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Why glass milk bottle deliveries are back

Why glass milk bottle deliveries are back

April 23
09:18 2018

It’s 6am and there’s a peachy tint to the sky above Southfields. The streets are silent save for the whirr of our electric motor and the gentle clink of glass bottles as we navigate a pothole.

I’m nearing the end of a round with Ian Beardwell, a surviving member of what many assume to be a dying breed: the great British milkman. He has delivered to these streets in south London, six days a week for the past 27 years. Both his father and uncle were milkmen before him and he still remembers the first pint he ever delivered with his dad. “It was Christmas Eve, 1978, in Colliers Wood,” he recalls. “I was nine years old and there was six inches of snow.”

Despite the early hour, Beardwell is in a positive mood. “I’ve not felt so upbeat in 10 years,” he tells me as the float coasts to a halt and he leaps out, grabbing a couple of bottles of semi-skimmed and walking up to a house to collect the empties.

He has reason to be cheerful. Back in the 1980s — perhaps the heyday of the milkman — about 90 per cent of the milk consumed in the UK was delivered to the door. Two years ago that stood at just shy of 3 per cent. Yet just as the tradition of the doorstep delivery was about to be consigned to history, a surprising resurgence has occurred.

Beardwell, who is one of 1,100 milkmen working for the doorstep delivery service Milk & More, has picked up almost 70 new customers in the past six weeks on his round alone, he says, with 90 per cent of them wanting milk in glass bottles.

© Luke Stephenson

We pull up outside a nursery school. “This is how local and personal the milkman gets,” he laughs as he places a digit on the fingerprint recognition pad at the door before carrying the heavy crate of 30 pints of organic whole milk upstairs and returning with the empties. “They now have 150 pints a week in glass instead of 45 plastic bottles, so that’s a big change for them,” he says.

But it could have been so different. The glass milk bottle very nearly disappeared a few years ago when the country’s largest bottling plant (owned by Dairy Crest) in Hanworth, south-west London, was on the brink of closure. After Müller, the dairy business, bought out Dairy Crest in 2015, it reversed the plan and decided to invest in the company’s Milk & More business, the UK’s largest milk delivery service, which covers everywhere south of Manchester.

“We are seeing a quiet revolution,” says Milk & More chief executive Patrick Müller, whose first act was to retain the “iconic” glass bottle. “We have in the past four weeks seen 7,000 new customers with 90 per cent of those having glass bottles. Traffic to the company’s website has doubled.”

Many point to the “Attenborough effect”: demand has increased since the broadcast of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II television series last autumn, which highlighted the effect of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans.

© Luke Stephenson

Milk & More offers what Müller calls “a farm shop on wheels” with more than 200 locally sourced premium products (as well as normal and organic milk, it stocks free-range eggs, biscuits, bread, bacon, organic cheese and veg), which can be ordered online up to 9pm the night before and be waiting on your doorstep by 7am “like magic”. This year, Müller is investing a further £20m in the Milk & More business, revamping IT, upgrading machinery and — most visibly — from this month rolling out a new fleet of more than 200 electric floats to replace many of the older diesel vehicles used on longer rural rounds. “David Attenborough has reignited people’s love of the great British milkman,” he says.

Yet most of the investment in Milk & More was put in place well before Blue Planet II aired. What did Müller — who is Swiss and recalls visiting his local farm as a boy to collect milk in buckets — spot in the ailing business?

“We saw three general trends,” he says. “Customers want to know what they’re eating and who produced it. People are environmentally conscious and want to do their bit to reduce plastic waste. That’s why we kept the glass bottle and decided to keep the factory open. It’s great packaging. And finally, community values are becoming more important. The human touch and the sense of community are becoming more important in today’s world.”

© Luke Stephenson

Beardwell agrees. On a recent round, he interrupted a burglary and sat with the victim until the police arrived; he has also returned a lost chihuahua to its owner north of the river and has found the keys to countless expensive cars lying in the street that he has posted back through the right letter boxes. Last week he even reunited a laptop with its owner — an exhausted doctor who had left his bag on the street at the end of a long night shift.

