Monday, May 21, 2012

In Which I Drink Raw Milk

As some of you may have gathered from previous posts, I'm pretty fascinated with the saga of raw milk. Who would think that a mundane substance like milk could be so polarizing?

I was feeling rather investigative last week, so I went up to visit The Family Cow, one of the biggest raw milk-producing dairies in Pennsylvania, if not the entire East Coast. I was shown around for a couple hours, had my innumerable questions answered with unending patience, and when I left, it was with half a gallon of raw milk clutched in my sweaty palm.*

I was curious, I must admit. I'd never had raw milk before, and health claims aside, I wanted to see if there was any justification for the assertion that raw milk just tastes better than its pasteurized counterpart.

The taste test was conducted in my tiny kitchen. In a very professional manner, I poured two jelly jars full of milk: The Family Cow's raw whole milk in one, Clear Spring Creamery's un-raw whole milk in the other.

The two milks both looked the same. They both had cream at the top of the cartons (being unhomogenized, that tends to happen), and both had the yellow tint of grass-fed dairy products. No major differences there.

In the taste department, however, I definitely preferred Clear Spring Creamery's product. Maybe I'm just biased, since I work there and all, but when I tried the raw milk, I detected a faint "barnyard" taste.** According to Mark, this might be due to the cows' diet - he said that some cows can have a taste to their milk that he described as "silage." If that is the case, then milk purchased later in the year might be missing that taste.

The question of raw versus pasteurized aside, some of the reasons a small, raw milk, grass-fed dairy would be better tasting than Piggly Wiggly's are pretty obvious. First, the milk is fresh - likely from the last week - instead of weeks if not months old. Second, the milk is from grass-fed cows, which gives the milk much more flavor, and can in fact have flavors specific to what the cows eat. Third, many small, organic dairies go for heritage breeds like Jersey cows, which have richer milk due to the higher butterfat content. Fourth, the milk is unhomogenized, which affects not only its taste but its digestibility. And last, you're dealing with the milk of a small herd of - depending on the farm - 50 to 300 cows, as opposed to the milk of thousands of cows being mixed together, which is what conventional dairies do.

To be fair, I was definitely comparing two pretty delicious products as it was. It might be an interesting future experiment to do a blind taste test between raw milk, pasteurized milk from a small organic dairy like Clear Spring Creamery, mass-produced organic milk from a grocery store (like Horizon), and a conventional grocery store brand milk. If I were to compare regular milk from a grocery store with raw milk from a (relatively) small dairy like The Family Cow, I have no doubt which I would prefer.

*I was feeling pretty confident about The Family Cow's cleanliness, given that I'd just been over practically every inch of their operation and asked plenty of detailed (and perhaps somewhat impertinent) questions.
**This reminded me of my friend Bin's assertion that colostrum***, when he tasted it, was like drinking "hot hay".
***Colostrum is the rich milk that cows produce for the first several days after calving, and which is considered vital for a calf's immune system and overall health.

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