Kent grower Andrew Tickle is leading the way in the creation of a new market for aronia berries. It is a product that very few people in the UK know about – but these berries are extremely popular in the US and eastern Europe. Produce Business UK finds out more
Possessing significant nutritional qualities, aronia berries have been described as super foods. Tickle’s farm near Sevenoaks has now become the site of the first commercial plantation of aronia berries in England. Earlier this year, he was the winner of Horticulture Week’s annual Specialist Fruit Grower Award.
What are they?
Aronia berries (Aronia melanocarpa) originate in North America where they are often known as black chokeberries. Because of the fruit’s chill requirements, aronia is grown primarily in the Midwest, north-central, north-west and eastern areas of the US.
They were introduced into Europe in the 1940s by the Soviet Union as a way of producing vitamin C and have been a commercial crop in most eastern European countries, particularly Poland, since the 1950s. So far we have not found any importers of aronia into the UK,” says Tickle. “But I expect they are lining up. Several firms from abroad advertise on E-bay, but commercially there are very few bulk producers at the moment. Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary all grow the crop commercially. Nothing seems to come in from America. Poland is the largest producer in the world; the EU harvest is about 60,000 tonnes a year.”
Surprisingly, there is little information on the aronia berry market in the US. Although a native wild plant, that has become a cultivated one, it has not attracted much attention. Joe Hannan, commercial horticulture field specialist at Idaho State University, carried out research on aronia berries in 2013. “There is a lot of price variance in the industry and a lot of frozen berries currently in storage from multiple years of production,” he says. “The market in the US is still relatively undeveloped.”
Meanwhile in the UK, aronia plants are often grown as an ornamental product sold to consumers in garden centres. Most consumers are not aware that these berries can be eaten as the plants are sold for their garden beauty qualities particularly the red autumn foliage.
It was a few years ago when Tickle’s attention was caught by a paper called Minor Crops: An alternative for the UK Fruit Industry by Felicidad Fernandez, a researcher at the East Malling Research centre, which highlighted the possibilities of aronia berries. He realised that there was an opportunity to develop a commercial crop in the UK as his soil was ideal for these berries; his farm lies atop the North Downs and has a flinty, chalky soil type where hardy, woody plants grow well.
Tickle also felt aronia offered him a unique opportunity; the berries are very nutritious yet market research indicated that not only did 90% of consumers know nothing about them, nor did much of the fresh-produce sector. So he purchased 2,000 aronia plants from Poland in 2011.
By 2012, every plant had taken root and was doing well. It prompted him Tickle to create a second planting of a further 2,000 plants. The first crops were produced in 2013, proving to be healthy, and experiencing no pest and disease problems. Growing to more than two metres in height and width, the bushes are prolific and have a long lifespan. Within three years, a bush can produce over 13kg of fruit. The berries, which have a very tart taste, are harvested in the autumn using a special machine that has been sourced from an aronia berry grower in Poland.
Specialist harvesting equipment Tickle sources from Poland
Commercial UK sales began on a small scale in 2014 under the name TickleBerries. “My niece thought of the brand name TickleBerries,” explains Tickle. “She said, ‘since no-one knows what they are, you can call them what you like.’ We are not trivialising the product, because it [the name] relates to the family, and is very memorable. It creates a lot of interest. We have thought of changing it and moving to something with aronia in it, but as awareness is so low, we would not gain anything from that.”
Tickle believes that the berries are better used as an ingredient for juices and other products rather than sold fresh by the punnet due to their tartness. And they are particularly suitable for processing as they have high pectin content making them ideal for creating jellies and jams. There is also very little waste as the pomace left after juicing can be used to create natural dyes and colourings.
It appears that Tickle may be onto something as juice sales are rising steadily. In 2014, Tickle sold 1,500 bottles of his aronia juice. Last year, this increased to 6,000 bottles, and is set to increase still further this year. “We sold out of all but 1t of our products last year,” he said. “We are doing very well, with a steady stream of orders.”
Most sales are undertaken via the aronia berries website. This enables Tickle to control sales and merchandising, and keep costs to a minimum while establishing what is essentially a new berry within the UK market. The website highlights the unique nature of the product and provides detailed information on nutritional values, products, recipes and ideas for use as well as background information on the company and an online shop.
