Unless you've been living under a lactose intolerant rock the last few years, you’ve experienced the rise of yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt. America’s had a love affair with yogurt for hundreds of years, but until recently, the most popular kinds were as far from traditional as possible: either frozen, sugar-laden, or identified by their portability. Starting in the early aughts, Fage introduced America to the pleasures of its rich, thick, drained yogurt and its seemingly endless list of benefits: more protein, so you’ll stay full longer! Gut-friendly probiotic strains! The ease at which you can swap it for sour cream, leaving your family none the wiser on enchilada night!
Greek yogurt exploded, and so did the rest of the yogurt aisle. A recent trip to Whole Foods gave me the option of goat milk yogurt, coconut milk yogurt, or even savory yogurt. And then there’s the geographic diversity of yogurt: there’s Russian yogurt, European yogurt, Asian yogurt--and Icelandic yogurt. Icelandic yogurt is a relatively new player in the competitive yogurt market, but it’s quickly becoming popular. And one the companies responsible is Petaluma’s Smári Yogurt, whose owner’s bet that American consumers would be a fan of the ultra-thick yogurt of his Icelandic childhood is paying off, with its brightly colored cups showing up in stores nationwide. (Want to know what we thought of Smári’s yogurt? See below for our taste test.)
Smári is a strained yogurt similar to Greek yogurt, but it’s made with much more milk, which its fans say give it a creamier taste and texture: while Greek yogurt is made from 2-3 cups of milk, Smári is made from 4 cups. Smári’s founder, Smári Ásmundsson, also says his yogurt has more protein per ounce than any other yogurt on the US market.
Smári isn’t the first Icelandic yogurt on the market--that would be nationwide brand Siggi’s, which debuted in 2007-- but Ásmundsson is confident that his yogurt in the brightly colored cups can make a play in the increasingly crowded dairy aisle. There’s the higher protein content, and there’s also his commitment to the yogurt’s organic status.
“I’m a huge believer in organic food,” Ásmundsson said. “And I’m a huge believer in yogurt, Icelandic yogurt, which is called skyr back home in Iceland. That was my fast food growing up.”
He’s also a big fan of fat. Skyr is traditionally made with skim milk, but last year, Smári introduced two full fat yogurts. Their move was part of a growing trend, partially fueled by the paleo trend and a shift away from low fat diets, emphasizing the importance of fat in a healthy diet.
“I’m a huge fan of fat. I think fat is critical. Just don’t eat too much,” Ásmundsson said. “In order for our bodies to access the vitamins, the minerals and nutrients in our food, we have to have fat. Often fat is replaced with sugar, and sugar is so much worse for you than fat is. Plus, fat makes everything tasty. “
Ásmundsson’s joked that skyr’s protein and fat helped make him strong growing up in his native Iceland, where he ate the tangy yogurt almost every day at school, and would often have it for dessert at home--prepared the traditional way, with some cream and brown sugar on top. After moving to America in his twenties he missed it, and started making it at home. There was only one problem: his skyr was terrible. “I had been making skyr for over a decade before I decided to start a company, and a big part of that was actually really bad,” he said. “It’s a very simple food, but any simple food--like bread, for example--is really hard to make well.”
A few years ago, Ásmundsson had a son. Now an in demand photographer for working for clients like Volkswagen, Morgan Stanley, Rolex, he started looking into the world of children’s food and was disappointed in what he found. Everything seemed packed with sugar and artificial ingredients. Again, he missed the wholesome skyr of his childhood. So he made the decision: he would make it himself and sell it.
It wasn’t an easy process. While Ásmundsson had significant brand and advertising experience, he had no experience with the dairy industry or starting a business. Then the Petaluma-based Ásmundsson wanted to make his product locally, but the equipment required for skyr’s distinctive texture was expensive, and no Petaluma dairy would take a risk on his untested product and install the new system. He worried about differentiating himself from all the other yogurts on the market, and spent over 100 hours hanging around the dairy aisles at the supermarket, questioning customers about what went into their yogurt-buying decisions.
