Blue Diamond plant in Sacramento is almond purveyor to the world

SACRAMENTO — Most Sacramentans know the massive Blue Diamond almond plant only from the outside, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. With the right breeze at the right time, the aroma of fresh almonds near C Street in midtown can trigger mouthwatering cravings.

Walk or ride a bike along the side fence of the facility on any given day and you're likely to get a whiff of what's happening on the 90-acre Blue Diamond property. Some days, the bouquet is so true and intense that the flavors practically announce themselves. One day it might be the salt and vinegar almonds; another day it's a huge batch of honey-roasted almonds.

The almond industry has evolved and expanded through the years. Almonds have become a versatile component of flavorful cooking, from desserts to savory dishes.

These days, the Blue Diamond plant in Sacramento is bigger and busier than ever, mixing high-tech production methods with old-fashioned hard work to process 7 million pounds of almonds a day — double what it was doing a decade ago. Blue Diamond is a cooperative owned by the almond growers. Last year, it celebrated its 100th anniversary.

A tour reveals a company obsessed with cleanliness and meticulous about quality and consistency. There is also a deep sense of pride in the place and the myriad products it produces, packs and ships throughout California and around the world.

Security is tight. Visitors must be signed in. Hairnets are mandatory in many areas. With about 1,000 employees, the plant operates 20 to 22 hours a day, shutting down for routine cleaning. Things happen fast inside. Those 6-ounce cans are filled with almonds, labeled and packed at a rate of 250 to 260 a minute.

In some areas, the facility has the feel of a 1960s sci-fi flick, with scores of unmanned carts moving deliberately about the floor carrying supplies, and sealed-off laboratory-like rooms where uniformed employees watch intently as almonds come and go on a conveyor belt. Their job? Spot the bad ones, grab and discard, over and over for the entire shift.

Then there's the X-ray equipment, which can pick out foreign objects like buckshot — sometimes the spray of pellets from a hunter's shotgun can lodge inside an almond. In the test room, another crew of employees studies a sampling of almonds delivered from each truckload to determine a grade, which is filled out on a score sheet. Chipped almonds, for instance, still taste like pristine ones, but they are either downgraded or discarded based on appearance.

Millions of pounds of almonds are kept in cold storage in three vast rooms about the size of four football fields. Another million pounds sits in 24 silos.

In addition to their distinctive natural flavor, almonds are an especially healthful nut, providing a good source of vitamin E, protein, fiber and magnesium. Almonds are touted for contributing to heart health and reducing cholesterol. When eaten in moderation, these nuts provide the kind of satiety that can help with weight management.

Different cultures throughout the world have their own preferences regarding almonds. The almonds shipped to India, for instance, are still in the shell, as Indians tend to see them as more pristine. In China, it's 50-50. In North America, it is almost unheard-of to buy almonds in the shell.

Shelled almonds are being sold in an ever-growing number of flavors, including a "bold" line that targets men. Those flavors include almonds that seem to go naturally with sports and a cold beverage: Blazin' Buffalo Wing, Jalapeno Smokehouse and Wasabi & Smokehouse, among others. A new flavor — Butter Toffee — is one of the most popular offerings in the roasted category, which includes such varieties as Mint Dark Chocolate and Cinnamon Brown Sugar.

Another big growth segment is the 100-calorie snack size, which emphasizes portion control.

On the day of the tour, Blue Diamond was processing its Salt 'n' Vinegar flavor, a popular choice in its "bold flavors" line. But you could sense that before even setting foot on the property, thanks to a light breeze infused with the distinctive aroma.

Robertson writes for the Sacramento Bee/McClatchy.

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