By Lorrie Baumann
It’s not often that a story about a food product for the American market begins with an ancient Greek philosopher, but this one does. That’s because a Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, who lived between 371 and 287 B.C. wrote a book in which he told us how the Greeks propagated olives. Which means that the Greeks have been taking olives seriously as a food crop for at least that long. That’s important today because a new entrant into the olive category, Alive & Well Olives, have introduced olives into the American market using the same traditional methods that might have been observed by Theophrastus.
Unlike other olives on supermarket shelves or in olive bars today, Alive & Well Olives are naturally-cured by lacto-fermentation, the same process that turns cabbage into sauerkraut and milk into cheese. As a result, Alive & Well Olives contain natural probiotic lactobacillus cultures that remain active in the olive flesh and in the brine. “There is something new under the sun, even if it’s something that existed a thousand years ago,” says Greg Leonard, a Founding Partner of Alive & Well Olives who’s intent on livening up a category that even he is used to thinking of as totally mature. Ancient, even.
Leonard and four other partners started the company two years ago with the idea that they wanted to bring a product to market that would fit with the values they’d espoused through their careers in the natural products industry. Leonard himself spent over 40 years as a senior executive for Tree of Life, a natural and specialty foods distributor that’s now part of KeHE. “I certainly understand the challenges of going to market and enjoy navigating that path thoughtfully and in a collaborative way with retailers to get to the consumer,” he says. “If you had asked me three years ago when this notion of developing a branded product line came up in conversation, olives probably wouldn’t have made the list…. What we quickly came to realize was how little we – or most people who enjoy Mediterranean food – really understood about how virtually all olives today are grown and processed. Our ‘aha moment’ was the realization that … in the 50s and 60s, the traditional growing and processing techniques were replaced by chemical-based processes designed to speed time-to-shelf and extend shelf life.” Most commercially produced olives found on grocery shelves or in olive bars are pasteurized and often lye-cured to accelerate the fermentation process, according to Leonard. Black olives are either dyed using ferrous gluconate or subjected to rapid cures that are accelerated through artificial means. “Speeding up the process reduces the cost and the curing time to weeks instead of the months required by natural fermentation,” Leonard says.
Alive & Well Olives are grown in Greece on small family farms and village farming cooperatives. The olives stay under the care of the same group of growers throughout the curing process until they’re packed. In contrast to commercially produced olives, Alive & Well Olives are organically and sustainably grown, non-GMO verified, harvested by hand, naturally fermented and probiotic, and authentic and traceable back to the groves in which each olive variety is grown. Alive & Well Olives are packaged in the original mother brine in which they were cured. “The mother brine itself is loaded with probiotics and can be used in salad dressings, or in pasta dishes. It adds a nice, round olive flavor to the dish, and you’re getting those additional health benefits that come with the probiotics in the mother brine,” Leonard says. “To a large degree, it was the fact that these olives had such a robust story and long list of on-trend benefits that caused our team, Legacy III Partners, to go into this particular product category.”
In contrast with most of those other olives, Alive & Well Olives still have the pits in them, which improves their flavor and prevents the tissue damage to the olives that occurs when the pits are removed. Alive & Well Olives, packaged in glass jars, are sold in the fermented foods section of the refrigerator case. They’re offered in six varieties: Kalamata, which offers pungent earthy aromas and the supple nutty accents of the classic Kalamata flavor; Chalkidiki, a firm green olive with crispy, savory and peppery notes that pairs well with sweet accompaniments; Atalanti, which has a complex balance of sweet and savory flavors; Green Rovies, with a rich and buttery flavor with a long finish and a bitter aftertaste; Black Rovies, which offer subtle flavors of peach and pear and end with acidic and balsamic notes that balance out the richness; and Green Mix, which includes a blend of Kalamata, Atalanti, Chalkidiki and Green Rovies. The company guarantees a minimum of six months of shelf life from delivery to retail.