Look in a standard supermarket trolley and there is one thing most of us always buy. It's simple, basic and there's a strong chance it's the cheapest purchase you'll make that day. Usually, it costs less than a bottle of water. Sure, you can treat yourself and buy organic, but that's about as fancy as it gets.
If you guessed that I was talking about milk, you'd be right. But this isn't going to be yet another feature about how we all take it for granted, or how you should feel guilty that your pint costs you next to nothing. After all, when was the last time you got a bargain and said: "Here, have another quid on top of that – this is simply too good a deal"? Thought so.
Instead, this feature is about two men who have decided to do something about it. To make milk a luxury and to finally get it recognised as such. They demand a higher price for their product, and London-based baristas are happy to pay it.
Meet Joe Towers and Shaun Young. If you're partial to a latte from somewhere other than the obvious (yes, Starbucks, I'm looking at you) then you may have come into contact with their wares. One thing's for sure – you'll want to after reading this.
Shaun Young heads up Noble Espresso, a team of young baristas providing speciality coffee for events. Alongside his business partner Rebecca Young (it's a truth, universally acknowledged, that if you meet someone who happens to have the same surname as you, you must set up a business together), Shaun identified a gap in the market. Baristas were putting all their energy into offering the very best coffee. From sourcing the finest beans available and dabbling with temperatures, to perfecting new methods and being creative with presentation, it was all about the coffee. No one had spared much time or thought towards the milk at all, bunging any old semi-skimmed into their perfectly cultivated brew.
There was a gap in the market – baristas put all their energy into offering the best coffee, but what about the milk?
After being made aware of the research of Morten Münchow, who had embarked upon a similar project in Copenhagen, Shaun became convinced of the difference the right milk could make and embarked upon the Holy Grail of discovering the secret to the ideal milk for the perfect cup of caffeine.
But first, he needed buy in from a farmer. This turned out to be a little bit harder than he had expected it to be; together Shaun and Rebecca visited more than 50 farms, hitting brick wall after brick wall. Until, finally, they came across Joe Towers.
At the time that Shaun found Lune Valley Dairy in Lancashire, the farm was in the middle of a tricky period. The industry was in trouble, milk prices had taken a tumble and the family was having difficulty finding a home for their milk. But, rather than being risk-adverse like the 49 farmers before them, this put them in the mood to gamble.
"Shaun didn't have any existing sales – he just believed that he could get certain cafés to buy it, which was probably why other dairies thought it couldn't be done," Joe says. "We had to have complete confidence that he would actually be able to go out and sell it."
It was even more of a gamble when you consider that Joe and his family needed to invest in a new herd of Jersey cows and, in order to make it worth the farm's while, they would need to sell at least 7,000 litres a week from the word go – that's 12,318 pints of milk.
The perfect coffee milk
So, why Jersey cows? The farm already had a herd of Holstein Friesians (black and white cows, to those not versed in bovine terminology). Well, the answer is in the milk: The Estate Dairy, the company set up to distribute the wares of this brave new world, conducted an enormous amount of research into creating the country's first barista milk.
But what makes it special? Jersey cows' milk is much higher in protein and fat, both of which are vital components for getting the perfect product for coffee. "If you use conventional milk products and pour latte art, it will start to break down as soon as it's in the cup," Shaun says. "Ours holds for four to five minutes. Then there's the higher fat content – ours is currently 4.5% which is a whole point higher than that of conventional milk. We worked very hard on getting exactly the right amount of fat – it makes a huge different to the taste of a cup of coffee."
The final key difference is that the milk isn't homogenised. "A lot of milk on the supermarket shelf is, because it affects its appearance," Shaun says. "The fat rises to the top in our milk over a period of time, but with that you're actually retaining all the good qualities." Joe adds: "Anyone who uses our milk is told to give the bottle a good shake before use to spread the cream out!"
It's also vital that the milk comes from one farm, and one farm alone, as The Estate Dairy believes this is what gives it a unique taste. Milk bought in a supermarket, Joe explains, can be a combination of milk from hundreds of different farms, rendering it 'white noise'. By keeping it pure and simple, you're guaranteed a better-tasting product.
The milk is tested with a 50/50 brew ratio of light- to medium-roasted espresso-based coffee from London-based speciality roasters to ensure that it's fit for purpose. What the cows eat is monitored and tweaked, the ratio of Jersey to black-and-white milk is subject to laboratory analysis to guarantee flavour and 'foam stability', and it's steamed at 50-70 degrees before being passed for distribution.
The story so far
Initially, Shaun approached close friends in the coffee industry, securing seven accounts. Today, they work with 140 accounts and distribute 29,000 litres of milk a week. "It quickly went absolutely crazy," Shaun says. "We've given businesses a traceable dairy product and that's key for so many cafés."
He also believes that it's a great thing for the dairy industry, which has struggled to add value and luxury to what has always been considered a basic product. "Milk is a staple in every café – it should be talked about and have value," explains Shaun. "What we pay Joe is much higher than the farm gate price most farmers receive and rightly so."
In terms of the future, Shaun and Joe admit they need to take stock after a whirlwind nine months and think about what direction they want to go in. Whether it's selling to cafés further afield than London, or launching their own retail product for wannabe baristas brewing at home, one thing's for certain – milk has had a makeover.