Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Behind The Scenes : In The Distillery


The "peak of purpleness" at the farm is mid-July - mid-August.  This is the time to see the fields in full, glorious bloom.  They are a sea of vibrant purple!  While they are stunning in color, they have yet to reach their full olfactory potential.  Come the end of summer, when the purple flowers have all bloomed themselves out and the fields have faded to a blueish-gray we reach the "peak of fragrance".  While they aren't as stunning to look at, the fields are so pungent that on a warm, breezy day the fragrance can be smelled from a couple miles away.

Fresh Organic Lavender Ready for Distillation at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

This is the time when lavender, heavy with fragrant essential oil, is ready for distillation.  For weeks during early fall our farm crew spends the days harvesting and distilling and repeating.

Lavender Harvest and Distillation at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

Due to lavender's hemispherical shape, harvesting is done by hand with 7 inch garden scythes.  Each and every one of our current 30,000+ plants!  For essential oil distillation we do a "short" harvest.  This means we cut approximately only 6 inches of stalk, unlike our dried flower harvest in which we cut a 12 inch stalk to accommodate decorative floral uses where a long stem is desired.

The 6 inches of stalk we harvest for essential oil distillation is important as it provides small air pockets for the steam to pass through the flower load making for an efficient distillation yield.

Harvesting Fresh Organic Lavender for Lavender Essential Oil at Pelindaba Lavender Farm   Harvesting Fresh Organic Lavender at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

Fragrant Lavender Ready for Making Essential Oil at Pelindaba Lavender's Distilery 

Lavender intended for essential oil distillation is taken (by 3 minute wagon ride) directly from the field to the distillery.  Its route skips the drying barn, as it is unnecessary to dry lavender prior to distillation.  In fact, during the drying process some essential oil is lost due to evaporation that would otherwise be captured during distillation - all the more reason to skip the drying step!

The Distillery at Pelindaba Lavender Farm on San Juan Island

Upon arrival at the distillery, the freshly harvested lavender is placed in our 500 gallon steam chamber (the bright orange box pictured above).  Once the steam chamber is filled up and the red seal clamps closed, the boiler is turned on to heat up the water to vaporous state to be piped into the bottom of the steam chamber.

Lavender Essential Oil Distillation using fresh organic lavender   Lavender Essential Oil Distillation using fresh organic lavender

As the water vapor rises through the fragrant plant material, it vaporizes the essential oil.  The mixed oil and water vapor travels through a large pipe into a cooling chamber where it condenses back into liquid.

Making Lavender Essential Oil at Pelindaba Lavender's Distillery   Lavender Essential Oil in the Distillery at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

This liquid descends from the cooling chamber into the separator where basic physics takes over.  Oil being lighter than water, it rises to the surface and is then decanted into UV-protected, medical grade glass jugs.

Once filled with pure lavender essential oil, these jugs will be stored for at least a year (usually 2-3) before use.  This allows the oil to mature and mellow.  Essential oils are similar to wine in this way.  They improve with age!

Just as the essential oil is decanted, so too is the condensed water decanted into large 5 gallon bottles.  It is, however, no longer straight water.  It is now hydrosol.  What is hydrosol you may ask?  During the steam distillation process a small amount of lavender essential oil is permanently bound to the water molecules, producing what chemists call a colloid.  This permanent mixture of oil and water is hydrosol.  It can only be produced by the distillation process and is, effectively, a diluted version of the essential oil making it particularly useful for a wide range of personal care, therapeutic and household care and other uses.

Organic Lavender Essential Oil Fresh From the Still   Multi-Use Organic Lavender Hydrosol fresh from the still

Now that our lavender essential oil and hydrosol have been fully decanted, it's time to open and empty the steam chamber.  This is the most dramatic part of the entire process.  The big, red clamps are loosened and the heavy door swings back... out billows thick, fragrant steam and left-over moisture, colored from the concentrated plant material, drips to the floor.  The entire distillery is engulfed!

Organic Lavender Essential Oil Distillation at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

Using pitch forks the soft and damp lavender is emptied and then added to our epic compost pile.  Can you imagine the facials our farm crew gets every day during the distillation season! 

Organic Lavender Essential Oil Distillation

Organic Lavender at Pelindaba Lavender Farn

The whole process - from filling the steam chamber to emptying it - takes about an hour and a half and yields approximately 1.5 gallons of essential oil.  That's approximately 270-300 plants producing 1.5 gallons of essential oil!

It's a labor intensive process requiring a great deal of plant material to produce a relatively small amount of pure essential oil.  This is one reason why pure essential oils are more expensive than their oft-diluted counter parts.  Conversely, pure essential oils, being so potent, are used in very small quantities.  Usually only a couple drops are used for any particular application.  This means a little bit goes a long way and, as the fragrance of lavender essential oil continues to improve with age, there is no concern about spoiling.

All this labor is well worth it.  It's a labor of love we are privileged to partake in so that you can experience the benefit of pure, organic lavender essential oil and hydrosol straight from the source.

Fresh Lavender Harvest at Pelindaba Lavender Farm

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