There's no shortage of milk options when it comes to filling up your cereal bowl, whether it's your traditional, private-label brands that make up the bulk of your grocery's dairy aisle, or plant-based options like oat and almond milk that are becoming popular with some consumers.
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Zeal's farm in Carthage, Mo. Zeal

But a new Chicago-based milk brand is working to carve out space in your fridge with its grass-fed approach, and it’s expanding to independent grocers across the Midwest.

Zeal Grass Milk Creamery, founded in 2018, sells whole milk, whole chocolate milk, and butter from its farm in Carthage, Missouri.

The company takes a completely grass-fed approach to its cows, allowing them to roam free throughout the farm all year long. Zeal President Jason Henshaw said the result is milk that has naturally higher protein, more healthy fats like Omega-3s, and happier cows, which aren’t confined to barns like many grain-fed cows.

“We know our cows have a lifespan of about three years longer, just because of the premise of living their best life outside, walking around and eating from our pasture,” Henshaw said.

Zeal even strapped pedometers to its cows to prove just how much they were moving about, and it turns out they walk more than 10,000 steps per day.

Zeal hit its first shelves in Chicago in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was spreading across the U.S. That created significant challenges for the young brand, with Henshaw having to make deliveries himself to the first handful of local grocers who agreed to carry the product.

“It was painful. I was up at 5 in the morning, getting the milk and doing these deliveries to the retailers,” he said. “It was tough to the communicate with the consumer. We couldn’t do sampling. We couldn’t do anything like that.”

But Zeal was able to steadily expand throughout the pandemic store by store, and today is in 200 grocery stores across Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

It’s in Chicago-area retailers like Pete’s Fresh Market, Angelo Caputo’s and Shop and Save, as well as Central Market in Texas, which has been a key retailer for the company as it works to gain credibility in the industry, Henshaw said.

Zeal’s butter, which Henshaw describes as ultra creamy and “luxurious,” is being used by Ever, a two-starred Michelin restaurant in Chicago.

Zeal’s launch comes at a challenging time for the dairy industry, given the Covid-19-related production challenges and the rise of plant-based alternatives.

The U.S. has lost more than half of its licensed dairy operations since 2003, according to the USDA, and overall U.S. milk production increased just 2% from 2019 to 2020. Butter, however, boomed in 2020 as more people were baking at home.

Henshaw is hoping craft milk can catch some of the magic craft beer has seen over the last decade, where shoppers prioritize small, local makers over industry giants. New launches for Zeal include a milkshake, a sports recovery chocolate milk, and a milk-based probiotic. It’s also trying its hand at cheeses, Henshaw said.

Recent research has found that 32% of British adults are drinking oat, almond, soy and rice-based milks, up from 25% in the previous year.

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