And the biggest problem remained: his skyr was bad. Eventually, he connected with an 82-year-old family friend in Iceland, who had been making skyr for years. Ásmundsson ran up his phone bill calling the friend, asking question after question until he was finally satisfied with his end product. “When I went back [to Iceland], I met with him,” Ásmundsson said. “He was responsible for all of sudden my skyr being better than yogurt I had ever had.”
Finally, with the help of a cofounder with food business experience, an organic dairy in Wisconsin, and crowdfunding site CircleUp, Smári yogurt launched in 2013 with four flavors, Pure, Vanilla, Strawberry, and Blueberry. Since then, they've added four flavors, and expanded to hundreds of stores nationwide.
Things are going well for Smári. They recently announced four new flavors, and Ásmundsson said they tripled their business from December 2015 to this month. He gets to eat his beloved skyr every day (“I eat yogurt every breakfast,” he said. “And if I’m feeling lazy, I’ll have yogurt for dinner”) and the son who inspired it all has become a big fan (he likes the recently released key lime flavor). But he’s still not satisfied. He wants to be in every grocery store in the country, to show America how delicious Iceland’s yogurt can be--and by the way, just what do Icelanders think about Smári?
“It’s been very, very positive,” Ásmundsson said of the reaction from Icelanders. “People that try it, the most common reaction is ‘Oh my God, this is much better than what we have at home.’”
So, how do Smári’s Icelandic style yogurts compare to similar products on the market? Bay Area Bites decided to host a taste taste and find out.
Pure Versus Plain
We tried three unflavored strained yogurts: two Icelandic style, including Smári’s (which they call pure) and Siggi’s, and Straus’ Greek Yogurt, to compare against. Smári was incredibly thick, with a dry mouthfeel and a piquant acidity. It’s so thick, it’s almost cheese like--Check, Please! Bay Area producer Tina Salter compared it to labneh--and when we held it upside down, nothing happened. Tina said it had a grassy flavor that wasn’t as appealing to her, and said it had a “chalky, drier texture that’s not as satisfying for me.” On the other hand, both Wendy Goodfriend, Senior Producer of Bay Area Bites, and I both preferred the rich flavor of Smári over the plain Siggi’s, which had an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste.
Texture wise, Siggi’s had a pleasingly creamy, almost silky texture. Tina noted that even though the Siggi’s we tried was nonfat, it still tasted like full fat to her. Both Icelandic yogurts were a lot thicker than the Straus yogurt, which more closely resembled their thinner, almost luxuriously smooth European-style yogurt. The Straus had a milder yet still rich taste that everyone found delicious, but if you’re craving the thickness and aggressive tang of a Greek yogurt, get a Fage--or one of the Icelandic styles we tried.
A Vanilla Showdown
Both Icelandic vanilla yogurts we tried were very similar tasting, with a strong vanilla scent and taste from their inclusion of real vanilla (no “artificial flavoring” here). Both were very sweet, but the Smári was a touch sweeter--Tina observed that with the Smári, “You start off with the sweetness, get a burst of vanilla in the middle and end with the acidity.” In both cases, we found that these yogurt’s aggressive sweetness against their natural acidity was jarring.
Real Fruit Versus Candy
We compared a fruit flavored Smári yogurt (coconut) and Siggi’s (passion fruit and pomegranate) against a locally made Greek yogurt with fruit: a Wallaby’s cherry-flavored Greek yogurt. Smári’s coconut flavor was the most interesting, with small chunks of dehydrated coconut mixed into the assertively coconut-y yogurt. I was a fan, but Wendy, although she thought the flavor tasted authentic, did not like the chunky texture.
The Siggi’s had an appealingly strong bite of passion fruit, but zero pomegranate flavor. Tina was a big fan, and wanted to try it frozen. When we tried the fruit-flavored Greek yogurt from Napa’s Wallaby yogurt, the reaction was swift and universal: complete disgust. The yogurt was incredibly thin, and that texture combined with the taste--Gummi Bears, instead of the promised cherry--recalled the worst Dannon or Go Gurt.