Taste Test: Local New York Milk

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

#1: Ronnybrook
#2: Battenkill Valley
#3: Milk Thistle
Wildcard Winner: Organic Valley

"I'm so excited about this tasting," Erin whispered to me on Thursday morning. We're unabashed milk lovers here at SEHQ, and are lucky enough to live in a town where fantastic, locally produced milk is relatively easy to come by, which begged the obvious question: which one is best?

There are a number of reasons to choose local milk over the big-brand stuff. You're supporting local small farmers who (in general) are kinder to the animals they depend on. Plus, local milk is almost always fresher, particularly if you buy it direct from the farmer at the farmstand or local farmers' market. In many cases, it's pasteurized using low-temperature pasteurization techniques that never allow the milk to come above 145°F. Most regular organic milk is treated using Ultra High Temperature (UHT) pasteurization, which cooks at a whopping 275°.

That said, we wondered if these benefits are worth the premium price, or indeed, if we would even be able to taste the difference between the local stuff and the nationally available brands, so we decided to also include one national brand—Organic Valley—in our lineup as a control.

The Contenders

All of the locally-produced milks that we selected for tasting are available in supermarkets or farmers' markets in and around New York City.

  1. Milk Thistle Farm (milkthistlefarm.com), available at farmers' markets around the city
  2. Meadow Brook Farm (available at Food Emporium)
  3. Battenkill Creamery (battenkillcreamery.com/), available at Eataly, Blue Ribbon Market, DiPalo's)
  4. Hudson Valley Fresh (hudsonvalleyfresh.com), available at farmers' markets around the city
  5. nymilk (getnymilk.com), available at several NY supermarkets, including Eataly)
  6. Ronnybrook (ronnybrook.com), available at farmers' markets around the city
  7. Organic Valley Coop (organicvalley.coop), available at most grocery stores and supermarkets

The Criteria

All the milk was tasted blind, with tasters asked to comment and rank their creaminess, freshness, and overall preference. Milks that were thin and watery were deemed less desirable than rich and creamy versions, while sweet, grassy, nutty notes were preferred over more sour flavors. Awesome cookies from Lulu Cake Boutique were provided for dipping if desired.

The Results

We were surprised by how close the overall rankings were between all of the competitors—we wouldn't say no to any of them (or maybe we just love milk). While the overall winner of the New York-only options (Ronnybrook) came in .7 points above the next closest competitor (on a scale from 0 to 10), the remaining milks all scored within a very narrow range of .4 points, with the exception Hudson Valley, which scored more than a full point lower than the next closest competitor. Aside from the clear winner and loser, we're almost hesitant to even rank the rest.

Interestingly, we found that despite being a mark of high temperature pasteurization, caramel, cooked flavors were in general preferred by many tasters. In fact, the one big-label brand we included (Organic Valley) took the highest marks in the tasting! (We've included it at the bottom of the ordered rankings below, since it's a nationally available brand.) Could it be that UHT milk is just a flavor that we've gotten used to with all the UHT organic milk on the market these days? It's tough to say, but the fact is, to our surprise, fresh vs. cooked flavor was not as cut and dry as we thought it would be pre-tasting. UHT milk tends to develop a slightly sweeter flavor, due to the breakdown of lactose (a milk sugar) into glucose and galactose during treatment. This sweetness might play a large role in our taster's preference.

There's also another factor that may figure into it: seasonal variance. Because the weather shifts so drastically in New York State from summer to winter, the quality and flavor of milk can show similar seasonal trends. Dean Sparks of nymilk told us that "A meaningful shift occurs in late May. Cows are back on pasture (after a winter of eating dry hay) and the lush, moist pasture is full of nutrients and what cows believe is similar to a five course meal at Per Se." He notes that this is the best time to make butter, as the milk is richer and peaking in flavor.

It's quite possible that had we conducted our tasting in the late spring or midsummer when cows are being fattened on natural forage, the results of this tasting might have been completely different. Maybe a rematch is in order in a few months.

