It’s no surprise when a plethora of nut milks lands in, say, Los Angeles. But if I were to tell you that one of specialty coffee’s biggest nut milk innovators stakes their claim to America’s Third Coast—Lake Michigan—you might be surprised. Near-centenarian coffee-and-nut-roaster Ferris Coffee operates cafes in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the company puts its knowledge of both coffee and nuts to the test in a staggering menu of rotating nut milks and beguiling drinks made with said milks. We’re going beyond way, way beyond macadamia here—may I present the Ferris Noon Chai, made with rooibos, pistachio, almond-cashew milk, and smoked salt. Or the Cortado Con Mole, with ancho chile, chocolate, pumpkin seed milk, and espresso. (And pumpkin isn’t even a nut!)
We collared Ferris Food and Beverage Manager Cody Gallagher for some insights on how Ferris staked its nutty claim in the Great Lakes.
Sprudge: How long has your company been operating in Grand Rapids?
Gallagher: Ferris has been roasting coffee and nuts in Grand Rapids since 1924. It hasn’t been under the same ownership the entire time—the current ownership, the VanTongeren family, took over the business in 1985 and has put much more of an emphasis on specialty coffee and nuts. Our current cafe spaces have been operating for the last four to five years.
When did you guys start doing nut milks? What prompted that?
We began making and serving our own nut milks around a year ago. It was always something that had been discussed since opening our cafe locations, but continually got placed on the back burner. Our main reasons for wanting to make our own nut milks are quality, economics, and environmental responsibility.
In regards to quality, we saw faults in several aspects of many commercially available non-dairy milks. First of all, the flavor of many left much to be desired for us. We knew that using our own nuts would provide a much fresher and natural nut flavor. Additionally, I think that most non-dairy milks are polarizing in flavor, dominating the flavor of whatever coffee they’re paired with, with their own flavor. For example, I think most almond milk lattes I’ve had taste more like almonds than they do coffee. To remedy this, most of our house nut milks are blends of nuts, which provides a general nutty flavor to their drinks, instead of a strong flavor of a specific nut.
As far as economics, dealing with the quantities of nuts that Ferris does, we have access to nuts at an incredibly low margin that many other coffee companies do not have the benefit of. In transitioning to producing all of our nut milks in-house, we’ve been able to cut cost on our non-dairy beverages, which in turn means lower prices for our guests.
Making our own nut milks plays into environmental responsibility for us in that far less packaging is going into each “unit” of milk. It also means that we’re able to ensure that the nuts being used for the milk are sourced as consciously as possible.
Tell me a little bit about the rise of specialty coffee in West Michigan and where you see your role in that.
Having the opportunity to observe and be a part of the rise of specialty coffee in West Michigan has been great. When I moved to Grand Rapids around six years ago, there was minimal game in town, Madcap Coffee being the city’s pioneers of specialty. Now there are specialty shops on every block. Madcap has contributed an enormous amount in educating the city’s coffee drinking populace of the value in well sourced, roasted, and brewed coffee, as well as educating that such values outweigh the lower prices and quicker drink times people were used to.
I see Ferris’ role in specialty coffee in West Michigan as upholding such exemplary standards of sourcing, roasting, and service, while making it as approachable for customers and guests as possible. Being an almost 100-year-old company, we have a very broad customer base, who fall in all different levels of coffee appreciation. This provides us with the unique opportunity to be able to show the value of good coffee to those who still enjoy their blueberry cobbler flavored coffees, as well as someone drinking their first single-origin espresso.
Tell me about some of your more adventurous nut milks and/or nut milk drinks?
Experimenting with more adventurous nut milks and nut milk beverages has been a lot of fun. One of the more unique nut milks we’ve made is a lavender-macadamia milk. This is made with a blend of macadamias, dried lavender, and dates, and is used in a lavender-berry granola we serve in the summer.
Two of my favorite nut milk-based drinks which we’ve served are our Cortado con Mole and our Applewood Mocha. The Cortado con Mole played off the ingredients of a traditional mole sauce, featuring pumpkin seed milk, ancho chile, chocolate, espresso, and mole spices. The Applewood Mocha features hazelnut milk, applewood smoke, apple blossom honey, apple cider, espresso, and cocoa.
Where do you source your nuts?
We source nuts globally. It depends a great deal from nut to nut how and where we source our nuts, but we’re guided by the general goal of building relationships through our sourcing. This entails frequent visits and communication with our producers, providing them aid when needed, and sharing their stories to our customers. It ultimately looks a lot like the sourcing of coffee.
Two of the nuts most commonly used for our milks are almonds and cashews, and the difference in their sourcing methods exemplifies the variation in sourcing from nut to nut. For example, we source all of our almonds from California, predominantly from the Modesto region. We source only non-pareil graded almonds, which fall on the top shelf of the almond market. On the flipside, our cashew sourcing involves a truly global network. Many cashew producers don’t have the resources to process and export the nuts themselves, and in many cases will ship the nuts across the world just to be processed. From there, they might even be shipped to another exporting company before being shipped to us.
How do you make the nut milks, and how easy are these drinks and milks to reproduce at home?
The process for almost all of our nut milks involves soaking the nuts for 8-12 hours, blending them with water, and then straining out the milk. We’ve found our own nuanced methods for the respective steps, from the straining device we use (a mash bag for beer brewing works wonders!), to the ratio of nut to water.
The milks are incredibly easy to produce at home, and require few materials. We encourage people to experiment with a variety of their favorite raw nuts, at a ratio of approximately 200 grams (or 1.5 cups) of nuts to 1 liter of water. From there, you soak the nuts in water for 8-12 hours, blend for around a minute, and strain through a cheesecloth, or similar material. We also enjoy including some sort of sweetener, such as dates or agave, to provide a natural sweetness and more body to the milk.
Where are you guys with grab and go milks and drinks?
We would love to be able to offer packaged nut milks and grab and go drinks, but currently are unable to, due to packaging and production restraints. We do, however, offer a variety of nut milk based grab and go items as a part of our food selections. One such item which fully celebrates our love for the nut are our “Nutty Cups.” Nutty Cups are parfait cups of overnight oats and quinoa soaked in almond-macadamia milk that’s been blended with a nut butter. They also have granola and nuts as toppings, as well as a fruit and nut compote on the bottom.
Those sound delicious. What’s your fantasy nut milk or nut-milk-based concoction?
I’ve recently been enjoying flax and hemp milks, which has motivated me to incorporate a blend of nuts with non-nut ingredients, such as flax, oat, and hemp. I think those ingredients would help to bolster a milk in ways nuts are not able to, in terms of mouthfeel, steaming qualities, neutrality with coffee drinks, and cost. It would be great to see a milk achieve the best of all worlds in the realm of non-dairy milks.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Her world coffee guide with Avidan Ross, Where to Drink Coffee, is out now on Phaidon Press. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.
Disclosure: Ferris Coffee is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.