While Artisan Cheeses are very popular at grocery stores around the globe, the same can’t necessarily be said for Artisan Yogurt, however one Vancouver Island company is proving that there is a market for a gourmet product on highly competitive grocery store shelves.
Tree Island Yogurt first hit shelves in January 2013, the brainchild of Scott and Merissa DiGuistini, but the road to success for the premium product started a couple years before that and had a few bumps along the way.
Scott was just finishing up his PhD at UBC and was looking into research positions, when he and his wife Merissa found themselves in Paris while Scott interviewed for a position with the National Research Council in France. “We were sitting outside the Louvre eating yogurt, which I basically lived on in grad school, and discussing our options,” says Scott. Merissa had recently found out she was expecting and had some apprehension about moving to a foreign country to have the baby. “It was one of those moments where you look down and suddenly I turned to Merissa and said, ‘why don’t we make yogurt’,” says Scott.
The couple had recently purchased a house in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, so they hoped that opportunity would present itself in the area. “Comox has a great food scene and lots of community involvement and we had a love of natural products.” After hitting a few road blocks with ideas and other partners, a facility was built on leased land, and culturing and taste testing began. “We wanted to create something different and focus on ingredients and a simple formula,” says Scott. “There is really no artisan yogurt on the market and the yogurt shelf is one of the most competitive ones in the grocery store, so our first step was sourcing the best tasting milk we could find.”
Enter Guy Sim of Birkdale Farm. Guy’s family has been farming in the Comox Valley since the 1920’s. His parents met while his dad was stationed at the Canadian Forces Base in Comox during the war. The farm started with 16 cows and grew to the 220 head it is now. Guy, who had done some travelling and attended Olds College, took over the farm in the 1970’s. Today Guy milks 90 purebred Ayrshire cows and farms 190 acres. The herd consists of 9 EX, 40 VG and 52 GP, who achieve average BCA’s of 220M-240F-230P. “My parents liked the Ayrshire breed, my mom grew up with them in Thunder Bay,” says Guy. “They are hardy, they have good components and they don’t eat as much!”
Registering under the prefix ‘Birghdale’, Guy’s herd is well known in Ayrshire circles across the country and he was awarded his Master Breeder Shield from Ayrshire Canada in 2003. The “Countess” family can be traced back to the 1960’s and makes up 30-40% of the current herd. The family is a prime example of Guy’s breeding goal, “to breed cows with high production and functional conformation.” Several bulls have been put into stud from the Birkdale herd including Tradition (S: Patrick) and Copper (S: Cornelius), both sons of Birghdale Countess 24 EX-90 4E, as well as Birghdale Nonstop, who is a Decaf son of Birghdale Nedra 147 EX, another prominent family in Guy’s herd. The use of popular sires like Big Star, Volvo, Big Time, Athenos and Amazing, have continually propelled the herd forward over the years.
The most unique thing about the Birkdale herd as that it is entirely grass-fed. Guy’s cows are out to pasture from April through October which, coupled with the high fat produced by the herd being consistently between 4.5-5%, was very appealing to Scott and the yogurt business. “We are really lucky that Guy is in the Comox Valley,” says Scott. “The milk produced at Birkdale is delicious and the feed makes all the difference in the taste.”
Currently Tree Island Yogurt produces five flavours of Greek yogurt and three flavours of their “Cream-Top” line. The difference between the two products is about 3% fat. The Greek yogurt is thicker and more decadent since the moisture and whey is removed, while the Cream-Top yogurt is great for smoothies or at breakfast topped with granola. Both kinds are made with gentle milk handling practices (gravity flow, low centrifugal force), real vanilla and other specially imported whole ingredients, and 100% non-homogenized grass-fed milk, all from Birkdale Farm. “Guy really cares about what we are doing and we have a great relationship,” says Scott.
“We are making a gourmet artisan product. Our packaging, processing, milk source and messaging is unique. We try to balance traditional milk culturing with new technology and we want our consumers to really connect with the importance that we place on land stewardship, animal care and making a tasty premium product.”
Tree Island Yogurt can be found in over 400 stores across Canada from Vancouver Island to Quebec City, and in Hong Kong, with planned expansion in China over the next couple years. Currently managing all the distribution themselves, Scott has kept the product in whole foods type stores and large independent companies rather than multi-national chains.
At 71 years young, Guy admits he’s slowing down even though he really doesn’t want to, “the future is a little uncertain but I’m going to keep going as long as I can and I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” This is good news for Scott whose consumer base continues to rapidly expand. “There are definitely options when it comes to our continued partnership with Guy moving forward,” says Scott. In the meantime, one thing is certain: Tree Island Yogurt and Birkdale Farm is a match made in gourmet yogurt heaven.
For more information visit the Tree Island Yogurt website!