Riverina Fresh tells BeanScene how it walks the walk when it comes to quality control and commitment to its café and farming partners.
Taste and consistency are huge considerations to the specialty coffee industry, so when Riverina Fresh received two or three comments about an unusual flavour profile coming from its milk in July, the dairy supplier sprang into action.
“Like all businesses, we get consistent feedback from our partners on our products. Every now and again, we get a complaint or comment that requires investigation. Typically, with a fresh product issues mostly relate to an interruption to the cold chain or storage,” Riverina Fresh CEO Rob Collier says.
“In early July, we received a small number of calls from café partners within 48 hours with similar feedback about a grassy flavour from some of our milk. It wasn’t hugely objectionable, and was only in a small amount of product, but it was certainly enough to cause concern. We take any feedback about our products seriously and want to understand it. It’s actually helpful that we have partners and customers so focused on their own quality and consistency that they picked it up and took the time to communicate to us.”
Riverina Fresh tested the retention samples it keeps from every recently manufactured batch of fresh milk and undertook sensory testing at refrigerated and heated temperatures. The refrigerated product was as expected, but in the heated product – typical of texturing in a café – they found a small number of samples that ranged from a weak to noticeable grassy or slightly “off” flavour. This helped explain why feedback had mainly been from cafés and not from consumers who more often consume milk cold.
“We make several batches of milk each day and reviewed all of our retention samples from over a week and a half of manufacturing. Most of the milk was fine, so the challenge was figuring out why a flavour change was only evident in a small amount of product and was not consistent across batches.” Rob says.
Riverina Fresh quickly ruled out anything going wrong at the café end, during the supply chain, or in its own plant. “We were confident the affected bottles had nothing in common from a distribution or handling perspective and the flavour wasn’t typical of a break in cold chain, light exposure, or being left outside a refrigerator too long,” Rob says. “The quality team reviewed release testing data and undertook some additional analysis of the milk and were confident there wasn’t any contamination of any kind. It was 100 per cent fresh milk.”
Finally, Riverina Fresh turned to the farm level to identify the cause of the odd taste. With all of Riverina Fresh’s producers being based in the broader Riverina region – there is typical consistency in their products due to factors like similar regional climate, herds, feed, and farm operations.
Rob says the quality team were aware of seasonal and feed changes impacting the flavours that come through in milk but had never experienced this specific flavour. After testing samples of milk direct from the farm, Riverina Fresh felt its scope narrow.
“What confused us initially is that the milk coming in on one tanker will be from four or five different farms. It looked like we had only a few farms’ milk with this unusual flavour, but when you mixed it with milk from our other farmers, it was mitigated so there was a minor or limited impact,” Rob says.
“We collected separate milk samples daily from all our individual farms for lab and sensory testing. It was through these we started to isolate the unusual flavour in some of the milk.”
The flavour appeared across a few individual farms but not on all days, so Rob says there were two key questions to answer: what is causing it? And how to mitigate it?
“We had all this milk coming in from farm that we needed to utilise, but we needed to ensure it was completely fit for purpose and to our usual standard,” he says.
Riverina Fresh spoke with individual farmers about what changes were taking place on farm and specifically whether there had been changes to the cows’ diets. It discovered that, due to early spring-like weather, most of their farms had quickly transitioned the majority of their diets to predominately fresh feed. In isolation, this was not unusual at the beginning of spring. However, this early spring was taking place in typically winter months after two or three consecutive years of drought. A lot of the feed for cows had been supplemented by brought-in fodder because farmers weren’t able to grow enough fresh grass and crops on their own properties.
“It has been relatively warm with good rainfall, so grass and crops have jumped out of the ground. Cows’ diets have moved very quickly from predominately stored feed and grain to fresh new seasons’ silage and grasses. These include rye grass, clover, oats, barley and canola supplemented with hay,” Rob says.
While Riverina Fresh believed the fast transition to new seasons feed and cows taking a few days to become used to change in diet was a likely underlying cause, it didn’t explain the variability they were seeing across individual farms.
“The strange taste in a small amount of milk still wasn’t fully explaining it, because most of the farms have the similar feed and are doing the same things, but we were only getting the unusual flavour from some of them and only some of the time,” Rob says.
“It turned out there were one or two feeds that were common across the affected batches as well as the timing of consuming the feed. We were literally able to line up the days the cows grazed on particular feeds on days immediately after rainfall [when the feed was particularly fresh] with the days we were getting a milk impact. To make it more complicated, the flavour impact was more pronounced when the cows grazed the grass right down to the stems.”
This explained why milk from the same farm was different on different days.
All in all, it took Riverina Fresh about two weeks from the first customer enquiry until it found the issue, gathered the information, and communicated it to the affected café partners. “By day two or three we had a pretty strong theory and then it was just about the team working with our farmers to prove it,” Rob says. “Our farmers played an important role in helping to identify the common factors causing the issue and they were also able to adjust their feed combinations slightly to address the issue.
“The cafés who made contact were first of all happy that the problem was isolated and had come right, but were also appreciative that we dug into it and were able to provide a pretty detailed analysis and explanation of what had occurred.”
With an early spring providing a much-needed leg up to Riverina Fresh’s farmers, Rob says they are hopeful the good weather continues, so they can recover from the recent years of drought.
“I had a Zoom call with our farming partners recently. They only had a bit of time available because they were out cutting new season’s silage 20 hours a day. They want to get it off and into storage as quickly as possible” Rob says.
“It’s been a positive start to the season on the farm and the outlook is cautiously optimistic. But it’s still early and much depends on a warm and wet spring to allow farmers to grow enough feed to replenish the significant shortfall from the last three years. I think that challenge is typical across much of the country.
Despite only a few bottles affected and to varying degrees, Rob says it was important Riverina Fresh fully understood the situation so it could maintain the consistency of its milk, especially with a core market as discerning as specialty coffee.
“One of the great synergies between fresh milk and coffee is that you’re working with a natural product, with plenty of variables, and trying to keep its ‘natural essence’ while delivering a consistent flavour and functional performance,” he says.
“So much detail goes into the production of our milk that any small change along the supply chain, even down to what the cows eat in the field, will be noticed. It’s the attention to that detail and the strong relationships we have from farm through to café that helps us ensure the quality is consistent throughout the year.”
For more information, visit www.riverinafresh.com.au
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.