Take a look inside any Houston coffee shop or café and you will find customers chatting over cups of coffee or espresso drinks. Some may be black or small shots of espresso but most are bigger cups with crafted rosetta or heart shapes decorating the surface of the drink. Depending on what you order you may receive a creamy warmth or a caramelized textured experience as you savor your drink. The two main ingredients that create these sweet and satisfying drinks are obvious: espresso and milk. Most of us know that the espresso comes from carefully sourced coffee beans. Importers, roasters, and sometimes shop owners carefully check the quality of the bean at it’s source, as well as the process used to harvest them. If such care is taken with the espresso, then why not the same with the milk? Why not go to milk origin and discover the quality and process of harvesting coffee’s important companion.
Recently during the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference in Seattle one of the symposiums held focused on the quality, sustainability, and sourcing of milk. During the talk they showed a short filmette in which speaker Sarah Dooley goes to “cow origin.” Watching the half tongue-in-cheek short made me realize just how important milk and it’s source really is and inspired me to go on my own “cow origin” journey. While sourcing coffee beans often involves international travel; sourcing Houston’s milk was only a few hours’ drive to the north in McGregor, Texas. Before I knew where to go, though, I had to find out what I was looking for. I asked around at various shops and Max Gonzalez from Catalina confirmed it: Mill King Market and Creamery. They are the only provider for shops that use specialty milk in Houston. Catalina, Greenway, Boomtown, Downhouse, and Fat Cat Creamery are just some of the local shops that use this Dairy Farm. So, to find out more I ventured up to the farm and spent the afternoon with owner Craig Miller.
The Miller farm and the land have been around for years, many years in fact. Some of the barns have been there for 130 years but the family is even older; Craig’s great great grandfather, John Lott, helped fund the Texas revolution. The dairy farm is not as old but has still been in the family for a long time, though, not the same as it is today.
“We’ve only been doing THIS business for the last 3 years,” Craig tells me as he drives me around some of the 800 acres of his property. The property is watered by the nearby Middle Bosque River and lies next to parts of the Chisholm Trail. “But I’m a 3rd generation dairy man. You just don’t get into dairy farming. The investment to get into dairy farming is so high no bank will take on a new dairyman. The average age of a dairyman is 80 years old and I can only think of about 5 dairymen in Texas that are about my age.”
Though Craig has only been doing this type of dairy farm for a few years he is not inexperienced when it comes to farm animals or their biology. After he finished college he started a successful genetic firm dealing with artificial insemination, embryo transers, and ultra sonography. It turned out, though, that his career kept him away from home too much and so he returned to the farm and took over the family business “It was an entire change of mind set. We had to redo everything from top to bottom, and we are still changing things and figuring things out as we go. We are the only dairy in Texas attempting this.” They went from a herd of 500 cows to only 120 and while commercial farms use antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals in the cows Mill King does not. “We are the only dairy producer processor in Texas that doesn’t put any chemicals in our milk and Carrageenan in our cream.”
But it’s not only what they don’t put into the cows but also how the animals are treated that affects the milk. Just listening to Craig talk to the cows, or watching him let a calf lick and suck on his hand it is obvious how much he cares for them. “Brown Swiss are very intelligent dudes,” he tells me, describing some of their personalities. “They are the first to figure out if there is a broken fence or way to get out and first to the feed trough. Jerseys are stubborn. I cannot tell you how aggravating they can be, and they’ll be the first to kick you,” he says laughing.
“When you approach them don’t look them in the eye. Let them get used to you,” he cautions as we get up close and personal to a small herd of heifers. The cows eye us, or more likely me, warily and then start to back off. As we head back to the truck I ask him about the different cows and the milk they produce. “We have Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss . Holsteins are known for good tasting milk that the public associates with good quality. Brown Swiss are noted for high protein, and the Jersey’s for high fat content.” He goes on to tell me that just like some coffees are a blend from different countries, the milk is also a blend of different types cows.
As we drive past a pasture with a handful of cows grazing in it he tells me that this is the resting area. “Everyone gets about 6 week vacation every year,” he says. It’s apparent that the cows are very well treated here and stress free, unlike the big commercial farms where cows are packed tightly together and are worked without rest until they are used up. “Commercial dairies push them as hard as they can go. It’s like a professional athlete; they are trying to put out 70 lbs of milk a day. They are cramming food and water into them and it’s like Michael Jordan, if he stubs his toe, he’s out. With them it’s off to the slaughter house.”
We arrive at the dairy barn and he shows me the system they have for keeping the cows cool in the ninety to one-hundred degree Texas summer. “We have 3 forms of heat abatement. Soakers that pour down their back while their eating. Also, fans with pressure misters that help drop it about 10 degrees in the dairy barn. In the middle of the summer they won’t even go outside.” When it was first built it was the first of its kind and they had farmers as far away as China coming to see it.
The way Craig describes everything to me and the entire vibe from the land and the animals themselves is very calm and stress free. They even have some machinery that they don’t even use because of the relaxed pace. Before, they might have milked the cows 16 hours a day, but now they only spend about 4 hours a day milking. The cows know what to do and where to go and can even self medicate themselves if they have a tummy ache or lack of vitamins. Because of the love and care that they receive the Miller cows have much longer life spans than regular Dairy cows. “The average life span of a Dairy cow is 5 years, but we’ve had girls that have lived to be 21.”
Part 2 can be found here…