The Ceravolos have been growing fruit in the Adelaide Hills for three generations and now the fourth generation is adding value to the business through their juicing plant.
Joyce Ceravolo, 25, and her brother Joseph, 22, have taken on leading roles in Ashton Valley Fresh, which produces high-quality juices from locally-grown fruit.
And they’re doing alright. In just two years they have increased the capacity of their juicing plant by ten times and just last year, they won the 2014 South Australian Food Award for innovation.
But their juicy story begins seven years ago, when, according to their father Tony Ceravolo, the price of juicing fruit was at an all-time low with growers getting virtually nothing.
In 2007 there was an oversupply of second grade apples and while juicing companies were taking the apples they were paying whatever they wanted.
“So we decided to dump our apples that year,” Tony says. “That’s what really made up my mind to find another use for our second line of apples.”
Tony confesses that he “knew nothing about juice, none of us did,” so he got on board a professional to help them set everything up. In the following 15 months they got council approval and built and started running their juicing plant.
“We started making just apple juice, but we had no customers, not a single customer, in that first year – nothing,” exclaims Tony.
So they converted their first batch of juice into one litre bottles under their own new brand – Ashton Valley Fresh – and started selling it to local greengrocers who wanted a fresh product. They recognised their opportunity was in producing a consistently high quality and reliable supply of local, fresh juice – no concentrate.
“We had good machines, I bought a really good in-feed system, a milling machine, holding tanks and we had an excellent press for what we did at that stage,” says Tony. “We started off with an eight tonne press – not thinking that we would ever make it to this sort of volume.”
Then, SA-based drink maker Nippy’s got on board. At the time, Nippy’s were importing juice from overseas and they couldn’t get anyone to consistently supply juice with a reliable colour and brix. The Ceravolos could fill the gap and within six months they had secured Nippy’s full order – totally replacing all imported juice.
Moreover the Ceravolos could deliver a much better juice using their molecular filter. “We actually brought a molecular filter – the first one in Australia that filtered down to .06 of a micron, which was something that had never been done before,” says Tony. “It’s still pretty state of the art.”
A fresh take with a new generation
This approach to innovation is a real cornerstone of the Ceravolo’s business. In the time Joyce and Joseph have been at the helm they have installed a fully automated press that can now press 20 tonnes an hour, 10 times their previous capacity of two tonne an hour. And they have designed and manufactured their own unique spray system that enables them to extract higher levels of juice.
“We were using a lot of enzyme and not getting good results with the enzyme that we were using,” says Joyce. “The enzyme breaks down the fibres in the apples – so you get a higher extraction rate when you use an enzyme compared to when you don’t.”
After completing her chemical engineering degree, a stint in mining and then dairy, Joyce joined Ashton Valley Fresh when she realised food production was her vocation.
“We were only getting about 80 per cent extraction to start with,” says Joyce. “These enzymes are expensive and we were just drip feeding them onto the top of the 1.5m wide tanks.”
But the problem was that dripping the enzymes on the top meant they were not making contact with much of the juice at all and not having an opportunity to react.
“The way enzymes work is that the higher surface area you’ve got, the better they work,” explains Joyce. “So we started to talk about designing a spray system, but there wasn’t anything available that was pre-fabricated.
“So we all got together – came up with the ideas and then Dad pretty much made these spray valves and we ended up with an extra 5 per centextraction using less enzymes.”
Their system ensures the enzymes are sprayed over the tank and automatic mixers help incorporate the enzymes.
“It increased our yield and is saving us a ton of money in the process with a really simple solution – and no-body else has it as far as I know,” says Joyce.
This is what brought them to the attention of the judges at the SA Food Awards who recognised that the Ceravolos had developed a better system than others in the industry, and it had been developed in-house.
Catherine Barnett, Chief Executive Officer, Food South Australia, was impressed with the team suggesting that Joyce is probably the only chemical engineer working in the juice industry.
“The judges’ overall impression was one of a successful business model in place with great teamwork and passionate staff who understand their roles and skills,” says Catherine. “The management are open to new ideas from staff and feedback from a range of sources. The business also continues to keep up with consumer trends.
