A little more than a century ago nearly all the milk consumed in Chicago was produced within 60 miles of the city. Almost none of it came from Wisconsin. McHenry was the third largest milk-producing county in the country, and Kane was the fourth. This wasn’t close to the situation in places like New York and Boston, where dairy had to be shipped in from much farther away.
Suburban sprawl has wiped away Illinois’s dairy industry, but the historical disparity between Chicago and other cities struck Travis Pyykkonen when he came across it in a 1910 USDA report titled “The Milk Supply of Chicago and Washington.”
Pyykkonen, then an employee benefits consultant, was becoming something of a dairy nerd. As the father of four girls (now five) he was on the lookout for good milk for his family. It wasn’t easy to find. On the side he was working with some friends to develop the concept of a grocery store that would traffic in only unprocessed foods. Navigating the dairy side of the business gave him the opportunity to visit farms with cows that subsist on nothing but grass and produce raw or gently processed milk that hasn’t been sapped of its proteins and active enzymes by high-temperature pasteurization.
The project never got off the ground, but soon he was making weekly runs to Castle Rock Organic Farms, an organic farmstead dairy in Osseo, Wisconsin, more than four hours away from his Wheaton home, and hauling back coolers of rich, full-fat, unhomogenized lactate for friends and neighbors. “People would come by and grab it before work,” he says. It wasn’t long before word of the milk spread. “People I didn’t know were asking about it. It was just fun sharing good food with people.”
Pyykkonen contemplated a career change. “I wanted to transition from something very sterile and transactional to ‘How can you do something vocationally that adds value to your community and makes a difference on many levels?’ ” He sold some of the milk he bought wholesale to Rick Bayless’s restaurants and began to dabble in home delivery. In the summer of 2012 he set up shop at the Green City Market. “The thing that got me really excited was when someone had an accent and they didn’t grow up in the U.S. Jamaica, Ukraine, Switzerland—they would sample my milk and say, ‘Ahhh, this tastes like home. To me that was like, ‘Aha. This isn’t something I made up in my head.”
Then Castle Rock got hit by two straight summers of drought and pulled back on its reach into Chicago. Several of Pyykkonen’s customers, who’d urged him to keep going, put up the funds to build the infrastructure for a new dairy—one with a physical plant in the city itself.
“I was in the process of growing an appreciation for what is old, what has always been there. Finding the hyperlocal history of Chicago’s dairy industry connected a lot of those dots with my desire to engage the community deeply, restore something that used to be but was lost. And I believe dairy done well—from the soil to the grass to the cows to the farmer to the microdairy to the consumer to the community—can do that.”
Pyykkonnen found a farmer near Wausau who was looking for partners, and 1871 Dairy was born. (Its name is, of course, a nod to the year of the Great Chicago Fire and the lore that the blaze began after a cow kicked over a lantern while being milked.) With Pyykkonen aboard, farmer Joseph Zaiger doubled his herd of Jersey, Guernsey, and Friesian cows to 36, grazing them on 80 acres of birdsfoot trefoil, orchard grass, ryegrass, alfalfa, and red and white clover. After an equipment upgrade they began pasteurizing milk at a low 145 degrees Fahrenheit, cooling it down, bottling it, and bringing it into the city.
There are many claims, proven and unproven, about the health benefits of low-heat-pasteurized milk, but among other things it leaves intact lactase enzymes that help break down lactose, the sugar that gives so many people problems when consuming dairy products. “It’s the difference between live milk and dead milk,” Pyykkonen says. “I would argue that low-temp-pasteurized milk below 151 degrees is still live milk.”
With a palpably luxurious body and a sweet, almost floral taste, the milk was a hit with the chefs Pyykkonen introduced it to, to the point that he had to limit the number of restaurants that could get it. The lucky ones included Cafe des Architectes, where it’s employed in the restaurant’s pioneering cheese-making program, as well as Alinea, the Aviary, and Next, where chef Dave Beran put it to use in a flan ice cream, house-made ricotta, and the restaurant’s coffee service. At Floriole, Sandra Holl makes yogurt with it and offers it as an upgrade at the coffee bar. “Once someone tastes it next to our standard milk they can taste the difference,” she says. “It’s just a bit more special, with a higher fat content and a sweet, grassy floral flavor that can’t be beat.”
Pyykkonen found an especially ardent advocate in pastry chef Dana Cree, who was then at Blackbird. “As soon as I tasted it I had to have it,” she says. “And that’s been my experience with everyone I’ve given a taste to.” She’s made everything from milk jam to kefir to cottage cheese to lebne with it. “The behavioral properties cooking with it were unlike I’d ever worked with, and that was really fascinating to me.” Cree became something of an expert on working with the milk. She recalls receiving a text from Pyykkonen while he was making a delivery at White Oak Tavern. Then-chef John Asbaty was having trouble getting his ricotta to break and form curds. Cree theorized that because there was significantly less acid in the rumen of 1871’s grass-fed cows than that of conventional cows raised on corn-based feed, Asbaty needed to add more lemon than usual to his recipe and agitate it less. It worked.
Cree left Blackbird last summer to become 1871 Dairy’s culinary director. “My problem is that I want to make anything you can possibly make with milk.” She’s already worked on flavored milks infused with things like doughnuts, vanilla chai, and apple pie in collaboration with local purveyors like Glazed and Infused, Rare Tea Cellar, and Seedling Farms. This winter she plans to develop savory yogurt flavors with root vegetables, and next summer she plans to roll out frozen pops made from yogurt and caramelized milk.
It won’t be until close to the end of the year, when 1871 moves into its 4,000-square-foot microdairy, a raw industrial space on Racine between Lake and Randolph, that fresh cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, lebne, and cheese curds will be possible. Butter, mascarpone, creme fraiche, and sour cream are all in the works too once 1871’s herd grows and moves to a 320-acre farm outside of Sheboygan. And in the distant future? Maybe a cheese cave for aging.
But because 1871’s milk is unhomogenized Cree is currently unable to make her celebrated ice creams—unless she wants gobs of butter suspended in it (which actually doesn’t sound that bad). For that Pyykkonen is willing to compromise. “Homogenization reduces the nutrient density of the product,” he says. “Ice cream is an indulgence, so I would be a little more OK with modification for those purposes. But if it’s milk for you to drink as part of your diet, then let’s do it as nutrient dense and wholesome as we can get it.”
Above all Pyykkonen wants the microdairy to be a place Chicagoans can connect the dots from the cow to the dairy to their glass. Raw milk will make the two-and-a-half-hour haul down from Sheboygan, and visitors will be able to see the processing and bottling operation up close. There will be a coffee and yogurt bar, a kitchen, and a space for classes. (Until then you can buy 1871 Dairy’s milk and yogurt at Eataly, Harvestime Foods, Publican Quality Meats, Plum Market, Local Foods, and the Green City Market.)
“The real history of Chicago’s dairy is connected with the idea that the artisans that produce the products for a community would ideally be an active part of that community,” Pyykkonen says. “1871 Dairy’s active participation and work in Chicago enables that loop of food production to be more transparent and available to folks living in Chicago’s urban setting.” v