At the base of the San Tan Mountains in Queen Creek, Arizona, Queen Creek Olive Mill is harvesting olives in the fertile soil of this floodplain region. The area, known for its quality fruits and vegetables, provides the ideal growing conditions of sunny days and cool desert nights for the olives to thrive. Perry Rea, cofounder of the family-owned and -run olive mill, says Arizona-grown olives provide the perfect fruit for milling extra-virgin olive oil.
Although Rea has Italian heritage, he did not have a background in olives before starting the Queen Creek Olive Mill with his wife, Brenda, in 2000. Rea had turned 40, and he wanted a change in his life.
An Idea Sprouts
Earlier, on a visit to Arizona, where Rea’s parents were wintering in Fountain Hills, Perry and Brenda, who have five children, had been walking in Old Town Scottsdale when he noticed the olive trees growing along the streets. At dinner that night, Rea’s father, a first-generation Italian, commented on the large number of olive trees in Arizona.
Still, the idea didn’t immediately materialize. It wasn’t until the couple returned home to Detroit, while sitting at dinner one night, that Brenda looked at Perry and said, “Hey, why don’t we make olive oil in Arizona?” The idea stuck, and Rea started investigating olive varieties, learning about growing olives in Arizona and how to make olive oil.
He visited local farmers to see what they were doing. He traveled to Italy a couple of times to see olive oil being made, and he took some courses at the University of California–Davis to understand more fully the manufacturing of oil.
The couple ended up settling in Queen Creek because, Rea says, Queen Creek is a historic farming community. Schnepf Farms, which is located right across the road, is an agritourism sort of location where they grow peaches and other produce, sell homemade pies, and offer a chance to glamp on a farm. “I think it’s been around for like 80 years,” Rea observed. “Definitely an old farming family. Anyway, I ended up buying about 100 acres from him and planting my olive trees there.”
The business grew from there, albeit slowly. It started with a tin shed, where the couple began producing a little bit of olive oil from a small mill that only did 50 kilos an hour, which is 100 pounds an hour. “We didn’t make a lot of oil right away,” Rea explained.
Even with such a small run, the oil gained in popularity when a friend started using Rea’s olive oil in his restaurant. His friend was also cooking on a morning television show and featured some Queen Creek Olive Mill oils. The local newspaper ran a story, and then, Rea says, “I started getting people coming to the mill and knocking on the door, wanting to do tours, and wanting to buy my oil. At that time, I was only selling one SKU, which was extra-virgin olive oil. It grew from there. I planted more trees, and I started forming more relationships with other farmers in the Imperial Valley, as well as in Yuma, to get more olives. And we just kept growing slowly.”
They were fortunate to be featured on TV’s “Dirty Jobs” program, and also “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Food Network, where their Kalamata sandwich was featured. The salami in that sandwich was created by The Pork Shop, another local business, which uses Rea’s Kalamata olives to make a Kalamata salami. Rea says the sandwich is a twist on an Italian sandwich with Genoa salami, capocollo, the Kalamata salami, provolone, and a crema that’s served on a bun with lettuce and tomatoes. “It’s really good,” Rea says.
Besides food, bottled olive oil and balsamic, and specialty items, Brenda took on a passion project of creating olive-oil-based skincare products. Rea says it started, as many of their products did, out of necessity. “Our oldest son Angelo came home from school one day and his hands were all messed up because of the soap they were using at the school. So, my wife put together a little hand salve using olive oil and beeswax. It worked very well on his hands. And from there, she started creating a bunch of different products. So now she’s probably got at least 150 SKUs of bath and body products that are made with olive oil.”
Made in Arizona
The Arizona-made olive oils are getting international recognition as well: winning two awards at the International Olive Oil Competition—a 2017 Gold Award and a 2019 Silver Award. “We pride ourselves on using local products,” Rea said. “Starting out, people didn’t really embrace the fact that we were making olive oil in Arizona.”
When asked how Arizona-made olive oil differs from olive oil made in Italy, Rea says there really isn’t any difference between European olive oil and olive oil made domestically. “You can make a profile of olive oil in many ways. I’m an olive oil sommelier.” He got his certificate in Colorno, just outside of Parma, in Italy.
“The key is to understand your customer,” Rea emphasized. “The American palate really likes a very delicate kind of balanced olive oil. In order for me to make that, it depends on a couple of things. Number one, the variety. But mostly it depends on when I harvest the olives and process them. If I pick the olives when they’re green ripe, I’ll be getting a very robust, grassy, bitter olive oil which, by the way, Europeans love that kind of olive oil. So do I.”
He continued: “However, if you let the olives remain on the tree and become, you know, with flashes of purple in it as they become black, red, or purple—when you harvest those olives, you’re going to get a much more delicate oil. And so I usually harvest my olives very late, and that’s part of the reason they do so well here.”
The flavor also depends on the variety. There are three varieties that grow very well in Arizona: the Koroneiki, the Arbosana, and the Arbequina. “Using all three varietals, but harvested at different times, I can really dial into the profile that I want,” Rea explained. “If I want to make robust oil, I’m harvesting green ripe olives. If I want to make delicate oil, I’m harvesting purple ripe olives. And then it’s up to me to blend the profiles that I like. Out of the oil that we sell, we sell 25 percent delicate, 50 percent balanced, and 25 percent robust. And it’s all extra-virgin olive oil. We don’t make anything but extra-virgin olive oil,” Rea stresses.
There are three characteristics in good extra-virgin olive oil, according to Rea: bitterness, fruitiness, and pungency. So, for example, if a blend has a lot of fruitiness, it would be considered a delicate blend. A more bitter or pungent blend is going to be robust.
Although Rea says his olive oil isn’t much different from that milled in Italy, there is a matter of the age of the trees and the sheer number of varieties. Rea explained: “There are thousands of different olives, just like there are thousands of different almonds. The three that we pick here grow well in the valley, and they are olives we can train to be harvested with our harvester. So, throughout Europe, you’ve got people that are hand harvesting trees that are hundreds of years old. We’re still a very young farm.”
“Depending on the region in Italy or Spain—Spain has a lot of Arbequina and Arbosana, which is similar to ours,” Rea continued. “[In] Tunisia, oh my goodness, there are so many different olives. The Koroneiki comes from Greece, but we have the Koroneiki on our property, and a lot of Koroneiki planted in Arizona. So you really can’t say that there’s a difference between olives grown in different regions; it’s just a variety, and there are many varieties.”
Rea summed up his olive oil success this way: “The key to coming up with a different profile is understanding the variety that you have, as well as when to harvest it. And then, of course, also having very good production capability and standards.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.