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Specialty milk: The Estate Dairy story

If you enjoy a latte, cappuccino or flat white, up to two-thirds of your drink is not coffee at all, it’s milk. So why don’t we take the same amount of care in selecting our milk as we do in finding the perfect bean? In Australia, which is some five or six years deeper into the third wave of coffee than we are in the UK, some consideration has been given to the quality of the milk that goes into coffee. But in the London specialty coffee scene, the focus is still very much on the beans and the roast.

Part of that London scene was Shaun Young. Shaun spent his early years in Melbourne working as a barista, which gave him his first insights into the world of specialty coffee. After returning to the UK (and becoming the national Aeropress champion), Shaun was offered a job at the renowned Antipodean-inspired London coffee house, Kaffeine. He then went on to found Noble Espresso, a mobile espresso business catering to corporate events in addition to their permanent site outside King’s Cross Station.

A chance conversation with an ex-dairy farmer (who happened to be Shaun’s partner’s father) got Shaun thinking about the other key ingredient in a good cup of coffee – the milk. Shaun had steamed plenty of milk in his time and was aware that good milk made good foam, which made for a good cup of coffee, but what constituted ‘good milk’ for coffee?

Appliance of science

Enter the scientist. Shaun’s research into finding the perfect milk for coffee making soon led him to the email inbox of Morten Münchow. Morten’s route to steamed milk nirvana began with teaching. As a teaching assistant at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, he was tasked with delivering a science lecture to a group of baristas. His topic? The organic chemistry of coffee.

This sparked an interest in specialty coffee that led to a meeting with former World Barista Champion and fellow Dane, Martin Hildebrandt. Münchow and Hildebrandt discussed the famous Andrea Illy book Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality – essentially the bible of espresso coffee making – and wondered why there was no equivalent covering the science of milk in coffee.

This set Morten on a path to produce the perfect foam. It was clear that no research had been done in this area. Quite the opposite; the milk industry was keen to ensure that its cold milk did not foam during processing. Münchow was unperturbed. A number of small-scale research activities ultimately led to funding for a larger piece of research in 2010, the output of which was Steam-frothing of milk for coffee: Evaluation for foam properties using video analysis and feature extraction, published in the International Dairy Journal in August 2015.

Morten was initially sceptical of Shaun’s plan: “[He] contacted me out of the blue and to be honest I was a bit reluctant to start working with a young barista from London,“ Morten admits, “but Shaun’s ability to move the project further forward with each contact was very impressive, so within a few months I was completely convinced of his deep passion for making this project work.”

Münchow’s research indicated that the elements of the perfect frothing milk are threefold: It must be high in protein, high in fat and un-homogenised. Shaun’s own research indicated that there was nothing on the market that ticked all of these boxes. The specialty milk suppliers could provide the London coffee houses with a product that had one, maybe two of these features, but not all three.

Dairy quest

Shaun set out to find a dairy farm to supply milk that would meet these three criteria. Given the well-publicised turmoil that milk producers were experiencing in 2015 as a result of falling milk prices, he had expected a positive reaction to his plans. That proved not to be the case, however, as dairy farmers were generally quite risk-averse and simply did not have an understanding of the London coffee scene.

That was until he contacted Joe Towers of Lune Valley Dairy Farm. Joe is a dairy farmer who does understand coffee. He had spent time on placement in Kenya and Tanzania, working with green coffee: “I enjoyed being in these emerging markets,” Joe tells us, “and I got the bug that most people get when they work in coffee.”

Despite this, Joe’s immediate future was not in coffee. After graduating, he returned to the family farm in Lancashire to take over the retail arm of their dairy business, in what was an increasingly challenging market, as he explains: “The milk market had collapsed. Global oversupply, caused by the scrapping of EU milk quotas and a sharp reduction in export opportunities to Russia and China, meant that we desperately needed a way to add value to fresh milk.”

The email he received from Shaun therefore came at the perfect time. “I bought into it straight away,” Joe admits. ”There was an opportunity here that really interested me. It was an idea that had serious legs.”

It wasn’t going to be easy, as he soon learned: “We learnt from Morton that the absolute key is getting a consistently high protein level in the milk. Whilst we could adjust the feed given to the cows, your traditional black and white dairy cow doesn’t have the genetic potential to hit the protein levels we need.” As a result, the focus switched to Channel Island breeds, which generally produce milk that is higher in both protein and fat.

In October 2015, Joe took a trip to Denmark with his brother and returned the proud owner of a herd of 67 pregnant Jersey cows. They wouldn’t be giving milk until spring 2016, and Shaun wanted to go to market in January, so a further sixteen were purchased in the UK. These cows represented a six-figure investment, so the pressure was on Shaun to shift product.

The milk run

The first test run for The Estate Dairy as Joe and Shaun’s enterprise became known, was on 15th December 2015. Shaun put the product in front of some of his London contacts and the feedback was promising.

“We refined the blend over Christmas, launched on 18th January with ten accounts and have grown from there. The last few weeks have been crazy busy. There is clearly a great need for specialty milk in the industry and it’s great to be at the forefront. We are building volume week by week.”

Shaun sees this as an iterative process: “The milk we are producing now is our Version 2.0 milk, which has lifted the fat content from 3.6% to 4.2%.” He expects the milk to continue to evolve, in part due to the changing grazing conditions for the cows.

“Some people thought we were mad launching this product in January and February, which is the worst possible time for high-quality milk production. When the cows move out onto the grass in the spring, we expect the nature of the milk to change again, with more protein and more fat”.

The grass is also likely to change the flavour profile, producing a sweeter, grassier milk. This chimes with experiments that Joe is currently carrying out to see how the level of lactose in the milk can be influenced to adjust the sweetness of the product. This will be accompanied by further analysis on the milk undertaken by Line Knutsson, a protégé of Morton’s from Copenhagen, who will be spending time on the farm in Lancashire and subjecting the milk to mass spectrometry and gas chromatography testing, further expanding the science of cappuccino-centric milk production. It is no accident that Knutsson’s previous analysis has been of brewed coffee itself, published by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.

So what does the future hold for Estate Dairy milk? Not just coffee, according to Shaun: “We will be working with a small ice cream producer over the summer, who has found that our high-fat milk makes great ice cream. We also have an urban cheese maker in Tottenham who is looking at our milk.”

The emphasis, however, remains on coffee. “We only have a small herd, so our focus has to be on our London coffee customers.” Estate Dairy milk is being used by four different roasteries in the UK Barista Championships, with the trend moving to darker, more bitter roasts. These pair perfectly with the creamy Estate Dairy milk, which cuts through the bitterness and enhances the mouthfeel. Right now, lighter, fruitier roasts don’t pair so well, but who’s to say that Joe, Shaun and Morton won’t soon be offering milk blends tailored to different roasts? They certainly have the passion, science and experience behind them to do it.

The provenance of coffee has been increasingly important to the London coffee scene, with traceability and sustainability being the mantra. It is therefore only fitting that the same attention should be paid to the ingredient which fills the majority of your morning latte.