Award-Winning Importer Recounts Evolving US Olive Oil Culture

MillPress Imports co-founder Tim Balshi says quality is key in the competitive U.S. olive oil import market.
Tim Balshi
By Daniel Dawson
Sep. 20, 2023 12:33 UTC

MillPress Imports co-founder Tim Balshi has spent the last two decades import­ing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil to the United States.

His pas­sion for olive oil was kin­dled when he trav­eled to Spain at the end of the 1990s. That was the first time I tasted fresh olive oil,” he told Olive Oil Times. And I thought, whoa, this is amaz­ing.’”

This is a tough busi­ness. It’s a crowded mar­ket and get­ting more crowded by the minute.- Tim Balshi, co-founder, MillPress Imports

Even as Balshi com­pleted his uni­ver­sity degree and started work­ing in the cor­po­rate world, his mind wan­dered back to the fresh olive oil he tasted in Jaén, the world’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region.

Balshi felt he needed to share that same sen­sa­tion of dis­cov­ery with con­sumers in the United States. In 2000, he co-founded Aguibal with his cousin.

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That’s when we started dab­bling in import­ing” Spanish extra vir­gin olive oil to the U.S., he said. We imported early crush oils back then before the inter­net really took off.”

Balshi and his cousin started by pur­chas­ing small lots of olive oil from pro­duc­ers Balshi knew per­son­ally in Jaén to ensure the qual­ity was as high as pos­si­ble.

At the time, Balshi’s cousin lived in California while he lived on the East Coast. He’d cover the West Coast, and lit­tle by lit­tle, we would olive oil to dis­cern­ing retail­ers and directly online.”

In the early 2000s, olive oil con­sump­tion in the U.S. was about half what it is now. According to the International Olive Council (IOC), the U.S. con­sumed 194,500 tons of olive oil in the 2000/01 crop year. In the past half-decade, con­sump­tion has hov­ered between 380,000 and 400,000 tons.

Back then, Balshi said olive oil was viewed as a com­mod­ity – a prod­uct where all units are indis­tin­guish­able and inher­ently have the same value. It was a dif­fer­ent era,” he said.

He attrib­uted this to the lack of gen­eral knowl­edge about olive oil, espe­cially among con­sumers in the U.S., and the absence of avail­able infor­ma­tion online and in the media.

There was­n’t a real apti­tude around high-qual­ity oils out­side of what we were doing and some other com­pa­nies,” Balshi said. As a result, he sold most of his extra vir­gin olive oil to high-end retail­ers in coastal cities.

However, this all started to change in the mid-2000s when, Balshi said, pro­duc­ers in Spain and Italy were begin­ning to har­vest early and pro­duce high-qual­ity olive oil at the expense of quan­tity.

Producers were fig­ur­ing out how to set up the mill at the right speed and how to bring in the fruit at cool enough tem­per­a­tures,” Balshi said. They were under­stand­ing the loss of yield and rolling it up into the price.”

Balshi said the cul­ture around olive oil rapidly evolved in the U.S. after 2010 with media cov­er­age of food and cook­ing, high-speed inter­net and aware­ness about olive oil’s health ben­e­fits.

The advent of the inter­net really cre­ated more of a per­va­sive reach for olive oil pro­duc­ers and sell­ers and spread the val­ues of olive oil and cook­ing,” he said.

Along with the more acces­si­ble access to infor­ma­tion afforded by high-speed inter­net, Balshi said inter­na­tional qual­ity com­pe­ti­tions also played a sig­nif­i­cant role, with the intro­duc­tion of the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition in New York in 2013.


However, as demand for olive oil has increased and the cul­ture has taken root, Balshi said the imported olive oil mar­ket in the U.S. – which meets about 97 per­cent of the country’s olive oil con­sump­tion – has become much more com­pet­i­tive.

This is a tough busi­ness,” he said. It’s a crowded mar­ket and get­ting more crowded by the minute. Back then, it was mostly a cou­ple of huge brands and all these lit­tle guys; we were one of them.”

As a result, the quest for the high­est qual­ity has become para­mount. To that end, California has intro­duced its own def­i­n­i­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil with more strict phys­io­chem­i­cal para­me­ters than those out­lined in the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, the IOC, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

To meet the grow­ing demand for qual­ity, MillPress Imports care­fully mon­i­tors the sources of its extra vir­gin olive oil from Spain, Italy, Chile, Peru and South Africa, work­ing closely with farm­ers and con­duct­ing exten­sive test­ing of fruit and oil every step of the way.

We have peo­ple on the ground all over,” Balshi said. We’re work­ing with spe­cific grow­ers and mills to make oil to our spec­i­fi­ca­tion.”

MillPress employ­ees go to the groves before the har­vest to test olives and ensure they do not have any pes­ti­cide residue or other pol­lu­tants. They are also there dur­ing the har­vest, ensur­ing the olives are green while keep­ing an eye on the cli­mate.

There’s a two to three-week win­dow to make green oil,” he said. If it rains, you miss a week. If the fruit matures from green to a lit­tle bit riper, you may have lost some aroma or some qual­ity. A lot of that’s up to Mother Nature, and that’s the hard part.”

After the har­vest, com­pany employ­ees are also in the con­tracted mills, closely fol­low­ing the trans­for­ma­tion process. The phys­io­chem­i­cal para­me­ters of the oil are then tested from the mill, and once they have arrived in the U.S.

We have infra­struc­ture that is set up for suc­cess and the qual­ity mind­set,” Balshi said. We’re not a start-up any­more. We’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

Along with MillPress, Balshi is also involved with Almazara Aguilar, the mill oper­ated by the fam­ily of his wife, Soraya Aguilar.

Aguilar and her fam­ily owned hun­dreds of hectares of rain­fed tra­di­tional olive groves in Jaén and con­structed a ded­i­cated mill in 2007.

Fast for­ward to where we are in 2023, and we’re look­ing to expand our groves in Spain and pos­si­bly in Portugal,” Balshi said.

Despite the drought, which Balshi and oth­ers have told Olive Oil Times will result in another poor har­vest in Spain in the 2023/24 crop year, he is bull­ish about the future.

I’m opti­mistic for the future of olive oil con­sump­tion in the U.S.,” he said. Olive oil is viewed as a med­i­cine and as a spice or condi­ment, some­thing that adds value to the food now, and not just as a cook­ing oil with zero pos­i­tive attrib­utes like in the old days.”

Now there’s more of an appre­ci­a­tion, so I feel like that’s not going away,” Balshi con­cluded.


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