Long before 2016, when fifth-generation dairyman Henry Schwartz decided to shut down Elmhurst Dairy in Jamaica, Queens, he saw the writing on the wall. Dairy consumption was declining and profit margins were increasingly squeezed, making it nearly impossible to turn a profit. Schwartz had kept the company, which his family had run since 1925, chugging along well past its life as a viable business. But the time had come, and in August 2016, he closed the doors of the last functioning dairy plant in New York City limits.
Then, a proverbial door opened. Through business connections, Schwartz was introduced to Cheryl Mitchell — a food scientist who has spent decades of her professional life focused on nondairy milks — those made from nuts, seeds, and grains. Her patents were instrumental in founding the modern-day alternative milk industry, and now she had a new method that she thought could revolutionize the field. Schwartz owned another business, Steuben Foods, that produces aseptic paperboard packaging — the kind used to package things like soups, juices, and the wide array of alternative milks found in the grocery store aisle. All of a sudden, a new path forward appeared.
Schwartz, now 86, no longer gives media interviews. But Elmhurst’s vice president of marketing, Peter Truby, recalled a conference call where Schwartz said, “milk runs through my veins.” The thought of pivoting his family’s long-standing dairy legacy toward a plant-based product was almost unimaginable. But as he got to know the alternative milk industry (and taste Mitchell’s products), he made up his mind. “I remember he came to the plant in November of 2016 and saw the milk coming out for the first time,” Mitchell recalled. “And he said to me, ‘I want to sell it.’”
Today, Elmhurst Dairy is simply Elmhurst — a new company producing milk and creamers made from almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, oats, and hemp. Its products, which are remarkably milk-like in creaminess and flavor, are in 6,000 stores across America and shipped all over the country via its website.
“Elmhurst was around as a dairy plant for close to 95 years,” Truby told me. “Now, it has a chance to be around for another 100.”
Schwartz’s path of personal and professional evolution is remarkable. And it is just one of many stories in the modern alternative milk industry, which, according to Truby, currently makes up 13 percent of total sales in the dairy market (and growing). These milks have long been consumed by vegans and lactose-intolerant consumers. And they are increasingly favored by people not looking to fully give up dairy products, but seeking out ways to cut back for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
Every six months or so, there seems to be a new darling of the industry. For decades, the story was mostly about soy (think Edensoy, Pacific, and Silk) and rice milks. Then came the almond milk craze at the turn of the 21st century, followed closely by coconut milk. More recently, Oatly captured the hearts of the nation’s nondairy lovers, and suddenly grocery stores couldn’t keep the Swedish oat milk company’s products in stock. (Sales of oat milk rose a staggering 425 percent between 2017 and 2018.) There are even milks made from flaxseeds, macadamias, and, advisably or not, bananas and yellow peas. Some scientists have turned their attention instead to lab-produced milks which aim to mimic the microbial structure (and therefore taste and texture) of dairy — but without the cow.
Plant-based milk companies — like Elmhurst in New York, Califia Farms in California, and Good Karma Foods in Colorado — understand that coffee shops are important gateways for introducing new customers to their products. So in addition to analogues for regular cow milk, many companies are also developing special “barista blends” designed to make froth thick and billowy enough to produce latte art.
And yet, the modern alternative milk industry has more to do with packaging than plants. People have been making beverages from grains, legumes, and seeds for thousands of years. According to the “History of Soymilk” by nondairy disciples William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, soy milk (doujiang) — always homemade and often served warm for breakfast — was in wide use in China by the mid-17th century, though likely originated earlier. And the creamy fermented rice beverage amazake (the barely alcoholic cousin to sake) has been brewed in Japan since at least the 6th century.
A handful of manufacturers in China, Japan, and the United States began bottling and selling plant-based (primarily soy) milks in the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that aseptic paperboard packaging was created, allowing companies to offer shelf-stable products that could last without refrigeration for six months or longer. This development was a boon for the fledgling alternative milk industry because it took the pressure off of immediately selling these products — which most American consumers were either unfamiliar with or skeptical about — before they spoiled.
