A youngberry vintage

SA is the world’s biggest youngberry producer, but many growers prefer more robust, less labour-intensive fruit. This puts a premium on the products of liqueur producer Natalie Turck and grower Dirk Steyn, but youngberries’ extra juice, high nutritional value and unique tart taste shouldn’t be underestimated, writes Wouter Kriel.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

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Youngberries are a sensitive, labour-intensive crop, so 90% of the world’s youngberries are grown on only 70ha in the Hermitage near Swellendam in the Western Cape. So says Natalie Turck, who together with husband Martyn owns Wildebraam Estate. N atalie has been making youngberry liqueur for the past 10 years, beginning with bought-in berries.

When the Turcks bought Wildebraam five years ago they established 4ha of youngberries, which are processed in their cellar into liqueurs and preserves. T he Hermitage Valley has a unique micro climate, making it one of few areas suitable for berry production in SA. “It’s due to the proximity of the Langeberg mountain range,” explains Dirk Steyn, vice chairperson of the Berry Study Group and an experienced berry farmer. “Rainfall averages 700mm to 800mm, throughout the year, in a predominantly winter rainfall zone. Berries need a lot of water, so additional irrigation of 30mm per week is necessary.

They also need acidic soils, so the valley’s alluvial soil, with a pH of 3,54, is ideal. The mountains also moderate extreme summer heat, which could destroy the crop.” he number of SA’s youngberry producers and their production volumes have declined since 1984, when 20 producers produced 931t. In 2007, 500t were produced by 12 producers, but in the past few years 400t have been imported annually to meet increased demand. However, even though youngberries are relatively difficult to produce, it’s still worth it, as Natalie explains, “Youngberries have a unique tart taste, making them a sought-after product for juice, jam, preserves and liqueur.

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Their big segments make them juicier than other berries, and increase juice extraction percentage. “As consumers become more health-conscious, berries are becoming more popular due to high levels of antioxidants, and vitamins C and B. Berries also feature prominently in certain baby foods, due to their health properties.”

Brewing up a business
“Currently we manufacture a wide range of liqueurs, including honey-, rooibos- and dill-flavoured liqueur,” says Natalie. “A wider range of products secure bigger orders and more shelf space with retailers. We try to stick with locally available products, such as honey and fennel. Currently we manufacture 20 000â„“ of liqueur, of which 7 000â„“ is youngberry liqueur.” Natalie made her first youngberry liqueur in 1998 in a rented farm shed, processing berries she bought in with a grape press from a nearby wine cellar. The liqueur is made by slowly infusing the berry juice with wine spirits.

“You could allow the berries to ferment naturally, as you do when making wine, but we found the berry taste is lost,” she explains. “We use fresh unfermented juice, and add wine spirits in a separate process. For good quality, it’s essential to keep the juice as fresh as possible and prevent any natural fermentation. Berries can’t be cold-stored as their pips release methanol, which rapidly degrades fruit quality.” Juice is extracted with an old wine basket press. “We experimented with modern centrifugal presses, but found the old technology better suited to our needs. We achieve an extraction rate of 75%, and the process is softer, preserving more flavour,” Natalie says.

The fresh juice is stored in tanks in a cold room, under a layer of carbon dioxide gas to prevent contact with oxygen, which will encourage fermentation. An antibacterial compound is added, but is only effective for 12 hours, and needs to be repeated each time the juice in the tank is disturbed. “We try to process the maximum volume of berries our press can handle to fill storage tanks quickly and completely, minimising the risk of spoilage and fermentation,” says Natalie. The fresh juice is blended with 96,3% alcohol wine spirits, and grape juice extract is added to soften the tartness and add sweetness. To ensure the quality of the end product, the juice and alcohol must be slowly and gradually combined to a concentration of 24% alcohol.

Getting the brand out there
“For the past eight years, we’ve been promoting our liqueur on food shows and markets,” relates Natalie. “Marketing and distribution was challenging, as companies specialising in wine weren’t interested, and the big liqueur brands do their own distribution. We also couldn’t get permission from our local council to put a cellar board up next to the road, as we don’t make wine. “But now all the hard work is starting to pay of, as our product and brand name have gained enough recognition for orders to come to us, instead of us looking for them.” Contact Natalie Turck on (028) 514 3132 or Dirk Steyn on (028) 514 2523. |fw