For almost a decade, Riverina Fresh has worked closely with the specialty coffee industry to ensure it can offer the milk of choice for many leading roasters and baristas.
Australia’s coffee industry is admired around the world, but it also stands out for how milk-based coffees dominate the market. When specialty coffee exploded in popularity in the early 2010s, dairy company Riverina Fresh saw the potential a high-quality and coffee-complimentary milk could offer the industry.
“Riverina Fresh is a 99-year-old business, but it’s only been for the last decade that we’ve really focused on specialty coffee,” says Rob Collier, CEO of Riverina Fresh.
“When I joined the business in 2013, we were already supplying cafés and the specialty coffee industry, but it was mainly through our distributor network and some specific coffee roasters, it wasn’t a strategic decision at that stage. I’d heard our milk was highly regarded in the industry but didn’t have a lot of evidence until I spoke with a variety of roasters and baristas at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo that year.”
It was Paul Jackson, Managing Director on Danes Specialty Coffee, who confirmed to Rob that Riverina Fresh had something special on its hands in terms of consistency and functionality.
“The partnership has always gone back to the quality of the milk,” Paul says. “We really value that quality and consistency, because it’s meant when we’re working on our blends, we can design them around a milk that doesn’t dominate or add flavours, that complements a good blend and a good roast.”
Danes’ relationship with Riverina Fresh dates back more than 20 years, with the dairy company contributing to many of the roaster’s projects that would help shape the soon-to-flourish specialty coffee industry.
“Even back then, when we started the Danes Specialty Coffee Institute in 1999 and Danes Grand Barista Championship in 2001, they sponsored our competitions and training programs with their milk,” Paul says. “But you don’t maintain a relationship for 20 years with a product, it’s with the brand and the people behind it. Initially it was through Steve Reilly [from Reilly & Sons Foodservice championing the brand in Sydney,] now it continues with Rob, who has built Riverina Fresh into what it is today.”
Receiving encouragement from Paul to look deeper into the world of coffee, Riverina Fresh began working with more existing coffee industry partners, including the likes of Dukes and Toby’s Estate, to identify what was unique about its milk.
“People in the specialty coffee industry want to know everything about the finished product and how ingredients like milk interact with different blends and products. Because milk is in 90 per cent of coffees sold in Australia, it was one of the first areas the industry focused on,” Rob says.
He adds there is no one reason Riverina Fresh works well with coffee. Instead, it’s the result of a variety of processes and techniques from the farm level to Riverina Fresh’s production facility and distribution.
“We have learnt a lot over the last 10 years and now have a much better understanding about how to manage the variables that contribute to high performing, consistent milk,” Rob says.
“More than anything, we’ve tried to educate the industry and give them access to our team and to our farmers’ practices. The benefits have gone both ways. Farmers like most people, want to be part of something and understand why they get up every day. Working directly with the coffee industry has given them direct feedback from baristas and roasters that say ‘we care about what you do’, and ‘we want to present your milk to the world’.”
It was this connection to farmers – mirroring its own relationships with coffee producers – that motivated Ona Coffee to partner with Riverina Fresh following Founder Sasa Sestic’s 2015 World Barista Championship win.
“We met with Rob, heard a lot about the Riverina region, the work they do with their farmers, why the company exists, and what they’re trying to do,” Sasa says. “We’re super particular with our milk and how it works with our coffee, and together had the idea to come up a new milk that will complement our coffee in the best possible way.”
Ona Coffee particularly wanted a milk that would complement its fruity Raspberry Candy blend, inspired by the coffee Sasa presented at the WBC. After eight months of collaboration, Riverina Fresh Gold was ready for use by Ona Coffee and the wider specialty coffee market.
“I’ve always loved crazy fruity coffees, and Riverina Fresh has helped us to explore different flavour characteristics from milk in the best possible way,” Sasa says.