Homogenization and bottling date are other variables that were tough to factor in to our tasting. In order to get the milk fat and water content of milk evenly dispersed, milk is forced with very high pressure through a fine screen that causes the milk fat to form microscopic droplets that stay suspended instead of coalescing and separating. Because it's an emulsion, well homogenized milk will taste creamier than non-homogenized milk—another factor that could have contributed to Organic Valley's win. Non-homogenized milk, like Milk Thistle, must be shaken before serving, and even then, large masses of butterfat remain. We found ourselves with a few buttery chunks in our mouths as we drank, something which some tasters liked, but others didn't.

We tried our best to find milk with close expiration dates (with the exception of the Organic Valley, which due to its UHT treatment lasts at least a month longer than regular milk), but still, a few were several days older than others. This seemed to have no effect on their overall ranking; there were no trends in the milks' scores correlated to expiration date.

#1. Ronnybrook Farm (7.5/10)

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In order to be designated organic, cows cannot have antibiotics administered to them—even when they are sick. This is the part of the organic standards that angers many big animal veterinarians who have seen sick organic cows denied the medical attention they need so as not to lose the organic label. Ronnybrook does use antibiotics for treatment, but in all other respects meets or exceeds organic standards.

Although it wasn't as creamy as some, it was the sweetest of the milks we tasted, with a faint grassy flavor that tasters loved.

#2. Battenkill Valley (6.8/10)

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The same family has owned this farm since 1902, when it was started in Battenkill Valley (it's since moved to Salem). This 350-cow operation started bottling milk in 2008, and is particularly proud of its 8-hour-from-cow-to-bottle processing time.

Like with the Ronnybrook, the fresh sweetness of this milk was valued above all. "Super sweet, almost marshmallowy," was one comment, though others felt it was a little bit thin.

#3. Milk Thistle (6.5/10)

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Milked from 100% Jersey cows, Milk Thistle's certified organic milk is low-temperature pasteurized, and completely non-homogenized. In fact, when we opened the bottle, we first had to poke through a 1/2 inch-thick layer of solidified butterfat on the top of the bottle (don't worry, we shook it back into the milk).

Tasters detected some nutty notes in this one, with plenty of creaminess that didn't get heavy. Because of its non-homogenous nature though, some tasters complained that sips without butterfat were "sour and thin". If you like discrete bits of cream and butterfat in your milk, then this is for you.

#4. nymilk (6.4/10)

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nymilk comes from a consortium of small family farms in upstate New York, about 35 of them, averaging 60 cows to a herd. It's certified organic, and low-temperature pasteurized.

While we loved its freshness and uncooked flavor (see review here), tasters did find it to be a little thin compared to some other milks in the lineup. It was praised for its slight nutty flavor.

#5. Meadow Brook (6.3/10)

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Another cream-on-the-topper (though not as drastically separated as the Milk Thistle milk), Meadow Brook's low-temperature pasteurized milk was perceived as not overly sweet, and not overly thick. Well balanced.

#6. Hudson Valley (5.2/10)

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Like nymilk, Hudson Valley Fresh doesn't come from a single farm, but from a cooperative in the Hudson Valley, comprising around 5,000 acres within a 20-mile radius, with a "36 hours from cow to store" motto. Tasters found this milk to be both thinner and not as sweet as the others—it's the only milk to score significantly lower than the others in our lineup, though to be fair, all of the milks did quite well.

Wildcard, and Overall Winner: Organic Valley (8.3/10)

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A surprise winner, the Organic Valley swept the tastings, getting near-perfect scores from all tasters "Coats your mouth," "sweet, creamy," and "so rich it's almost pudding-y" were some of the comments used to describe it.

Moral of the story: If you're picking your milk based only on flavor, you might as well get the cheaper, more readily available national brand (assuming you like your milk creamy and sweet). But if you happen to love nonhomogenized milk, or enjoy tasting the changing flavors from season to season, or just want to do well by your local farmer and cows, you should opt for the local stuff.

UPDATE: Organic Valley recently introduced their "New York Fresh" line of organic milk, sourced from small farms 100% in the Empire state. We did not include it in this roundup, but will probably try some out in a future tasting.

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