For an olive oil to be sold as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), it has to meet two requirements: It must have an acidity of less than 0.8% and it must be approved by a tasting panel. We managed to sit in on a tasting session with the Official Tasting Panel for Virgin Olive Oils from Catalonia.
The Official Tasting Panel for Virgin Olive Oils from Catalonia was created in 1997. Its headquarters are currently located in the city of Reus, and it is made up of 24 professional tasters whose mission is to assess the sensory profile of the products placed before them. In other words, these experts try different virgin olive oils to determine whether they have any defects in flavour or bouquet, or if they are excellent oils. Only the best oils are christened “extra virgin olive oil”.
The quality of extra virgin olive oils cannot be determined by chemical analysis alone; they have to be evaluated by an expert tasting panel.
How does an official tasting panel work?
The official tasting panel receives oils from mills all over Catalonia, as well as from supermarkets, bottlers ad specialised laboratories. But how can they guarantee that the tasting is always impartial since it’s done by people?
The conditions for a panel tasting session are quite strict. Each session includes at least eight tasters who each test eight oil samples. A control sample is always hidden among the eight samples to ensure the results of the sessions are correct. Oil samples are tested at a temperature of 28°C to guarantee the oil is always in the same condition.
The fruitiness, bitterness and spiciness of each oil is assessed during the tasting. These are the positive attributes. However, defects like hints of dampness, rancidity or vinegary acidity can also be detected. For the Panel to determine that an oil has a defect, 7 out of 10 tasters must agree that they have identified the same defect in a similar proportion.
One interesting thing about how the tasters taste the oil samples is the dark blue glass cups they use. Contrary to popular belief, the colour of the oil is not an attribute that is assessed. The tasters focus on the product’s aroma and taste.
The challenge of being a taster
Being a taster is also not a job that just anyone can do. In addition to required specific training, you need a very refined and well-trained sense of smell. Smoking is not allowed 30 minutes prior to each session, and perfumes or other products that might lead the taster’s nose astray are also prohibited.
To be a taster you have to be born with a very fine nose, to train your sense of smell exhaustively, and receive specialised training.
In addition, each taster has to pass annual tests by the International Olive Oil Committee to prove that her or his nose has retained the fine sense of smell it had on the very first day. In addition, the Ministry reviews the reliability of all official Tasting Panels twice a year with specific tests.
This quality control system is quite special, since very few foods need to undergo tasting by official panels before being made available. Although, in the end, tasting panels are subjective, the professionalism of these panels provides a real guarantee that the oils we buy labelled as extra virgin are truly olive oils of the highest quality.