In the early days of 2013 one of those typical ‘new year, no news’ surveys caught the Media’s attention.
Researchers from Oxford University and the Polytechnic University of Valencia had combined their not inconsiderable talents to discover what coloured mug hot chocolate tasted best drunk from.
Volunteers – of which there were many considering the onerous task they were being requested to perform – were asked to evaluate their drink on a scale of one to 10 for overall satisfaction and chocolate flavour, aroma and sweetness when drunk from different coloured cups.
Many cups of hot chocolate later, and the boffins had their answer. An orange-coloured drinking vessel apparently brought out all the characteristics necessary for complete enjoyment of this particular beverage.
It was a fitting outcome. Chocolate and orange is a classic taste combination. And Terry’s (‘it’s not Terry’s, it’s mine’, as comedy actress Dawn French used to say) Chocolate Orange is one of the nation’s favourite grown-up sweet treats.
So when Liam Watson and John Carslake were looking for ways to ensure their new flavoured milk venture stood out from the crowd, chocolate orange was one of the first things that sprang to mind.
Along with lemon meringue pie and apple crumble with custard.
They’re not your average flavoured milk combinations. But then there’s nothing regular about Northumberland-based Natty – even the milk, with semi and semi-skimmed preferred over gold top.
Natty (the name is a play on the Geordie dialect word meaning cool or smart) is believed to be the UK’s first 100% natural flavoured milk drink range.
It could be argued that foods don’t come more unrefined than milk. But the majority of flavoured milk beverages are anything but natural and healthy.
Chocolate milk has the same total sugar content as a soft drink – which includes both added and naturally occurring.
A 230ml serving of chocolate or strawberry milk will typically contain four teaspoons of added sugar.
Then there’s the other supplementary ingredients’ to worry about: flavourings, colourings, thickeners, stabilisers and artificial sweeteners.
If consumed on a regular basis what appears to be the most natural drink in the world becomes a recipe for a host of potential future health problems.
Health is something Liam knows a lot about. He has many strands to his career bow and when not mixing it up on the milk front at Natty’s headquarters at Wheelbirks Farm (well-known purveyors of award winning ice cream) near Stocksfield in the beautiful Tyne Valley, is an herbalist and iridologist at 21st Century Herbs in Hexham. For the past four years he has also run a milkshake shop in the market town.
Originally from Stanley, County Durham, before that the 24-year-old worked as a barman at Matfen Hall near Hexham, which is where he met John, 31, who was employed in the gym and then went to work as a brand manager for the Fentimans botanical drinks company.
The pair’s sound business pedigree no doubt helped when it came to encouraging others to take their fledgling endeavour seriously.
It also helps that Natty’s drinks which sell in the likes of Dene’s Deli, Café 1901 and Coola Boola in Jesmond, Mel’s Deli in Gosforth, Chillipepper Sandwich, Fenwick and Frankie and Tony’s in Newcastle City Centre as well as three Central Bean outlets, taste fabulously indulgent but come without the normal side order of flavoured milk drink guilt.
A 100ml serving contains around 60 calories and there are about two teaspoons of sugar in a 330ml bottle.
They also come with a good dose of chatty adult humour. The apple crumble and custard label declares it to be the “best thing that’s going to happen to you today,” while the lemon meringue states “there’s something about you I really like. We should get to know each other.”
There’s not a cartoon character or lurid colour in sight; these are grown-up milk drinks (most definitely not shakes, which are a different beast altogether, Liam states).
It could be argued that flavoured milk shouldn’t be an adult drink, that it should be one of those foods you leave behind along with your childhood. But it’s our taste buds that change as we grow not necessarily our desire to indulge in certain foods and drinks.
Liam likes flavoured milk but having once been “massively” overweight and lost six stone, wasn’t keen on topping up on sugar and additives. As he says: “Fill your body with rubbish and you are asking for trouble.”
He also found the flavours and tastes too sweet and artificial for his more mature palate.
“Adults often find flavoured milk or milkshakes too much after a few mouthfuls because of the strong flavours.
“But John and I have worked hard on the flavours and textures to ensure they aren’t too intense. They’re low in fat and low in sugar, and while Natty isn’t a health drink per se, they are 100% natural and a lot better for you than a can of pop.”
The three unusual and grown-up tastes didn’t come about by accident. As you would expect, Liam and John researched the drinks market.
“They’re flavours – apple, lemon and orange - that sell well in other drink mediums like carbonated and still but which nobody had thought about putting into milk,” Liam explains.
It took 18 months of effort before the first hand bottled drink was ready to roll off the modest production line at Wheelbirks (capacity is currently around 200 litres a week, but with more outlets wanting to take the range Liam and John hope production will soon be upped).
Natty works out of Wheelbirks’ ice cream manufacturing plant, but ironically doesn’t use the milk produced by the farm’s own 120 strong Jersey herd. One reason is the milk is too rich and creamy for their needs. The other is that at source it is unpasteurised and unhomogenised.
Instead milk is brought in, a situation Liam admits “seems crazy as we make a milk-based drink and work from a dairy farm.”
The biggest stumbling block has not been convincing people that Natty is a sound business idea but that the range could truthfully claim to be 100% natural.
“To be classed as 100% natural is no mean feat,” Liam says with a wry smile.
Originally it had been thought Natty’s would contain fresh fruit and could perhaps be marketed as one of your five-a-day, but Liam says: “It wasn’t stable. Fresh fruit and milk don’t mix long-term.”
Instead it was decided to use natural fruit extracts. The oil is removed from apples and other fruits, including orange peel, while the colouring comes from ingredients such as spinach and nettles.
Meanwhile, the chocolate was recommended by well-known London-based chocolatier Paul Young.
The result is a range of unique drinks that Liam and John are confident can’t be rivalled in terms of flavour and texture.
Being 100% natural has its drawbacks, however. While commercially produced flavoured milks that are packaged in a protective atmosphere have a shelf-life of three weeks or more, Natty’s is only 10 days.
It is possible to extend the shelf-life using a special machine, but as Liam says: “We would have to be producing a lot more to justify the cost. But Natty is still a very new business.
“But the interest is there and going forward we want to gain a really strong foothold here in the North East and then grow organically beyond the region.”
The interest isn’t just coming from city workers looking for a healthy drink on the go, either. A number of bars are thinking of serving them as non-alcoholic cocktails while a couple of restaurants have already been offering them as an alternative dessert.
Liam has even heard of people using the drinks as mixers for Baileys and rum.
There is also the potential for more flavours, although Liam and John won’t divulge what they might be.
But whatever the future holds you can guarantee there will be a whole lot of shaking and stirring going on.