Taste Test: Local, Sustainable Whole Milk From 6 Top California Dairies

The six brands of milk tasted (Wendy Goodfriend)

If your family drinks milk, you'll want to read this guide to the sustainable whole milk choices available in the Bay Area, including two raw milks. Read to the end for an extra tip on the best chocolate milk your kids will ever taste.

Humans have been consuming cow's milk since European dairy farmers developed a genetic adaptation that enabled them to digest lactase about 7,500 years ago. A high-protein, calorie-dense, versatile beverage, milk is a dietary staple for millions of Americans, and it's full of calcium and Vitamin D, to boot. Whether your kids drink it by the gallon or you just splash a bit on your oatmeal every morning, here's a handy guide to the best whole milk available in the Bay Area, with tasting notes for each.

While American milk consumption is down 37% since 1970, the USDA estimates that U.S. residents still consume an average of .8 cups per person each day. But despite recent medical research touting the nutritional benefits of full-fat dairy products, whole milk—the focus of this guide—is still out of favor, down to .24 cups per day, on average, for U.S. consumers.

This may not be the case, however, in the Bay Area, where there's a tremendous amount of competition among producers of the highest quality sustainable whole milk. We identified six brands that are widely available throughout the Bay Area that meet the criteria for this guide (both sustainable and full-fat) and also taste great, albeit in vastly different ways: Straus Family Creamery, Clover Sonoma, Saint Benoît Creamery, Humboldt Creamery, and two less widely available raw milks worth seeking out, from Claravale and Organic Pastures.

What Is Sustainable Milk?

I began my research on local whole milk with a focus on organic, and then it became clear that some dairies go well beyond organic certification requirements, making significant contributions to sustainability. "Sustainability" is a vague word. It has no legal definition and so it's important to make subjective parameters clear. Given what is happening in California’s dairy industry, contributions to sustainability might include something as deceptively simple as reusable bottles or as obviously complex as carbon farming.

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Most people think of organic certification as a baseline for sustainability, and all of the milks we've included in this guide are certified organic, except for one, the Claravale raw milk (whose rationale I'll discuss later). First, a brief primer on what organic means in the world of milk, and why it's important.

What Is Organic Milk?

USDA organic certification for all food products is complex and multi-faceted. For consumers, the three most important rules to know about certified organic milk are:

It must come from cows that...

  1. graze on grass for a minimum of 120 days per year;
  2. have never been treated with antibiotics; and
  3. are fed 100% organic grains as supplements to their forage.

More detailed information is available at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Other Contributions to Sustainability

    While organic farming practices are a big contribution to sustainability, as they safeguard the welfare of the animals as well as protect consumers from potentially harmful antibiotics, some dairy farmers in California are also upping the ante on sustainability in other ways:
  • Paying farmers a premium
  • Recycling water
  • Carbon Farming/Regenerative Agriculture
  • Transparency

See below for information on contributions to sustainability made by each of the dairies featured in this story.

Pasteurized, Homogenized, Both or Neither?

When I was a kid, milk was "pasteurized and homogenized," as if it were one word. But pasteurization and homogenization are two different processes.

Pasteurization, invented by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century, involves the heating of (in this case) milk to kill microbes that might be harmful. (Raw milk advocates argue that this process kills good bacteria, as well, but that's a debate for another time.) The legal minimum temperature for pasteurization is 145 degrees. "Ultra-pasteurized" milk is heated to at least 280 degrees, a category that applies to none of the milks featured in this story.

Homogenization is the process of dispersing milkfat throughout the milk, preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Homogenization is primarily about appearance and texture, rather than health.

And now a bit about each dairy whose milk we tasted.

Beyond Organic: Straus Family Creamery Is the Industry Leader in Sustainability

Straus organic whole milk
Straus organic whole milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Albert Straus is a lifelong dairy farmer and an industry leader where sustainability is concerned. The milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream and ice cream produced by Straus Family Creamery are all certified-organic products. But Straus goes far beyond organic. The glass bottles that some of their milk line is packaged in are first rinsed with recycled water before being sterilized. And because they use the rinse water to irrigate their pastures afterward, they use potassium-based cleaners that are good for the soil.

