It started, as many great things do, as an offhanded comment—an idea thrown out into the tide of conversation, swept aside at first, but then picked up later to become something more.
It was Christmas 2014 when Shaun Young and Rebecca Young were back home in the English countryside of Cheshire, where they both grew up. As talk meandered towards Shaun's coffee business, Rebecca’s father—a retired dairy farmer—joked that he himself should supply milk for Noble Espresso.
Shaun Young laughed the idea off at the time. It wasn’t until January, when things had quietened down for Noble Espresso and the team had some time to think, that it came back to him and he began to think more seriously about sourcing his own milk.
“We thought… if we were to do this, how would we do it? And not just do it, but do it to a really high standard and try and keep pushing things forward. If you look at coffee with what’s going on, with water, with roasting machines… so much innovation is going into all these areas. But milk, which is a huge part of people’s drinks and a cafe’s offering—well, no one in the UK has really looked at that,” Young says.
And he’s correct. With a renewed critical, scientific eye already being turned to many other aspects of the coffee industry—why not more focus on milk?
Though Young’s singular pursuit of the perfect barista-friendly milk is new territory here in the UK, he acknowledges that industry professionals in Australia, as per usual, are ahead of the curve. Matt Perger, for example, worked with biodynamic dairy farmer Mark Peterson to naturally attenuate the flavor of his cows’ milk for Perger’s World Barista Championship performance. (He has also written wonderfully in-depth articles about milk chemistry for baristas on his website, Barista Hustle.) These articles on milk science and the specific biodynamic farmer and herd that Perger, St. Ali, and Sensory Lab work with had a great effect on Young, who figured he was heading in the right direction.
As Rebecca's father no longer operated a dairy farm, Young began to seek one out who might work with Noble, sparked by that original idea. In his project's early days, much of the search for the perfect dairy focused on Cheshire, since it was familiar territory. The idea was to source raw milk in the area, then set up a processing plant. But the more they scratched at the surface, the more they realised how out of depth they were. Not only was dairy a much bigger investment than either Young had originally figured, it was also a much more complex subject than they could have imagined.
Enter Morten Münchow. It’s hard to pin down exactly what to call Münchow, who holds a Master’s in Philosophy and has professional experience ranging from research and development to roasting coffee to teaching and consulting. But one thing is for sure: he can be truly called a dairy scientist, since his research that has focused on milk has been incredibly important to the coffee industry. In 2008, he launched CafeMælk, a milk formulated specifically for baristas, in Denmark. Following this he embarked on a two-year-long study of cappuccino foam funded by the Danish government. If anyone was going to help Young understand the complexities of coffee-oriented milk, it would be Münchow.
Through their partnership, Young began to learn more about the kind of milk they would need to create the perfect milk for baristas, and began to expand his search, almost frantically, beyond Cheshire and into the rest of England. Over and over, though, they began to run into the same problems. At a time when the dairy industry—an industry plagued by the mounting pressure to churn out standard supermarket milk at rock bottom prices—was constantly struggling to keep afloat, farmers didn’t quite get the appeal of Young’s business plan.
“Going from London and visiting the farms…for dairy farmers it’s their livelihood. Trying to explain this idea to them and the specialty coffee industry, it’s just so distanced from what they know, and you talk about what you want to do and they just don’t understand this end of the market. To a farmer we are a risk,” Young recalls. As difficult as it was to deal with so many dairy farmers who wouldn’t or couldn’t take the financial risk, soon the tables were turned. After a promising visit to an organic farm co-op in Swindon, it seemed as though they were about to close a deal. But in the end, the price point for the milk was too expensive for the Youngs—who'd at this point named their would-be milk business with Münchow “The Estate Dairy”—to afford.
Like all good stories, the breakthrough finally came just as they began to think the project would never get off the ground. From the batch of e-mails he sent after the failed visit to the farm in Swindon, he got one promising response: Brades Farm in Lancashire got in touch to say they liked the project and wanted to know more. Proceeding more cautiously at this point, Young and the family at Brades discussed things in depth via email. One problem cropped up early on though: Münchow’s milk specifications called for high-protein, high-fat, rich milk—the kind that comes from specific breeds of cow like Jersey and Guernsey. Brades Farm only had Holstein cows, though: high-yield, low-fat, low-protein, “supermarket” milk.
To their surprise though, Young and the Estate crew were still offered an invitation to Brades Farm. They made the trip to the rolling hills of the Lune Valley to visit where the Towers family has been dairy farming since the 1960s. Once there, the Towers explained that they really wanted to be involved in the project, and were prepared to invest in it: an investment to the tune of a whole new herd of the kind of cow they’d need to produce the kind of milk Young and Münchow dreamed about. And sure enough, after a few weeks in Denmark sourcing cows, they brought 72 young Jersey heifers back to the UK in November of last year.
From there it all happened very quickly. Young dropped off a first run of milk to a number of select London cafes just before Christmas—friends and trusted colleagues that he knew would be frank in their feedback. After listening closely to the comments and criticisms, The Estate was ready for its launch in January 2016, delivering creamy, unhomogenised 80% Jersey, 20% Holstein milk (clocking in at 3.6% protein and a variable amount of fat depending on whether it's whole or skimmed). It’s already off to a great start, with London-based cafe group Notes switching wholly to using The Estate in all six of their cafes; many other London mainstays like Embassy East, The Fields Beneath, Terrone, and Story Coffee are also using the milk.
It is Young’s hope that they can keep pushing forward, not only in terms of getting more cafes on board, but continuing to refine their product based on barista feedback. He wants to see things get to the point where many cafes can have milk tailored to their needs, much like the relationship between St Ali and dairy farmer Mark Peterson mentioned above. Obviously, it’s difficult for every cafe, or even most cafes, to have this sort of relationship, as well as the knowledge of the provenance and processing of their milk. This is where Young is setting his sights, hoping to bridge that gap.
“Our whole focus is cafes,” he explains. Everything we’ve done has been tailored towards that. The coffee market is huge and even if we have a small segment of that, we’ll be super stoked. It’ll be such a rewarding thing to be involved in.”
It’s a lot on his plate, for sure: he tells me about all the pre-dawn wake up calls, delivering milk in his van just like an old-fashioned milkman; the queries he’s fielding from cafes and even private customers wanting milk in other parts of the UK; potential projects involving providing raw dairy for cheese and ice cream. For anyone else, it might seem overwhelming. But it’s the kind of thing that Young seems to thrive on—always growing and always looking ahead.
“To get to the point where we’re at now and for people to like what we’re doing, it’s great. It bodes well for the future. But there’s so much more we can do in terms of innovation and pushing it forward,” Young says.
And if their first few months are any indication, Young will know exactly how to keep things moo-ving.
Kate Beard is a Sprudge staff writer based in London. Read more Kate Beard on Sprudge.
Photos by Jonathan Simpson, courtesy of The Estate Dairy.