NESTLED between a brothel and a fine foods provider in Melbourne is the tiny milk factory of Koroit dairyman Ben Evans.
The 26-by-nine-metre Fitzroy micro dairy is a huge departure from his grandparents’ 400-head Toolong dairy farm, where Mr Evans spent many a long day as a youngster milking and feeding cows.
Dairying is in his blood, so it’s no surprise the 33-year-old former Emmanuel College student decided his future was in milk.
The cheesemaker and his wife of five years, Bianca, risked everything to build their Fitzroy dream, selling their car and apartment to fund the $300,000 project.
Mr Evans also risked his health — he caught an auto-immune virus while on an equipment buying mission in China early this year.
It put him in hospital for eight days and in bed for six weeks, just as he was on the verge of opening St David Dairy.
But it was a risk worth taking, he told The Standard during another 16-plus-hour day at the factory this week.
Mr Evans’ maternal grandfather Tom Finnigan, who died early last year, and his grandmother Mavis introduced him to the joys and tribulations of dairy farming when he was a pupil at Koroit Primary School.
Mr Finnigan was a well-known dairyman with strong community ties, including roles as the president of the former Belfast Shire and the Port Fairy Show Society. He was also involved with Moyneyana House.
“My grandparents’ farm was a beautiful farm on the Moyne River in Toolong and it was sort of a focal point of a large family,” Mr Evans said.
“That was always where I’d go for school holidays. I spent a lot of time there.
“They milked 400 head and as a child there was a pure Guernsey herd, the beautiful caramel and white herd. It was probably just an adventure land for us as youngsters.
“As I grew up I realised it was a good lifestyle that my grandparents and relatives were living.”
Deciding his short-term future was off the land, Mr Evans chose a career in cheese, which took him to Germany’s Bavaria and France before he became production manager at the Bega cheese factory in Coburg for six years.
At the start of this year, the Evanses began the hard work needed to open a dairy in Melbourne.
Sourcing a milk separator, pasteuriser, homogeniser and a gravity-fed bottling machine from China, the couple opened the business in June.
They produce 10,000 litres, or 5000 two-litre bottles, a week of homogenised full-cream, reduced fat and non-homogenised full-cream milk, which is delivered to 45 to 50 cafes and restaurants from Preston to St Kilda each week.
The factory took on its first employee, a delivery driver, recently, while Mrs Evans, a Chinese medicine practitioner and Pilates instructor, will soon work there three days a week.
Mr Evans said running a local dairy in the tradition of city milk producers of yesteryear helped bring in the customers.
“There’s no business like it in inner-Melbourne any more,” he said. “It’s been 40 or 50 years since the last dairy closed in inner Melbourne.
“Since then it (milk production) has been rationalised to super factories and 70 per cent of the milk sold in Australia is manufactured or packed by foreign-owned companies.
“The coffee shops are getting more and more aware and the coffee industry is very competitive, so they’re looking for a point of difference.
“They have fair trade organic coffee from single origin and I guess they’re adding a point of difference to their milk as well.
“The cafe person is talking to the same person who has processed the milk, packed the milk, put it on the truck and driven it to them.
“I think most people sort of warm to the story that my wife and I sold our house, sold our car and are passionate about the milk.
“The places that we sell the milk to are very serious about their coffee, so the romance probably gets us to the table for a good hearing.”
Mr Evans said it wasn’t an easy sell at the beginning.
“Certainly we sat there through plenty of blind tastings and won, because our milk is probably more at the premium end of composition, so it’s higher in fat and protein than some other milks out there,” he said.
“We run a pretty short process chain, so the milk’s not sitting in milk silos and packed and then sitting in a distribution centre where distributors pick up the milk and take it back to their warehouses.”
While opening a shopfront and creating his main love, hard cheeses, is a long way down the line, Mr Evans said the short-term goal was to create new products including flavoured milk in glass bottles.
One recipe he is working on is strawberries and cream.
The product will feature non-homogenised strawberry flavoured milk with a thick layer of cream on top.
While he doesn’t get back to the Toolong farm very often, Mr Evans said he was often lured to his sister’s Garvoc 300-head property, where he loves spending time with his niece and nephew.
He said his ultimate aim was to have his own farm to supply the Fitzroy factory.
“I certainly do want a farm that will link to this business,” Mr Evans said.
“I’ve been looking into a lot of biodynamic practices. I’m interested in heading down that path, not so much just for the point of difference for the end consumer, but there’s some interesting and sustainable soil practices that I think could make a big difference.”