Mitchell has been there since nearly the beginning. In the 1970s, a health food advocate and restaurateur named Robert Nissenbaum approached Mitchell for advice. He had been serving housemade amazake to customers at his Sunshine Inn restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, and was receiving enthusiastic feedback. As Mitchell recalls, “He came to us and said, ‘I’d like to get it in a package. Can we manufacture it so it can be on the regular shelf instead of the refrigerator case?’” The short answer turned out to be yes, and with Mitchell’s expertise, Nissenbaum went on to found industry giants Rice Dream and Imagine Foods.
The success of these early companies helped to bring alternative milks to the mainstream, or at least closer to it. But Mitchell was not satisfied. The dominant process for “milking” the rice, which typically began with grinding the grain to make a flour or paste, removed a lot of its inherent nutritive aspects — things like fiber, protein, and antioxidant oils. The result was a milk that was thin (“It did not have the richness or milk-like opacity that customers expected,” Mitchell said) and not particularly nutrient-dense.
To compensate, they added many of these qualities back in, using safflower oil, carrageenan, and calcium carbonate. “I still feel guilty about it,” Mitchell said. The technique worked so well for Rice Dream that other companies began to mimic their methods. Consumers went crazy for these “healthy” alternatives to dairy, but there was ultimately no nutritional value. As Mitchell put it, “You are basically paying for water, gums, and a couple of nuts or grains.”
Over the last two decades, Mitchell paid a form of professional penance by devoting her work to maximizing the nutrient value of nondairy milks.
“I spent a lot of my own money on research because no one else was doing it,” she said. Her efforts paid off in a new patent called HydroRelease, which uses very high water pressure to slough off layers of whatever ingredient is being milked. Some plant based milks, particularly almond milk, have gotten a bad reputation for their environmentally unfriendly water usage. Mitchell’s technology, however, mitigates this impact by recycling the water used during HydroRelease. “Once we start spraying, it is the same water over and over again, so the milk gets more and more concentrated.”
The process also “releases each of the macro- and micro-ingredients — the natural lecithins, the oils, the binders,” Mitchell said. These components can then be recombined and emulsified into a creamy, nutritious, functional, and frothable milk. There is no need to add gums or anything extra (many of Elmhurst’s products contain only two ingredients, one of which is water) — it is all there in the plants.
Of course, with so much competition crowding the field, the bottom line for Elmhurst — or any nondairy milk — is, how do they taste? Flavor has been a concern of the industry for years. In the 1960s, write Shurtleff and Aoyagi, Cornell University scientists isolated the enzyme lipoxygenase as “responsible for the ‘beany’ flavor in soy milk,” and developed processes to help remove it.
Still, during the two years I spent as a vegan in college during the early 2000s, I tried and failed to convince myself that I — a born-and-bred, dairy-guzzling Midwesterner — really enjoyed Silk and Edensoy with cereal, or leaving curdled flecks on the surface of my coffee. I never worked my way up to drinking straight glasses of the stuff. It definitely wasn’t milk and, more importantly, it wasn’t very good.
But while nothing quite compares in flavor or texture to cow dairy, the field of options has improved tremendously. Today, my family’s fridge, like many other fridges, is multi-milked. Despite my lifelong love affair with dairy, my kids’ digestive systems seem to tolerate it less well. So there’s dairy half-and-half for coffee, and a rotation of cashew and oat milks (often from Elmhurst) for cereal, smoothies, and cooking. And I have come to enjoy the nutty, chai-like quality of So Delicious’ cashew milk ice cream nearly as much as regular dairy vanilla.
Mitchell has never been fully vegan herself. (One of her daughters is, however, and her other daughter eats meat but cannot handle dairy.) But despite being a flexitarian, she, like Schwartz, believes the future lies in plant-based milks — particularly ones that hold on to their natural nutritive qualities. And she is excited by their growing epicurean potential.
As it turns out, when the milks retain their proteins and fiber, they just work better in culinary applications. “You can make an amazingly convincing nondairy bechamel because the building blocks are there,” Mitchell said. “There is so much more we can develop using these ingredients. I’m happy to provide the tools to take us to the next generation.”
Leah Koenig is a food writer and author of 6 cookbooks including The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon) and Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids. Find more at www.leahkoenig.com or on Instagram at @leah.koenig.