Sarah Dooley kicked off the first session of Symposium introducing a topic that touches every cafe in the U.S.: Milk. In order to fully explore this topic, she traveled to Sunshine Dairy in Portland, OR to find out why not all milks are created equal and how it impacts the taste of milk based coffee drinks. During her visit she learned that milk undergoes a series of processing to make it safe for consumers to drink and this can affect the taste and texture of the final product. This inspired Sarah to host a milk tasting with a few baristas to experience these variances. Samples included milk that had been heavily processed resulting in it being highly shelf stable and milk that was locally sourced, minimally processed but required constant refrigeration. All the tasting participants agreed there was noticeable difference in taste, most preferring the minimally processed milk. A survey of Seattle specialty coffee shops reported that on average 50% of drinks served on a daily basis are milk based, it is more than just a condiment for coffee. Sarah encourages cafe owners to shift their thinking and instead of making a milk choice based on price or shelf stability make a choice best on quality.

In the U.S., farmers are being pushed further out from cities, which means that products need to travel further to reach consumers. Pete Ellis has over 30 years of experience in the dairy industry and has observed the transition from fresh milk shipped daily to the rise of large milk distributors. Even though the distribution model has changed milk is still one of the safest food commodities because of processes like pasteurization and homogenization. Ultra pasteurization is a process where milk is heated to 280 degrees for 2 seconds and then cooled back down before bottling, this eliminates bacteria so as a result these milks require minimal refrigeration and has a 16-20 day shelf life. In contrast raw milk, that basically goes straight from the cow to the bottle, has minimal processing but requires constant refrigeration and only a 7-10 day shelf life.  The process of homogenization keeps butter fats from separating in the milk, ensuring taste consistency. In Pete’s words “ the product is only as good as the process.”

In the dairy industry, bigger is better and farmers know that in order to be successful they need to keep growing. Jill and Richard Smith have done everything in milk from buying and raising cows to milk distribution, they now own and run Pure Eire Dairy that is located in Othello, Washington. While they knew that growth is the key to continued success they also knew they wanted to have a product that was good for the cows, good for the environment and good for consumers. In order to accomplish this, they focused on animal and employee welfare. Dairy cows that are not overstressed are healthier and have a longer lifespan. Dairy employees that are paid better wages and have fun at their job will take pride in producing a quality product, “everything we do makes a better product for the consumer.” It wasn’t enough to just be doing these great things on their dairy farm, Jill and Richard wanted to educate and engage with consumers, so they established an open door policy at the dairy. Consumers love relationships with their farmer and Jill wanted them to feel like it was their dairy where they could be educated on the details of the milk producing and how every choice from feed to bottling affects the taste. What does it mean for the coffee industry? We all want to accomplish great taste and a product that keeps customers coming back. “You should be able to expect the same things from your milk that you do from your coffee.”

Joe McMahan, manager of sustainability framework for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, opened by stating how much he enjoys his job. After a brief backgrounder on the history and scope of the dairy industry (notable: a third of coffee sold contains milk, 42% with Millenials; nearly 200 billion lbs of milk is produced in the U.S. per year), he quickly got into some of the exciting work that gives the Innovation Center its name. Dairy farmers, like everyone in this changing world, face the need to do more with less. Sustainable strategies often overlap with business efficiencies. The Innovation Center is in the process of developing a tool for farmers which targets the roughly two dozen variables affecting 80-90% of a farm’s environmental impact to assist with decision-making, and another major goal of the dairy industry, transparency to consumers who are clamouring for it. Another major goal of the Center is to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 across the dairy supply chain (“from grass to glass”). One of the exciting initiatives they are pursuing involves bringing food waste reduction together with manure from farms; if you add the two together in an anaerobic digester, methane production can be tripled. This not only reduces environmental impact, but becomes a revenue stream of power for farmers to sell. Once the goal is achieved to get digesters onto the nation’s larger dairy farms, 800 megawatts of energy will be produced, as much as the output of one nuclear power plant.

Anna Kharbas, manager of specialty and wholesale for Straus Family Creamery, addressed the fundamental question of the session: Should milk really matter to the coffee industry? Kharbas began her answer by speaking to something dear to the specialty coffee heart, namely, a value we share that in Greek, is called “meraki”: the soul, creativity or love put into something, the essence of yourself that is put into your work. The work of Straus Family Creamery, a collective of small organic dairy farmers, relates not only to creating memorable tastes, but also to the value of respect, for animals, the land, the environment—and of course, for their customers. Based on this principle, Straus sought to develop a product with respect for the art of baristas; the ultimate Barista Milk. They invited baristas into their process, holding a Barista Jam where various levels of homogenization direct from the equipment. Homogenization is key to the creation of microfoam; all milk in its natural state is cream-top, meaning that the fat rises and separates. When homogenized, milk is forced through a valve under pressure, emulsifying it, binding proteins to fats, and counteracting the tendency to separate. However, the effect of homogenization on the quality of foam creates a curve: too little or too much creates poor quality. Straus and the baristas worked to find the precise sweet spot to create a milk that is the ultimate barista tool; a story which illustrates the ultimate application of “meraki”: a system only works if it works for everyone in it.

Dr. Thomas Huppert, principal scientist, NIZO Food Research, gave an extremely in-depth and highly technical talk on the chemistry and mechanics of milk foam, a vital part of our industry. The art of introducing air into dairy products has a long history, from holes in swiss cheese created by bacterial fermentation, to aerosol whipped cream. Dr. Huppert provided a plethora of information, not only on that, but on various other mechanisms by which heat application affects milk, and the power milk has affecting the flavor of coffee.