MONTEBELLO — Once a week, Tim Moynahan makes a half-hour drive from the San Fernando Valley to a small dairy east of Los Angeles.
It seems a long way to go for a milk run, but to Moynahan the trip is worth the trouble.
“It just smells like fresh milk,” Moynahan, 32, said as he carried off a crate of four half-gallon glass bottles of milk.
In the age of paper or plastic, milk in clear glass bottles has become a novelty like the uniformed milkman.
But the few California dairies that remain committed to glass have transformed the once-common container into a high-end product, creating a tiny but lucrative niche that is only a fraction of 1 percent of the state’s $3.7 billion dairy industry.
“Just try it out of a glass bottle. It tastes better,” said Ray Broguiere Jr., who operates Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy in Montebello. “Glass is pure and simple. It doesn’t pick up any of the odor of plastic or the paper.”
The family business, one of about three dairies in California that still pumps milk into glass containers, began as a farm in 1920 under Broguiere’s French immigrant grandfather, Ernest, and once had a herd of 150 cows.
When Ernest’s son, Ray Broguiere Sr., took over in 1965, the dairy switched from producing to processing as profits fell and the cost of caring for a herd increased.
“We process about 4,500 gallons of milk a week,” Ray Broguiere Jr. said. “We pasteurize, homogenize and bottle it.”
There are good reasons why so few dairies still put milk in traditional glass bottles, according to Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute of California.
”(Glass-bottled milk processing) is expensive and fraught with liability, and a vast majority of consumers are not interested,” she said. “Those that do have preserved something in a fast-changing industry.”
Returnable glass bottles, introduced in the 1880s, began to lose ground to disposable paper and plastic cartons in the 1960s and ’70s as consumers’ habits switched from home delivery to convenient bulk buying at supermarkets, Kaldor said.
“It was a lifestyle change. There were fewer people waiting at home for the milkman to deliver and collect the bottles because they’re at work,” she said.
Glass containers are also more difficult to handle than paper and plastic. They are heavy, easily shattered and must be collected and sanitized before they are reused, while paper or plastic cartons are light and easily recycled.
These factors have reduced glass-bottled milk to a specialty item, usually found only at organic food stores and high-end supermarkets, where customers are willing to pay the hefty $1 deposit per bottle, Kaldor said.
At Broguiere’s drive-through counter, milk in plastic jugs outsells glass 2-to-1. A half-gallon in plastic sells for $1.80 while a half-gallon in glass sells for $1.59, with a $1.50 deposit on the bottle.
“(Glass) is pretty much a niche thing geared towards the upper-end market,” Broguiere said. “Most people like a one-way container like plastic or paper. There’s less to deal with.”
Kaldor attributes the choice of glass to “personal preference” and characterizes the chance of packaging changing the flavor of milk as very small, usually less than 1 percent with plastic.
But those who prefer milk from a glass bottle believer there is more to it.
“Just go to a supermarket and open up a carton of milk. It just smells sour,” Moynahan said. “This stuff tastes a lot better.”
Then there are the bottle collectors: Behind the dairy’s red cow logo, Broguiere occasionally prints special designs, from a bald eagle commemorating Operation Desert Storm to encouragements to buy U.S. savings bonds.
“On eBay, I saw them ranging from $4.49 to $9.99,” he said. “I’ve heard the (Desert Storm) bottle going for 20 bucks back East.”