Focus 2014 Part 2: Cherry Surplus Led to New Maraschino Method
Whether it’s swimming in a cocktail glass at a New York City bar or sitting atop a sundae in a rural Idaho ice cream shop, odds are that the delectable candied cherry came from one of two large Oregon-based maraschino cherry producers.
How did Oregon come to corner the U.S. market on the colorful candied fruit?
It all began in the 1920s with food technologist Ernest Wiegand, a professor at what is now Oregon State University. Affectionately known as “Prof” to farmers, students and colleagues, Wiegand sought to solve concrete problems in food preservation — perfecting processes of freezing, canning and dehydrating produce.
Oregon cherry farmers had a problem, and they knew where to find answers.
The fertile Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge yielded too many sweet cherries for the fresh-fruit and canned-fruit markets, but Oregon cherries weren’t keeping their firmness when farmers tried their hand at the European process of making maraschino cherries. They were losing 25 to 50 percent of the fragile cherries, which cracked during the first stage — the brining process — according to a 1929 project proposal submitted to the university.
So, while maraschino cherries were wildly popular in 1920s America, partially due to the advent of flavored alcoholic drinks, the candied fruit most likely came from brined cherries imported from Italy or Spain and bottled on the East Coast.
“The whole concept of brining cherries is similar to making a pickle,” cherry expert Carl Payne explained. “You brine it to make it firm and preserve it, then you add sugar and spices to make it sweet.”
At 71, Payne has been in the maraschino business for nearly a half-century. He built upon Wiegand’s cherry brining research at Oregon State University under the tutelage of Wiegand’s protégé, Robert Cain. Though Payne retired four years ago as technical services manager of the Oregon Cherry Growers cooperative — one of the two largest maraschino producers in the world — he still consults a bit, he said.
One shot a year
Local cherry growers asked for Wiegand’s help, and he delivered, Payne said. Due to the short cherry season, Wiegand and his team of professors and research assistants had only six weeks per year to experiment with brining solutions.
“They only got one shot at it each year, so they had to learn from their mistakes the previous year,” Payne said. “After several years, they finally got a formula that was safe and worked very, very well in firming up these American domestic cherries so they could be made into maraschino cherries.”
The solution to preserving the cherries’ firmness came to light in experiments in 1929 and 1930.
The secret? Add calcium salts to the brine.
Although he tweaked the brining process in other ways, calcium salt was the breakthrough that helped to create a new industry based out of Oregon, and became the world’s modern method for making maraschino cherries.
“Oregon cherry growers are richer by several million dollars a year because of Professor Wiegand,” proclaimed an article published March 7, 1943, in the Oregonian about “Oregon State College’s food wizard.”
The new brining method led to the growth of The Dalles Cherry Growers cooperative, which dates back to 1924, and the formation in 1932 of the Salem-based Willamette Cherry Growers co-operative. The two merged in 1984 to become today’s Oregon Cherry Growers — a giant in the maraschino cherry industry, along with Portland-based Gray & Co.
“Between Gray and Oregon Cherry Growers — combined, we probably represent 65 percent of all maraschino cherries in the country,” Oregon Cherry Growers CEO Tim Ramsey said.
Oregon Cherry Growers brine 45 million pounds of cherries a year at its plants in Salem and The Dalles, Ramsey said, processing 24 million pounds into maraschino cherries and turning the remainder into ingredients for other products, like candy and ice cream.
The cooperative dominates the food-service market — bars, restaurants and cafeterias.
Gray and Co., which began processing maraschinos in the 1950s in Forest Grove, owns 75 percent of the U.S. retail market — think grocery stores — and a smaller portion of the food-service market, according to CEO Josh Reynolds. The company closed its Forest Grove plant in recent years and consolidated its finishing operations in Hart, Mich., in 2012, but it has offices in Portland and a brining plant in Dayton.
Though there isn’t reliable data on international maraschino sales, both outfits export their products and are recognized as global leaders in the industry.
All of this derived from one man with a lab coat, clipboard and pencil-thin mustache — a researcher who loved to work with farmers to solve problems.
“I think that was his baby, kind of his pet project,” Payne said. “He helped growers in making these brines, showing them how to test them and making sure they were made to the right specifications. He got to know the farmers and became a close friend to them — they all knew Prof Wiegand.”
- Oregon State University offered a course titled “Maraschino Cherry 102,” from 1994 until about five years ago, in which students made their own batch of maraschino cherries. They also learned different disciplines in maraschino production such as chemistry, processing operations, microbiology, food law and product development.
- Oregon Agricultural College Professor Ernest Wiegand did not invent maraschino cherries — he developed the modern method for brining them in the maraschino process. Maraschino cherries originate from France and Italy, where brandied cherries were colored and flavored with a liqueur made from black marasca cherries grown in Bosnia.
- Historical articles report that the correct pronunciation of maraschino is “mara-skeeno,” which is true to its roots from black marasca cherries, though modern folks pronounce it “mara-sheeno.”
- Most maraschino cherries start out as light-colored sweet cherries, like the Royal Anne and Corum varieties grown in the Willamette Valley. They are pickled and bleached in a brine solution, soaked in food coloring and syrup, then packaged and sent out to the masses.
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