Straus buys 100% renewable electricity from Green-e Energy certified wind and solar power sources in California, through their partnership with Marin Clean Energy’s Deep Green Renewable Program. And Straus' commitment to being a carbon-free business includes the use of LED lighting throughout the creamery, as well as energy-efficient cooling equipment, motors and monitors. They even offer plug-in electric-vehicle charging stations to their employees.

Straus Go Electric!
Straus Go Electric! (Wendy Goodfriend)

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Straus operation is its methane digester—a large pond (covered with a tarp) that converts organic waste from the cows into methane gas through the process of anaerobic digestion—that generates energy to power the farm. The digester has reduced methane emissions by more than 1,600 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year—the equivalent of eliminating the annual emissions from about 350 passenger cars. The ultimate aim of carbon farming is not just to reduce the pace of global warming, but to reverse it.

Straus was the first non-GMO-verified dairy in North America, and they test every load of feed to ensure that it is GMO-free.

Straus was also, by far, the most transparent of the dairies featured in this story, in terms of answering questions and sharing information about products and processes. They even invited us up to the creamery for a tour of the bottling line.

In a lengthy interview, Albert Straus emphasized his commitment to transforming the dairy industry by way of all the sustainable initiatives his company has undertaken, and he's a local activist for dairy farmers, as well. He says that his life's work is to "revitalize rural communities," and the nine dairy farms he works with in Marina and Sonoma counties get their checks hand-delivered by a company executive every quarter. Straus is currently advocating for dairy farmers in a dispute with Point Reyes National Seashore over the presence of historic ranches and farms.

Albert Straus being interviewed for this guide.
Albert Straus being interviewed for this guide. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Clover Sonoma: Family and Philanthropy

Clover Sonoma Organic Whole Milk
Clover Sonoma Organic Whole Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Clover Sonoma works with 27 family dairy farms based in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, 19 of which are organic. My request for an interview with CEO Marcus Benedetti was ignored, but Kristel Corson, vice president of marketing, offered some information that isn't readily available on the Clover Sonoma website.

Regarding Clover Sonoma's commitment to organic farming (Clover Sonoma also sells conventional milk), Corson says, "We are proud that we made early inroads into organic, and we are committed to growing our organic milk product line. We pay all our farmers a premium to meet our quality standards as set through our Clover Promise of Excellence. Our organic dairy farms receive higher compensation due to the organic certification process. We see continued consumer demand for organic dairy products and Clover is committed to supporting organic farming and giving consumers what they want."

Additional sustainability initiatives include certification by the American Humane Association in 2000, the first dairy to receive this distinction. Corson also says that the company was the first dairy to say no to the synthetic growth hormone rBST.

Clover Sonoma also donates 5% of its profits to food banks, education non-profits, and other community organizations.

Saint Benoît Offers Organic Milk From All-Jersey Cows

Saint Benoît Organic Jersey Cow Whole Milk
Saint Benoît Organic Jersey Cow Whole Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Saint Benoît organic whole milk is made from 100% Jersey cows. Jersey cows produce milk with the highest content of milk-fat, giving it a creamy yellow appearance (see tasting notes below). Elyzabeth Dehapiot, marketing director for Saint Benoît, didn't speak to any of my questions about production, but did underscore the company's commitment to full-fat organic milk: "The company was way ahead of its time, as all-Jersey milk has been used since the company's founding in 2004. Back in the early 2000s it was probably ‘off-trend’ to produce a full-fat milk. But the founders (Benoît and David de Korsak) had one objective, to keep it pure and simple."

The company used to sell this milk in returnable glass bottles, but no longer offers this option. However, the glass packaging remains reusable and recyclable.

Get Humboldt Creamery Organic Whole Milk at Costco

Humboldt Creamery Organic Whole Milk
Humboldt Creamery Organic Whole Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Though I was able to reach Humboldt Creamery's marketing director, John Harrington, after multiple attempts, he was unwilling to provide me any information about the processing of the creamery's milk, beyond that "our pasteurization temperature meets the legal definition" and that "our cow breeds are mostly Holstein, Jersey and cross-breeds."

