Milk has long been seen as just "the white stuff." It comes in a carton or bottle and you pour it on cereal or splosh it in your tea. Taste, flavour, or providence never really gets a look-in.
This ambivalence towards milk becomes even more stark when you think about our obsession with caffeine. We seem happy to eulogise over coffee beans but the bit making up the majority of our lattes, flat whites, or cappuccinos gets a short shrift.
"Everything in the coffee industry is moving forward—from machines to green coffee-sourcing, and roasting, yet milk is overlooked," laments Shaun Young, a London-based barista and founder of Noble Espresso.
Which is why he decided to shake things up.
If he could control the livestock, how they live, and what they eat, Young figured he could start creating a specialised milk brand for baristas and coffee-drinkers. Of course, this meant he would need to buy a herd of cows and start his own dairy.
Chatting at the dinner table two years ago with business partner Rebecca Young, the idea seemed feasible, but the pair soon discovered that the logistics of setting up their own herd would be beyond what they could realistically achieve. Plan B was to look for an existing dairy farm to partner up with.
"At first, we thought this would be an easy sell but we underestimated the fear that many dairy farms had and the risk they felt they would be taking by working with us," recalls Young. "Many of the farms we visited looked like they were on their last legs but we still couldn't convince them that this [coffee shops] was a market for milk."
After six months and more than 30 conversations with different dairy farms, the Youngs were losing hope—until they met Joe Towers.
Coming from a farming family that has been producing milk in North Lancashire's Lune Valley since the 1960s, not only did 24-year-old Travers have a team ready and willing to set up a new herd on their farm, but also a background in the coffee industry, thanks to time spent working in Tanzania.
Under a partnership agreed late last year, Travers' family bought 70 Jersey cows—a breed known for delivering a comparatively higher fat and protein content in their milk—from Denmark. In return, they get a guaranteed market and a small price premium for the milk, processed locally, from Young, who then brands and sells it as The Estate Dairy.
In a sector known for gloomy stories about dairy farmers forced to quit due to low pay, Young says his milk could help change public attitudes.
"We underestimated the fear that dairy farms had about working with us. Many of the farms we visited looked like they were on their last legs but we still couldn't convince them that coffee shops were a market for milk."
"We're trying to pioneer something different and raise the quality and perception of milk by getting cafes to stand behind it and be more passionate about the milk they are selling," he explains.
Two months after launching, the team are selling almost 4,000 two-litre bottles of milk every week to over 30 cafes in London. They have also started delivering to coffee shops in Leeds.
Of course, there are already branded milks favoured by specialist coffee shops—including Yeo Valley Organic and Northiam Dairy—but Estate Dairy's version is the first to be created specifically for baristas. And the choice of the Jersey breed (most milk is produced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian cows) is a key selling point. The high fat milk gives a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth feel, while its protein levels help produce those tiny bubbles that, if steamed properly, result in milk with a luxurious, mousse-like texture.
Setting up the milk herd and providing a clear, transparent supply chain for cafes is just the start. The Estate Dairy's next step is experimenting with the taste and flavour of its milk. While not expecting to engender the same level of passion as coffee, Young's aim is to at least break myth of milk as a homogeneous product.
"We're pretty excited and curious," he says. "No dairy has ever had a need to look into something like this, so it's not been done before in the UK."
With the help of Morton Münchow, a food science lecturer and owner of the Copenhagen-based academy Coffee Mind, Young has arranged for a postgraduate researcher to spend time looking into the relationship between the diet of the cows on Brades Farm and the flavour and aroma of the milk they produce.
"We want a milk that's rich and dense, but doesn't dilute the nuances of specialty coffee," he explains. "Also high in protein to assist with foam stability and a unique flavour profile."
Move over, coffee snobs. Milk snobbery could soon be where it's at.