made us feel that this journey has been worth it. Even if we never intended to end up here in the first place.
Download Kings Report in PDF Format.