Despite the company's lack of accessibility, Humboldt Creamery's organic whole milk is a quality product that is available at Bay Area Costco stores.

Controversy Aside, Raw Milk Is Delicious

Raw milk is distinguished by its being unpasteurized, a controversial subject, to say the least. Advocates argue that there are more nutrients in raw milk than in pasteurized, and that they're more bioavailable. There can also be risks to consuming raw milk because of potentially harmful bacteria, but advocates assert that they're no greater than that of any unprocessed food. I think of raw milk like I do sushi; I'll happily consume it if its lineage is traceable, as is the case with both raw milks featured here. I'll leave the debate over nutrition and safety to the experts, but it's important to note that both the USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture have bacteriological standards that must be met in order for raw milk to be legally sold, and California's standards are significantly higher than federal guidelines.

Claravale Raw Milk: Intentionally Not Organic-Certified, Decidedly Sustainable

Claravale Raw Pure Jersey Milk
Claravale Raw Pure Jersey Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Claravale Farm, in Panoche (San Benito County), made the decision not to get organic certification because they feel that organic regulations are too strict in some ways and not strict enough in others. The company's website goes to great lengths to explain their philosophy, but here's the gist: They do not use any pesticides in their feed or antibiotics for their cows, nor do they use any GMO feeds or bovine growth hormone. Further, they don't bottle milk from any dairy other than their own, which means their milk production is quite small, but they can oversee every aspect of it.

Claravale also sells its products directly to consumers, which eliminates extra handling by distributors. Their all-Jersey milk is packaged in returnable glass bottles.

One of the most fascinating efforts around sustainability being promoted by Claravale is its offer of heifers for grazing in your own backyard, allowing you to produce your own raw milk, completely unimpeded by processing, or even handling. If you have the right conditions for grazing, you can purchase a cow from Claravale for $2,500.

Organic Pastures Offers Widely Available Organic-Certified Raw Milk

Organic Pastures Raw Milk
Organic Pastures Raw Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

Organic Pastures, based in Fresno, is a fourth-generation, family-owned farm that is organic-certified and has also earned Certified Humane status. All of the farm's operations involve recycling the water back into the soil, and the farm is also solar-powered.

For further safety assurance, the company was the first to develop and implement a comprehensive Risk Analysis Management Program (RAMP). They collect 20 unique samples from each milk lot ID, then combine the separate samples into one composite to be sent to all three available testing labs. Each lot ID must be cleared of E. coli 0157:H7 and other bad bacteria by all three labs prior to distribution.

The Taste Test: Many Milks, Many Sensory Experiences

The Taste Test
The Taste Test (Wendy Goodfriend)

As a sensory analyst in a coffee lab, a licensed Q grader, certified sommelier, and wine and coffee writer, I spend a lot of time coming up with language for how to describe beverages, though I'd never conducted a formal tasting of milks before this one. I designed a tasting of these six milks to include my two kids, as well as two adult tasters who could offer their perceptions to readers. I made the structure of the tasting as simple as possible in order to cover the range of aromas, flavors and textures the average milk-drinker will experience, without getting too technical. The categories we evaluated, in a blind tasting in which all the milks were room temperature, are: color, aroma, mouthfeel, flavor and aftertaste.

The milk rating system for the taste test
The milk rating system for the taste test (Wendy Goodfriend)

Lastly, I asked our tasters to rate each milk's sweetness on a scale of 1-5 (five being the sweetest). From what I was able to glean about pasteurization (for the four milks that were pasteurized), a higher level of perceived sweetness seems to correspond with higher degrees of pasteurization. You should read this according to your own palate's threshold for sugar. For example, I don't like super-sweet beverages, so Humboldt Creamery tastes like dessert to me; I prefer the 2-3 range of sweetness, which is more balanced (3) and even savory-leaning (2). So, these sweetness ratings (an average of all tasters) is not evaluative, but rather descriptive and, in comparison with other milks on the table, intended to help steer you toward a milk you'll enjoy.

Testing for aroma
Testing for aroma (Wendy Goodfriend)

Instead of a competition, I approached this as a sensory exploration, and here's what our tasters had to say.

