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Milk 101

a barista's trip to dairy origin

story by Kyle Larson illustrations by Jessica Bernert *

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2005 issue of Barista Magazine and appears here with permission from the publisher.
*Bansen family farm photos Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley FoF.


As a competitor in barista events in the past, I've studied coffee. I've been through numerous cuppings, and I've had in-depth discussions with roasters to try to develop the perfect blend. I've even done research on water, and I approach a competition trusting that the best possible water quality has been secured on the machines. And for my signature drinks, I've spent hours upon hours investigating ingredients to single out the flavors and qualities I want to highlight. But there, staring me in the face, is another ingredient, something that absolutely must be in at least one of the flights of drinks I create for competition, not to mention almost every drink I make on the job behind the bar:

milk.

Maybe you're a purist out there in the world of coffee. The last thing in the world you would ever consider doing is pouring a gulp of half-and-half into your beautiful French-pressed Guatemala, or for that matter, 16 ounces of steamed whole milk over two ounces of espresso made from a blend built upon the fruits of the labor of countless people from around the world-including the ones who roasted it for you. So why would you ever want to dumb down that exceptional coffee with a poorly-considered milk?

It's not an exaggeration to say that I used to ask this of myself every day when I thought about all of the factors going into making a good espresso, and when I watched customer after customer order a latte or cappuccino, thereby demanding that I take the beautiful shot I'd just pulled and drown it under a layer of milk. Until about a year ago, I hadn't begun to realize that milk's role in the craft of espresso is hardly a roadblock; rather, it's a vehicle, an important and valuable ingredient that can help deliver and enhance the coffee I serve daily. And that's all I wanted to do-serve the best possible coffee drinks I could to my customers.

Let's face it: When it comes to coffee, the general consensus of our customers is to ask for a latte or room for cream. That's just the way it is. As baristas, we devote a huge amount of time and energy to learning the best way to serve the coffee to our customers while upholding the quality of the bean. Grinding, dosing, leveling, shot times-I've studied them all exhaustively. However, milk seems to get overlooked time and time again, not just by me, but by countless other baristas I know. But sourcing our milk should be equally as important as sourcing our coffee.

In general, consumers understand milk in terms of fat content, and like so many of us baristas, they don't for a second consider the source of the milk. It was not until I entered barista competitions that I began to step back and look at milk with a more curious and critical eye. Where are the cows raised? How are they treated? Are there certain periods of the year where milk varies in quality due to dietary habits of the cows? How does sustainable farming affect the taste of the milk? The questions quickly became as involved and complex as every other aspect of specialty coffee, and I knew that just as with my coffee, I would need to answer all of them if I were to have any kind of understanding about this vehicle that I call upon to deliver so many of my shots.

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