Victorian farmers call for hipster baristas use more locally sourced milk

Owner of Gippsland Dairy, Sallie Jones, who is calling for Melbourne baristas to use more local milk.
Owner of Gippsland Dairy, Sallie Jones, who is calling for Melbourne baristas to use more local milk. Photo: Jason South

Ask any hipster barista for details about the latte they're pouring and they're likely to know the origin of the coffee beans, how they were roasted and the best grind for developing a perfect crema. 

Query them about the milk that makes up 85 per cent of the drink, however, and chances are they can show you the bottle and that's about it. It's a situation that independent milk producers and dairy farmers are trying to change.

Sallie Jones, owner of niche dairy brand Gippsland Jersey, invited 25 Melbourne baristas to a dairy farm in Poowong North this week. 

Barista Andy Wong from Light Years gets up close with a milk source in Gippsland.
Barista Andy Wong from Light Years gets up close with a milk source in Gippsland. Photo: Jason South

"When I talk to baristas, they have a story to share about their coffee beans but they often have no idea about their milk source," she says. "We want to explain how much work it takes to put milk in a bottle, that dairy is the $3.5 billion backbone of Gippsland agriculture – and it's just down the road from Melbourne."

Dairy farmer Matt Wilson is on hand at the barista education day, teaching city slickers how to hold an udder. 

"People think milk is milk, don't they?" he says. "But it's a food, not a commodity. It doesn't come from the supermarket, it comes from a cow, and there's a lot of difference between different milks." 

In nearby Drouin West, Wilson farms 170 jersey cows, known for their rich, creamy milk. He recently transitioned to the breed so he could supply Gippsland Jersey, which offers farmers consistent prices, shielding them from the ups and downs of commodity and export markets. 

"We'd like people to think about where their next latte is coming from," he says. "Is the milk trucked from an anonymous farmer in Queensland to a cafe in Melbourne, or is it from a farmer they can connect with in nearby Gippsland?"

Getting more expensive branded milk into cafes isn't easy. Cathy Palmer owns How Now microdairy in Katamatite near Shepparton. Her point of difference is using sexed semen and artificial insemination to ensure only female calves. This avoids the problem of bobby calves – the male offspring which aren't useful in a dairy, and are usually trucked and killed very young. 

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How Now's female calves stay with their mothers, sharing their milk with the dairy. It's more expensive to produce milk this way. "A lot of cafe owners don't know anything about milk and when I tell them mine will cost them double, they don't go for it," says Palmer. "But they don't consider that they're paying $4 a litre for soy milk."

Customers that do use Palmer's milk also have to be ready for seasonal changes. "Milk might be more grassy in spring with the new growth and it might be creamy in winter because the cows get hay or silage to eat as a top up," she says. "People should enjoy those variations just like we celebrate seasons in fruit and vegetables."

Andy Wong has been working in coffee since 2007 and is a barista at Light Years cafe in Hawthorn. "80 to 90 percent of coffees are made with milk so it's a vital element," he says. "I'm looking for milk that's creamy but not too buttery. The coffee should enhance the milk, and the milk should enhance the coffee with neither overwhelming." 

Light Years currently uses Riverina Fresh, sourced from 20 farms in south-west NSW and calibrated with cafes in mind - the dairy has onsite baristas testing milk for the stretching properties required for latte art. Wong's visit to Poowong North this week was his first to a dairy farm. "It gave me a much greater appreciation of milk," he says. "I can see it's a lot of work getting it into the bottle."

Using a premium milk like Gippsland Jersey translates to an extra five to seven cents per cup, says Sallie Jones. She thinks that should be passed onto the customer. 

"Hospitality margins are skinny enough as it is," she says. "I don't think customers mind an extra 10 cents if they understand why." Hence, the on-farm experience. "When the baristas see it for themselves, all the pennies drop," says Jones. 

"They learn that farmers are scientists and environmentalists and animal health experts and mechanics. They understand how important it is that we pay the farmer a fair price. I hope we've started a movement that creates change and opportunities."