Kalinjot Monovarietal Places Albanian Olive Oil on World Stage

Andrew Strong hopes the Gold Award at the NYIOOC for an organic endemic monovarietal will catch the world’s attention.
The groves of Illyrian Press
By Daniel Dawson
May. 11, 2023 13:09 UTC

A record-break­ing har­vest has also yielded Albania’s first-ever award at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

The Illyrian Press earned a Gold Award for an organic Kalinjot, an endemic olive vari­ety, at the world’s largest olive oil qual­ity com­pe­ti­tion and joined elite brands from 28 other coun­tries in the Official Guide to the World’s Best Olive Oils.

(Albania is) a region with tremen­dous poten­tial. And it does­n’t sur­prise me that it can pro­duce some high-qual­ity olive oil.- Andrew Strong, owner, The Illyrian Press

First of all, it’s really excit­ing to win,” owner Andrew Strong told Olive Oil Times. I think it’s gen­er­ally a pretty excit­ing time in Albania.”

Strong first vis­ited Albania in 2005 and was imme­di­ately impressed by the south­east­ern European country’s moun­tain­ous land­scape and cul­ture.

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However, he said the infra­struc­ture was severely under­de­vel­oped. When he first vis­ited the coun­try, it would take him 15 hours to make the 100-kilo­me­ter jour­ney from Tirana, the national cap­i­tal, south to Vlorë, where his olive groves are located. Now it’s a two or three-hour trip,” he said.

It’s a region with tremen­dous poten­tial,” Strong added. And it does­n’t sur­prise me that it can pro­duce some high-qual­ity olive oil.”

Shortly after his first visit, Strong met Vesaf and Bruno Musaj. The father-son team is now respon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing The Illyrian Press’s extra vir­gin olive oil.

In 2006/07, I met Bruno and Vesaf, who had been pro­duc­ing olive oil at a very small scale,” he said. I tasted their olive oil, and the qual­ity was such that I couldn’t walk away. I was com­pelled to start this project and bring the olive oil to the United States.”

By 2010, Strong started The Ilyrrian Press, named after the Indo-European-speak­ing peo­ple who lived in the region more than 2,000 years ago. His first har­vest took place in 2012.

Strong said the com­pany had faced plenty of chal­lenges in the decade since pro­duc­tion began. However, the unique fla­vors and high polyphe­nol con­tent of the​Kalinjot extra vir­gin olive oil con­vinced him that the time and effort would pay off.

Now, the com­pany imports olive oil to the U.S., sell­ing it mainly around East Hampton, New York. Strong said he entered the NYIOOC because he felt his team was ready.

Along with a bumper har­vest – which Ministry of Agriculture offi­cials esti­mate at a record-high 25,000 tons, more than dou­ble the aver­age of the pre­vi­ous five sea­sons – Bruno Masaj told Olive Oil Times through a trans­la­tor, Alban Rafuna, that qual­ity was also as high as ever.

The pro­duc­tion qual­ity is approx­i­mately the same through­out all years,” he said. One of the main dif­fer­ences is the time when it rains, and this year hap­pened to have the rain­fall at a specif­i­cally good time for the devel­op­ment of the olives.”

Strong added that the pro­duc­tion team had heard from local grow­ers from whom they buy olives that this year would be a good har­vest. That cor­re­sponded with hav­ing bet­ter infra­struc­ture in place, and we thought this was the moment to enter the NYIOOC,” he said.

According to Masaj, Albania’s bumper har­vest can mainly be attrib­uted to young olive trees planted 15 years ago enter­ing matu­rity.

He added that olive cul­ti­va­tion in the coun­try swiftly expanded after the tran­si­tion from a sin­gle-party com­mu­nist state to a democ­racy 30 years ago. This was mainly due to agrar­ian reforms, which saw indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies receive plots of land and the free­dom to plant what they wished instead of what was man­dated by state-run coop­er­a­tives.


With a long his­tory of olive oil pro­duc­tion, moun­tain­ous ter­rain fea­tur­ing well-drained soil, hot and sunny sum­mers with low humid­ity and mild, wet win­ters, Albania is well-suited to olive cul­ti­va­tion which quickly expanded.

When Strong first began pro­duc­tion, he said the only viable busi­ness plan for the com­pany was to export to the United States.

Once we put the money for­ward to get the qual­ity we were look­ing for, the price point [of sell­ing the olive oil domes­ti­cally] just did­n’t work,” he said.

However, Strong added that the trade infra­struc­ture between Albania and the United States was poorly devel­oped.

The first year, we had to hire our own con­tainer for a very small quan­tity of olive oil because there was no con­tainer to share to bring it to the United States,” Strong said. As we’ve scaled up, we’ve had to basi­cally develop that infra­struc­ture to move prod­uct from Albania to the United States.”

According to the Observatory for Economic Complexity, a data­base affil­i­ated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, total exports from Albania to the United States rose from $29.7 mil­lion in 2010 to $65.8 mil­lion in 2021.

While table olives have become the country’s third most sig­nif­i­cant agri­cul­tural export to the U.S. – val­ued at $233,000 in 2021 – olive oil exports are neg­li­gi­ble.

However, The Illyrian Press now has a well-estab­lished sup­ply chain. Strong said this process begins with local farm­ers who sell their olives to the com­pany, adding that a big part of the com­pa­ny’s suc­cess comes from cul­ti­vat­ing these strong rela­tion­ships.

With flow­er­ing yet to occur in Albania, Masaj said it is still too early to fore­cast how the 2023/24 crop year will unfold. Still, he is con­fi­dent that the com­ing har­vest will also be fruit­ful and said qual­ity will likely be as high as ever.

Considering the his­tor­i­cal data that shows that the pro­duc­tion has been increas­ing at an increas­ing rate every year, this makes us feel and believe that it will be another good har­vest,” he said.

Besides the quan­tity, we will con­cen­trate aggres­sively on hav­ing a qual­ity pro­duc­tion by pick­ing olives from old trees, choos­ing trees on ele­vated land and try­ing to pick the olives from the crown of the trees, which are more exposed to the sun,” Masaj con­cluded.


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