“The judges also commented on the facility being well presented and well organised with capacity available on site. The new capital development/investment being implemented on the packing side is exceptional and automated.”
Technology and innovation
From a practical perspective, the whole system can be managed remotely with a mobile phone app by Joseph. As production manager, he monitors all the activity of the press and oversees the on-ground staff every day.
Joseph brings a very different approach to the business, he has a background in business studies and building – yet has the same curiosity, hard work ethic and research drive that his sister Joyce has. His challenge is delivering all the different orders that come in.
“Some people want a full bodied juice, some people want a clarified, some people want it with sulphur, some people want it without sulphur – so everything has to be separated in different tanks all the time,” says Joseph.
“We have to fully clean out the system in between runs making it problematic for smaller orders. We only have a certain amount of storage and people want to pick up on certain days.
“If one customer wants 3,000 litres we use a whole tank just for that person, because you can’t mix product.”
Yet Joseph sounds very accommodating for all sorts of clients as he processes small quantities of fruit for Maggie Beer and a Victorian nashi grower even brings her fruit to Ashton Valley Fresh for processing. Their press is processing a lot of juice, but their pasteuriser is their current bottleneck.
“We pretty much want everything to go out pasteurised if we can. The difference it makes with browning is substantial,” explains Joseph. “We did a control the other day, we left one juice that was pasteurised and one that was not on the bench. The one that was pasteurised was out for 6-7 hours and didn’t start to brown, but the unpasteurised started browning in an hour.”
Joyce explains that the skin contains so many yeasts and moulds that as soon as you start putting that in a sugary environment they love it. And while the fermentation is not dangerous it results in bad tasting juice.
Joyce and Joseph passionately explain and show the other processes and techniques they use to maintain their high quality juice – including using bentonite that removes deposits and gelatine that helps everything settle down. Their juicing facilities are impressive and their attention to detail in the food safety aspect of their operation is meticulous.
A perfect squeeze
The result is a selection of beautiful juices. Josephs remains tight-lipped about his secret mix of apples that he uses to create his own special apple juice. But one thing is for sure – it tastes delicious!
He comments that he believes single variety juices don’t have the same flavour profile because they lack depth and complexity. He is committed to using all the apples that are available, which also helps growers make full use of available apples, to create the flavours Ashton Valley Fresh are becoming known for.
They now produce a suite of products including one litre bottles of fresh juice with flavours like plain apple or pear in clear or full-bodied and mixed juices like ‘Apple and Carrot’ or ‘Apple and Strawberry’. They also produce 750ml and 300ml sparkling juices and deliver juice that is made into cider for local cider-maker The Hills Cider Company.
But they’re not stopping at juices!
“We are attempting to harness all our waste products,” says Joyce. “We are considering bagging the actual dry waste and selling it as a stock feed supplement.”
(Tony claims he’s already fed it to his cows and they have the shiniest coats around!)
Joseph has even started making vinegar with what’s left in the filter and has been looking at the unripe apples that are usually discarded after thinning.
“Now I’ve been doing a bit of research,” says Joseph. “There is so much pectin in the unripe apples. I was looking at getting the pectin out and using it for jellies and jams.
“That might be something else to look at because we start to quieten down at that time of year so it would be a good time to do something else to keep us busy.”
This interest in exploring opportunities and nous in exploring and researching them will no doubt set Ashton Valley Fresh up for ongoing success into the future as their winning innovating team continues to come up with new ideas – to make new products and find new markets.
Joyce sums it up perfectly, “we’ve managed to form a team that lets us innovate without any issues because you’ve got people across the whole spectrum to know what our capabilities are to know what we can and can’t do.”
Thanks to Susie Green, Apple and Pear Growers Association SA, for arranging interviews and to Tony, Sandra, Joyce and Joseph and all the Ceravolos for welcoming us and sharing their story. See more photos of Joyce and Joseph Ceravolo at Ashton Valley Fresh.