British blackcurrants continue to be sold predominantly to juice drinks manufacturer Ribena and although the business remains successful, untapped opportunities lie elsewhere. So says Jo Hilditch, the chairwoman of the Blackcurrant Foundation, which, having made impressive inroads with its consumer PR campaign, is laying the foundations to expand the market for the super fruit.
After reaching out to over 200m consumers in the last 10-15 years with a raft of health and nutrition messages backed by research and validated by Scotland’s James Hutton Institute, the industry now seeks the support of the marketplace to grow the business together.
“There is a lot more untapped potential but it’s a case of not being able to grow that quickly, and wanting to be sensible about it – you need the demand to make the supply,” Hilditch tells PBUK.
“Blackcurrants are expensive and difficult to grow,” she continues. “It can be a risky business every year, relying on perfect weather for a perfect crop. It takes three years to get production going, and you don’t break even till year six.
“You can’t suddenly increase your volume. You’ve got to plan ahead with contracts for four or five years hence. Otherwise customers can’t rely on growers. That’s where Ribena has been very supportive of our industry.”
Beyond their volume quota with Ribena, Hilditch says growers often don’t know exactly what their surplus will be; making it difficult to supply other markets despite the wealth of opportunities.
“There are constantly new products coming out of the British blackcurrant industry,” Hilditch points out. “We are always trying to be as inventive as we can. But our big customer is still Ribena, and a lot of what they do in the market defines what we do.”
Hilditch’s company Whittern Farms uses its surplus crop to produce blackcurrant Cassis under the White Heron label, and fellow grower AJ and CI Snell supplies IQF blackcurrants. Many producers in Scotland and Norfolk send their surplus to jam manufacturers or make their own.
Pixley Berries markets blackcurrants as a NFC (not from concentrate) single strength 100% juice, as well as making other consumer products such as cordials, squashes and smoothies.
“Within the juice market (not to be confused with the juice drinks market, which is almost entirely served by concentrate products) there is a niche or micro market for blackcurrant NFC to blend with other juices, including other red fruits,” Edward Thompson of Pixley Berries tells PBUK.
Thompson says the juice market enjoys a high level of innovation and new consumer product launches. It also responds to the trend towards healthy living and consumers following healthy diets, such as the ‘Mediterranean’.
Within that market, he claims there is a demand for NFC ingredients, including red fruits like blackcurrants, which can deliver organoleptic properties, both taste and aroma, and colour in abundance.
“Blackcurrant varieties often lend much needed character to other juices and at the same time deliver colour stability,” Thompson explains. “And compared with other red fruits, blackcurrants are surprisingly economical in terms of cost per unit of both acidity and colour.”
Juice drinks manufacturer Ribena itself has tried a higher blackcurrant juice content in its range. Apart from that, Hilditch says the company tends to focus on its core business, for which it is well known.
Although the British blackcurrant sector is clearly alive with entrepreneurial spirit, more industry collaboration is needed to truly expand the market.
“Blackcurrants have untapped potential for retailers, foodservice operators and chefs,” Hilditch says. “They could be used by the ingredients industry too, for products like cheesecakes, pies, ice cream, jam and yoghurts.
“We’d also love someone to come up with a fruit paste for runners because blackcurrants are really good for boosting energy and reducing muscle fatigue,” she adds. “I looked into doing a health paste a couple of years ago but it’s far too complicated for a grower of my size because of the investment needed.
“However, there are companies out there producing health products that are similar. So they just need to recognise the opportunity with blackcurrants and to be encouraged. Any product that uses blackcurrants as a main ingredient can use the Blackcurrant Foundation’s scientifically-verified messages as part of their health claims.”
Despite considerable efforts to penetrate the foodservice and ingredients markets, Hilditch admits it’s not been easy.
“We’ve really tried with but it’s quite hard to reach them. We want the sector to recognise that British is best, and to use our messages around provenance and the numerous health benefits of blackcurrants to help identify new customers.
“There’s definitely a will among growers to find new customers, whether it’s for purées, IQF, juices or frozen blackberries for yoghurts or cheesecakes.”
Although fresh blackcurrants are highly perishable, Hilditch claims there is still a market for the fresh format too, provided supermarkets could commit to taking a certain volume every day and packhouses deliver the fruit no later than the day after picking.
“If retailers showed support – and if we can get the workers – there would be an appetite [among producers] to grow more blackcurrants for the fresh market,” Hilditch says.
While raspberries and blueberries can sit on a supermarket shelf for a couple of days, Hilditch explains that blackcurrants tend to spoil quite quickly. This is the nature of the fruit, rather than a question of varietal breeding.
“There are newer varieties with slightly tougher skins but that makes them not so nice [to eat] as a fresh fruit,” she says. “And to give the fruit the best chance of keeping its shape they need to be picked a little unripe, which means they can be rather too tart.”
Ribena is largely responsible for the current British blackcurrant breeding programme, coordinated by the James Hutton Institute. The juice drinks company invests partly to get the right flavour and quality for its drinks but it does release various varieties more widely.
There are currently at least 12 varieties in use by the British blackcurrant sector and two more due for release next year.
With harvesting for the 2017 season about to get underway, Hilditch says British blackcurrant growers are pretty much headed for the same output as last year when just under 12,000 tonnes was produced.
“It always comes down to the weather,” she notes. “On the whole, it has been pretty good. The fruit is looking big and the bushes are looking healthy, which is positive for next year too.
“There was a late frost that will have damaged some late varieties, more so in Kent than other areas. And there were high winds last weekend in Herefordshire, so any weak fruit is on the floor. But it’s no disaster.
“Now we need a nice dry period with lots of sun to get the sugar levels up. But there is always a concern over whether it’ll be too hot, as the berries could cook in their skin.”
To support the short two-month long season, the Blackcurrant Foundation is continuing its PR efforts with a new push on social media to complement the usual press releases, blog posts and crop bulletins.
“Largely, our campaign is to help Ribena’s sales and to stay front of mind,” notes Hilditch. “I think if we keep up all our marketing initiatives, maintain our good relationship with Ribena and our entrepreneurial spirit we will continue [growing the market] steadily onwards and upwards.”