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V for Veg: Almond milk hits the big time

As demand for the nut-based drink grows, two Philly makers are concocting an extra-high quality product.

Ryan Fitzpatrick (left) and Jeff Fonseca are serious about the power of almonds as they launch Philly's first raw, organic almond-milk company, Almond Bros.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (left) and Jeff Fonseca are serious about the power of almonds as they launch Philly's first raw, organic almond-milk company, Almond Bros.Read more

THANKS to hipster vegans, almond milk is suddenly a thing: Almonds, a "thirsty crop," are draining California's water and increasing the drought, all for a product that's only 2 percent nuts. Right?

Hang on: Actually, almond milk was a thing back in the middle ages, used widely because it didn't spoil as quickly as cow's milk, and because for many, almonds were easier to get than cows. And the $900 million spent on almond milk last year, making it the declining dairy industry's top competitor, came from a much larger crowd than vegans and/or hipsters.

As for water use, California's thirstiest crop by an order of magnitude is not almonds but livestock. A glass of cow's milk is more water-intensive than one of almond milk.

And as for the charge that some brands contain only 2 percent almonds, well . . . on that one, local almond lover Jeff Fonseca isn't arguing.

"The product they're 'destroying California' with is of such low value - the current almond milk industry is an illusion of health," he scoffed, as we sat in a Fishtown cafe.

So, Fonseca and his MBA-toting biz partner, Ryan Fitzpatrick, put their heads together to start Almond Bros., a line of almond milks made from heaping helpings of raw, organic almonds. He pegs the Bros. variety at close to 25 percent almonds. But it's more than that: "We use a specific unique almond that we get direct from a small family farm in California," he explained. "They're refrigerated right after harvesting, never treated" with chemicals or steam.

"And soaking the almonds, as we do, makes for better digestibility," he added. "It makes the skins less inhibitive of the [beneficial] enzymes in the nuts."

Fitzpatrick handed me a Mason jar of Almond Bros., and I took a swig. The concoction was lighter and simpler than the big-box almond milks I've had, not overly sweet, but flavorful. I remarked on the welcome absence of a gummy note in the texture.

"Yeah, sunflower lecithin is the only emulsifier we use," Fonseca noted. "And of course no carrageenan," said Fitzpatrick, referring to the thickener commonly used in mainstream nondairy milk now widely seen as a health liability.

The Bros.' next step is pasteurization. They'll use a high-pressure process to maintain as much of the raw nuts' nutrition and quality as possible, Fonseca said. At that point, Almond Bros. can be sold on a per-unit basis in a retail setting, but both Bros. agree they'll move slowly and methodically to keep quality as high as possible.

For now, the main outlet is Miss Rachel's Pantry (1938 S. Chadwick St.), which will offer Almond Bros. by the glass starting next week. Already Rachel Klein's multicourse farmhouse-table dinners have been featuring the product as a dessert-course accompaniment. "Being aligned with a vegan community that's so close and supportive is something that motivated us," said Fitzpatrick.

If you can't get to South Philly, or are just the DIY type, consider making your own almond milk at home with the help of Alan Roettinger's "The Almond Milk Cookbook" (Book Publishing Co.).

The guide from the prolific Mexico-raised chef and "Extraordinary Vegan" author starts with the basic process of almond milk-making, then moves to almond cream, and from there into salad dressings, soups, sauces, smoothies and desserts. Roettinger quips that "as my wife pointed out to me, the chocolate-almond ice cream in the book is one of the ten best things I've ever made," which might sound boastful, but I tried that ice cream at this year's Vegetarian Summerfest, and it was outstanding.

Roettinger is similarly blunt in looking at the big picture: "Almond milk is popular for a reason," he told me via email. "People are starting to realize that consuming dairy milk does NOT do a body good, and they're eager to try alternatives."

One thing sales figures make clear is that the non-dairy appeal goes way beyond vegans. I first decided almond milk had cracked the mainstream when my local Super Fresh started carrying Califia almond-milk coffee creamer.

This is not to say that almond is permanently installed at the top of the heap. Coconut-based milks, creamers and especially ice creams are showing up all over. Also coming up strong in 2015 is cashew milk, which Silk began pushing onto market shelves at the end of the last year.

Waiting in the wings are peanut milk, quinoa milk, oat, flax, hemp and a seemingly endless parade of animal-free beverages.

Whichever prevails in the marketplace, one thing's for sure: While dairy producers tinker and tweak their product with state-of-the-art tech in efforts to make it more palatable to human digestive systems, more people than ever are looking at the concept of full-grown, supposedly weaned adults drinking something that comes out of an animal's teat, and calling it for what it is: Nuts!