Tickle considers that developing and promoting the website is a key element in the future progress of the aronia berry market in the UK in order to combat the lack of awareness both within the industry and the general public. Site visitors can download a fact sheet that can be used for reference and to pass on information to customers.
“The big problem is education, and the lack of awareness of what aronia berries are,” says Tickle. “People just don’t know what the berries are or where the juices fit in. They take a sample, like it, but retailers are not sure where to place in – dilute as a juice, as a mixer with cocktails, as a cooking ingredient, as a 100% fruit juice? It doesn’t fit into existing categories.
“Restaurateurs like the berries, but find it hard to explain to diners what they are. We worked with several chefs last year and they liked it but found the education part harder as they had to explain the berries to others. This is where the website comes in. It provides an immediate source of knowledge and information. It is generic, but points people in our direction. The website is attracting a high volume of users.”
Tickle has gained Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) registration ensuring systems compliance linking to distribution via wholesalers and retailers. The company is also a member of the Produced in Kent group. “We don’t sell through retail outlets at present because no one knows where to put us,” Tickle explains. “I am quite happy not to be in shops at the moment as this way I can control development; I prefer to grow the business slowly. I don’t want to build a business on sand, I want firm foundations. I am very happy with the way it is developing.
“We have taken part in food fairs. We won a place to attend the Tavola trade show for fine foods and fresh products in Belgium [held earlier this year], and Grocery Accelerator offered us a place at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair in September. These have aroused a lot of interest and we are very pleased with the results.”
A link with Marks & Spencer has also been created. “We achieved this link as a result of participation in a Kitchen Table Projects boot camp we attended,” explains Tickle. “We did a presentation to M&S buyers and won the small-producers section. The prize was a mentoring session. They sent down their senior agronomist to go through our systems and advise [us], and created links with their new product development department.”
Tickle is experimenting with all kinds of potential products so as to stress the versatility of aronia berries, while identifying ways of creating market growth. These include the creation of semi-dried berries that have been dehydrated at 41°C degrees for 35 hours and are ideal for use in cakes, biscuits and flapjacks. Other sample products range from compotes, jams and marmalades to vinegars, cordials and dried powders for use in smoothies and yoghurts. Chefs have used fresh berries to create a deep, rich-red berry sauce ideal as an accompaniment to game, while a cider maker has added aronia juice to cider. All these lines and the berries used are 100% British products. “At present we just have the berries and the juice, which is why we are seeking to expand ranges and offerings to see what will take. We want to raise awareness of aronia berries, selling the berries, fruit juice and other products,” Tickle says.
He believes that the tartness of the aronia berry products matches the way the market generally is moving away from sugary products. “Aronia has a low sugar content, it is not a sweet berry, and is a winter berry so it ticks a lot of boxes,” Tickle explains. “We will be in a good position as the market continues to move away from sweet products to savoury ones.”
Competition is limited. There are few other growers in the UK, none of which work on the same scale as Andrew Tickle. In Scotland, Thomas Thomson grows aronia in small quantities and has sold them as a speciality punnet product in the autumn through Tesco.
In north Wales there is a small cluster of growers in Gwynedd as a result of EU funding to provide an alternative income within the mountain areas. One of the growers, Aerona, has developed a range of artisan products including berries in chocolate, fudge and jellies. One of its specialities is a traditional American blend of fruit, sugar and vinegar known as shrub, which has its origins in the colonial era. Aerona has also developed the first aronia berry liqueur to be made and sold in the UK and says that the versatile liqueur can be drunk on its own, added to a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine, mixed with tonic or lemonade, or used as a cocktail ingredient.
There certainly appears to be a demand for the berries appearing within the wider market and recognition of their nutritional value is increasing. Higher in antioxidants than most fruits including apples, blueberries and grapes, the versatile berry can be used in food dyes, natural cosmetics, preserves, fruit teas, as dietary supplements or added to bakery and dairy products.
Some manufacturers incorporate a small amount of aronia-derived products in items such as confectionery while yet others create juice mixes. Typical of these is The Berry Company Superberries Red juice containing grape, pomegranate, aronia berry and cranberry juices. In the US, aronia is added to bread, wine, soap and hand cream. It is easy to see why Andrew Tickle decided there was an opportunity to diversify.