Milk & More and other larger dairies are not alone in recognising the effect that discerning, ethically and environmentally conscious consumers are having on the doorstep milk delivery business.

Stephen Hook, 52, milks an 80-strong organic herd of Holstein Friesian cows on 180 acres near Hailsham in East Sussex where his family have farmed for more than 200 years. His cows produce about 16,000 pints a week — half of which is used to produce cream, butter, yoghurt, ghee and labneh. The remaining 8,000 pints are delivered on one of six growing local rounds within a 10-mile radius of the farm or sold at farmers’ markets in London. More innovatively, Hook has also pioneered a next-day courier service to deliver his raw (unpasteurised and unhomogenised) milk to customers’ doorsteps nationwide.

This service filled a gap, he says. By law, raw milk can only be bought from the farm where it is produced, which is no good if you don’t live near a dairy herd. Hook stepped in with a solution. His milk is chilled to 2C, put into plastic two-pint bottles and packaged in insulated boxes that keep the milk below 8C for up to 48 hours. These are then delivered to customers as far away as Scotland the following day.

“People are starting to understand raw milk more and they don’t necessarily like the milk they are buying from supermarkets, which is increasingly processed,” Hook says. “The consumer is starting to source milk from a farm where they can see the cows and know the provenance of their milk.”

Hook himself drinks a pint or two a day of what he calls “the original superfood”. A Food Standards Agency report in March noted that there has been “a fivefold increase in the volume of RDM [raw drinking milk] production in the UK from around 610,000 litres in 2012 to 3.2 million litres in 2017”. The number of registered RDM producers in the UK has also increased from 108 in April 2014 to 168 in January 2018.

© Luke Stephenson

“A milk round run by a farmer is fantastic because the consumer receives the produce straight from the farm and gets it as fresh as fresh can be. Nothing can beat it coming straight from the farm within 24 hours,” Hook says. “It’s not just about the food, it’s about the connection the consumer has with the farm they’re getting their food from.”

He is crowdfunding to buy 70 acres of marshland near his farm. Donors get no equity — just the warm feeling that comes with contributing to the survival of an organic farm. A regular at the Stoke Newington farmers’ market in London gives him £10 towards the fund each week, Hook says. Clearly, many consumers love to know where their milk has come from and to be connected to it in a way they simply can’t be with supermarket milk.

Perhaps inevitably, the doorstep delivery has also been given something of a millennial twist for a generation increasingly embracing a dairy-free and vegan lifestyle.

On April Fool’s Day last year, Jamie Chapman posted flyers around Hackney, east London, about a spoof dairy ban — the stunt was to launch, his homemade, dairy-free nut-milk brand. Chapman, 33, was determined that any business he created would be environmental and ethical (10 per cent of profits go to Greenpeace) and to that end he makes between 1,000-1,500 bottles a week of the milk (including almond, cashew, pistachio and coconut) himself.

Initially he delivered it by bike in reusable glass bottles and his round grew by word of mouth as he visited superclubs, yoga classes, vegan cafés and attended talks on a plant-based lifestyle and the zero-waste movement. Delivering personally to early adopters (mainly “early-thirties, health-conscious women into yoga and mindfulness”), offered Chapman a perfect opportunity to get to know his customers and test new products.

Although he still delivers his nut milks himself (he can load his US-style beach cruiser bike with up to 60 litres at a time), he now also uses Farmdrop, a local and organic food delivery service operating in London, Bath and Bristol, to deliver to doorsteps across the capital. In March, Planet Organic started stocking his milk and this month he will roll out his doorstep nut-milk delivery service to Bristol and Brighton. Oxford and Cambridge are next on his list.

Back on Beardwell’s old milk float, we’re coasting to a halt outside number 29 (two green tops). He’s got two more houses left, then it’s back to the depot in Wandsworth to unload the empties. Just as I’m about to say goodbye, a woman jogs over. “How can I get your milk? It has to be in glass . . . ” Beardwell laughs and adjusts his cap. Another happy customer?

Photographs by Luke Stephenson

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