Sourcing Milk Like We Source Coffee

As coffee people, we are milkies by extension, even if we just serve it and never drink a drop. We must consider the danger of mistakes in the milk industry, and appreciate what “good milk” is deeply. “Good milk” means nice foam and good taste; but it also means milk that came from a safe and healthful production process. Most have learned this about “good coffee” already, and that struggle is waged half way across the world. It took me only a day to drive to Yakima and explore at least 30 dairies that sell their milk locally, in Seattle, WA. Unless you’re drinking and serving powdered milk, you can probably drive to the farm that produced the milk you use. As a quality focused barista, knowing what your serving and where it came from is a job necessity.

I was recently leading a research project for a non-profit organization, Our American Generation, during which I investigated reports of air and ground water contamination due to the dairy farms in Yakima Valley. Wells that draw from this water table are the most common source of drinking water in the lower valley. The EPA has put forward $100,000 (taxes!) to research the problem and determine exactly which farms are polluting. To be succinct, the dairies are polluting the water because there are too many cows per acre, consequently producing more waste than the land can absorb. Treating or filtering the waste is too costly at the current price at which milk is demanded.

Here you can see cows being fed while standing in their urine and feces

Manure Truck doing its job!

Tracing the problem back a bit further, dairy cows are fed corn diets (which cannot be properly digested by the cows rumen), antibiotics, and sometimes growth hormones, although this practice has declined. The consequence of all of these practices is contaminated waste.

An unfortunately similar story was told in the 3rd part of the New York Times’ “Toxics Waters” series this past August, focusing on dairies in Wisconsin. I have turned up research on dairies in New Mexico polluting water supplies as well. High Country News has a front cover story about the dairies I studied in Yakima, and their reliance on employing illegal immigrants so that they may pay conservatively, although I am less informed on this issue.

I saw the worst-case scenario, but it is hardly rare (especially with cheap milk). Buying organic milk helps, because it means that the feed is pesticide-free, and there is a chance the producer is more mindful of environmental issues. Raw milk is highly regulated so I would argue it’s a safe bet, but I haven’t found it to taste good with espresso. I would suggest that the ideal milk is organic, anti-biotic free, from a smaller farm (think less than 1000 cows), which also pastures its cows (aka. grass-fed). Unfortunately I don’t know of anyone who has proven the viability of serving such milk at a café. Of course, having any of these attributes at a dairy farm is an improvement over none. I cannot point you in the direction of the ideal milk, though brands like “Fresh Breeze Organic” come awfully close. Perhaps moving away from dairy entirely could be the best route for the coffee industry. I definitely think this would enable progressive ideas like the $5 espresso to become popularized.

If a cafe feels must work with large dairy companies, which will be using corn feed and probably antibiotics, there are still best practices to look for.  One can find out if the manure is treated, or if the manure “lagoons” are lined or not. This is more complicated, and I would be happy to answer personal questions for any readers.

Specialty coffee retailers should pay closer attention to milk-sourcing, and enlist the same standards that we hold for a progressive coffee market, namely fair compensation of workers and healthy environments. The milk industry faces the same challenges, and has the same prosperous potential for people on both the sides on the market.

Scott Davis published “The State of Environmental Justice in WA”, which details problems of the dairy farms of the Yakima Valley.


Categories: Barista, Coffee, Grind, NEW, Obsessive Quest


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4 Comments on “Sourcing Milk Like We Source Coffee”

  1. Christopher "nicely" Abel Alameda
    05/22/2010 at 6:09 pm #

    Great write up.

  2. darrylcoffee
    05/24/2010 at 9:23 am #

    Excellent post. This area is one so often commoditized. Golden Glen Creamery is close to our roastery. We buy their milk for our training center espresso bar at Fidalgo Bay Coffee Roasters in Burlington. The milk comes in glass bottles and is not homogenized i.e. the milk in the bottle is from one cow–not a thousand. They also sell at PCC stores around Seattle. This is not just just a Puget Sound thing. When I was at SCAA last month, we went to Intelligentsia’s Cafe in L.A. and noticed the barista pouring local milk from a glass bottle.

  3. 05/25/2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Awesome post. It’s funny the impact the brand of milk can have on a drink.

  4. 05/29/2010 at 8:30 pm #

    Although I have tested and tasted dozens of milks available to me, I hadn’t concerned a farm visit for the milk I chose (based on taste). Great idea, and one I will be acting on soon. Thanks for the nudge.

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