Straus Organic Whole Milk (glass bottle, cream-top)

  • Pasteurized: Yes, heated to 170 degrees for 18 seconds
  • Homogenized: No
  • Color: golden white, off-white, creamy white
  • Aroma: clean, crisp, rich
  • Mouthfeel: velvety, rich, viscous
  • Flavor: balanced, sweetly earthy, floral
  • Aftertaste: clean, brisk, light, lingering
  • Sweetness: 3

Where to Buy: Available at more than 25 retailers throughout the Bay Area (and many farmers' markets). The Straus website maintains a searchable list of products by zip code.

Clover Sonoma Organic Whole Milk

  • Pasteurized: Yes, heated to 179 degrees
  • Homogenized: Yes
  • Color: very white
  • Aroma: sweet, uniform, bright
  • Mouthfeel: medium-bodied, silky
  • Flavor: unsalted butter, sweet, fruity
  • Aftertaste: clean, bright, crisp
  • Sweetness: 4

Where to Buy: The Clover Sonoma website maintains a searchable list of products by zip code.

Saint Benoît Creamery Organic Jersey Whole Milk (cream-top)

  • Pasteurized: Vat-pasteurized to 145 degrees
  • Homogenized: No
  • Color: golden, dark yellow, creamy
  • Aroma: floral, cheesy, pleasantly gamey, savory
  • Mouthfeel: Full, rich, satiny
  • Flavor: buttery, invitingly barnyardy, caramelized
  • Aftertaste: long, pleasantly gamey
  • Sweetness: 3

Where to Buy: The Saint Benoît website maintains a list of availability by state and region.

Humboldt Creamery Organic Whole Milk

  • Pasteurized: Yes (specific information unavailable)
  • Homogenized: Yes
  • Color: white
  • Aroma: sweet, fruity, dessert-like
  • Mouthfeel: light, silky, chalky
  • Flavor: sweet, brown sugar
  • Aftertaste: dry, crisp, short
  • Sweetness: 5

Where to Buy: Humboldt Creamery marketing director John Harrington reports that this milk is "sold at Costco and independents throughout the Bay Area and Central Valley." (More specific information was not forthcoming.)

Claravale Raw Whole Milk

  • Pasteurized: No
  • Homogenized: No
  • Color: yellow, tan, golden
  • Aroma: fresh, bright, floral, sweetly earthy
  • Mouthfeel: creamy, rich, plush
  • Flavor: buttery, invitingly savory, umami
  • Aftertaste: brown sugar, floral
  • Sweetness: 2

Where to Buy: Claravale milk is available at the farm (call ahead), for online order at claravalefarm.com, and through Dairy Delivery (707-778-9970) and Real Food Bay Area (408-835-9353). I purchased the milk at Berkeley Bowl West.

Organic Pastures Raw Organic Whole Milk

  • Pasteurized: No
  • Homogenized: No
  • Color: pale yellow, golden
  • Aroma: clean, bright, earthy
  • Mouthfeel: crisp, chalky, delicate
  • Flavor: tangy, pleasantly barnyardy
  • Aftertaste: clean, dry, umami
  • Sweetness: 2

Where to Buy: The Organic Pastures website maintains a searchable list of products by zip code.

Taste-testing the milk for flavor
Taste-testing the milk for flavor (Wendy Goodfriend)

Dessert: Straus Organic Chocolate Milk

Straus Organic Chocolate Milk
Straus Organic Chocolate Milk (Wendy Goodfriend)

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We threw in Straus' organic chocolate milk because we already knew we loved it. Head and shoulders above other brands on the market (yes, we've tried them all, unofficially), this relatively recent addition to the Straus lineup is made with cocoa powder from fair-trade organic cocoa beans grown in the Dominican Republic and homogenized whole milk. In the case of chocolate milk, homogenization helps to blend the cocoa powder into the cream and make the texture consistent throughout the bottle. Because there's no added emulsifiers or stabilizers, natural separation occurs. Just shake and serve, and don't let the kids drink it all! We've even heated it for easy hot chocolate.

Straus chocolate milk ranked high for this taste-tester
Straus chocolate milk ranked high for this taste-tester (Wendy Goodfriend)

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