He adds that Riverina Fresh has continued to provide Ona Coffee with amazing service and a consistent quality over the years, and its support was brought to the forefront during COVID-19.
“When COVID hit and our turnover dropped by 80 to 90 per cent, Rob was the first to call me and ask if I was OK. That meant a lot, especially knowing they themselves were going through a tough time too,” Sasa says.
“Those tough times brought Riverina Fresh even closer to the coffee community. Pretty much overnight, they delivered fridges to us and many others so we could shift from offering amazing dining experiences to being like small milk bars. During this crisis, they championed the idea that if we do things for each other, we’ll survive. Year after year, our relationship grows stronger.”
Since partnering with Riverina Fresh, Ona Coffee has also featured its milk and cream in barista competitions at national and world levels. Riverina Fresh has also become the milk of choice for several competitors in the Australian Barista Championship, including baristas from St Ali and Anthony Douglas of Axil Coffee Roasters.
“While preparing for competitions, you want the milk that is going to match your coffee perfectly. I will taste 15 to 20 different kinds of milk, from several brands, but Riverina Fresh has always come out on top,” Anthony says. “I visited the farms and the factory for my 2018 routine, and they ran me through the entire process and what goes on behind the scenes. Beyond that direct involvement, they’ve always gone out of their way to supply milk for competitions from different blends, dates. and batch lots.”
Axil Coffee Roasters also serves Riverina Fresh Blue Full Cream in its many cafés around Melbourne and offers the dairy company feedback and understanding on how its milk works with coffee. Anthony says Riverina Fresh’s integration within the specialty coffee industry is what sets it apart from other dairy companies.
“Riverina Fresh is a growing company that deals with a lot of people, but they still take the time to check in and contact us regularly. Even as things shift, we’ve opened quite a few stores over the past couple years, and they do their best to work around us,” Anthony says. “Just recently, we had a batch that tasted a little different to usual. I contacted Lisa [Mazzarella, Area Manager Victoria], who was there half an hour later to take a sample and test against the recorded batch. It’s such a great level of quality control.”
Riverina Fresh’s quality was acknowledged on a global scale when it was named official milk sponsor of the 2020 WBC. While the event was cancelled due to COVID-19, the dairy company has continued its support of the coffee industry, supplying milk for the 2021 Australian International Coffee Awards and sponsoring Australia’s Richest Barista competition at the 2021 Melbourne International Coffee Expo.
In one of Riverina Fresh’s most recent collaborations in the coffee industry, the dairy company partnered with St Ali to develop its Really Good Coffee iced coffee range, now available in Woolworths along the east coast.
“That involved nearly two years of work with St Ali, and a huge amount of testing, research and development to create a fresh product with no addatives or preservatives, using nothing but Riverina Fresh milk and St Ali’s Orthodox blend,” Rob says. “One of the biggest challenges in a pre-packaged coffee and milk is getting the quality to the right level. The last thing we or St Ali wanted was to put our names to something we weren’t happy with. It couldn’t be just OK, it had to be ‘really good’.”
Rob says Really Good Coffee makes specialty coffee more accessible to general consumers, inviting more people into the industry.
Another important step for Riverina Fresh has been bringing its café foodservice distribution back in-house in most of Melbourne and Sydney. Rob says this has allowed Riverina Fresh to engage and work even more closely with its café partners and the wider specialty coffee community.
“As part of our journey, we have seen the opportunity to provide products beyond milk and cream, produced by Riverina Fresh as well as broader offerings from other producers. We are trying to challenge the thinking in this space as well and use new technology to make ordering and supply as efficient as possible for our partners,” Rob says. “Ten years ago, we were on the edge of the industry, with a good reputation among a small group of people. We’ve broadened that profile and now are at least known to most people in specialty coffee. Our role is to continue that journey, challenging boundaries and understanding of milk in coffee to see how we can deliver excellence.”
For more information, visit www.riverinafresh.com.au
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.