OXFORD, Pa. -- A glass bottle is the only vessel Joseph Beckenstrater ever has deemed worthy of the creamy yield from his family farm.
The half-gallon jugs catch the eye of shoppers in the gourmet and health food stores of Baltimore, where Chrome Dairy dominates the specialty milk market. And clear glass reveals something else that sets Chrome apart -- the milk is not homogenized, so the cream sits on top. You have to shake this stuff before you pour, or you'll get a rich clump in the first serving.
"I just saw milk in glass bottles, and figured, 'This has got to be good,' " said David N. Miller, 24, who buys Chrome milk at Green Earth in Mount Vernon. "I gave it a shot, and it was."
The Beckenstrater family runs a fourth-generation farm in Oxford, Pa., two miles north of the Maryland border. Disgusted with the low price farmers were get- ting for milk in 1967, Mr. Beckenstrater, now 79, started bottling his own.
Even then, most of the competition was already using plastic or paper cartons, and homogenizing the milk. Returnable, reusable glass bottles made more sense to the Penn State-educated Mr. Beckenstrater, who didn't like the taste imparted by plastic bottles.
He sold milk exclusively in a little shop in front of the dairy until 1983, when he branched out to nearby stores and gas stations. Five years ago, gourmet and health-food distributors came knocking, eager to market the Beckenstraters' old-fashioned product.
The dairy now buys milk from four other farms, all within a six-mile radius. Their 271 cows produce about 12,000 gallons a week that go from New York City to Vero Beach, Fla.
Glass bottles are rare enough, but Chrome may be the only dairy in the East still selling unhomogenized milk, said Charles Elrod of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension Service in Ithaca, N.Y.
"To me, it has the taste I remember from when I was a kid," said Stuart Fuld, 62, a clerk at Eddie's of Roland Park, which sells Chrome Dairy products. "Most of the milk today tastes like water."
"I think it's got a fuller taste than regular milk. It's a cleaner taste," said Tania Kalia-Hamm, 24, of Mount Vernon. She works in the heart disease prevention program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and buys only the skim version sold by Chrome.
Chrome's milk is not organic, but it's close enough for a lot of customers, said Michael Hennessey, a manager for Green Earth in Mount Vernon. He carries organic milk, but Chrome outsells it six to one.
Joseph Beckenstrater Jr., 40, now runs the dairy and farm his father started. Neither a gourmet nor a health-food fanatic, Mr. Beckenstrater's guiding principles are sensibility and quality, he said.
As 'natural' as possible
"We try to be as natural as we can, as feasibly as we can," he said.
The farms that supply milk to Chrome Dairy spray an herbicide on the fields before planting the corn their cows eat, he said. The herbicide wouldn't pass muster for organic certification, but other than that, the farmers don't spray the crops and never give the cows hormones.
"Three of the farmers are Mennonites. They don't like to waste any money," he said. Hormones increase milk production, but "You're going to have more troubles in the end, pushing the cow too much.
"We do use antibiotics if the cow's ready to die," he said.
In health food stores, where cow's milk gets a bad rap from macrobiotics, vegans and the lactose-intolerant, Chrome's bottles move quickly, Mr. Hennessey said.
"I've been managing health food stores for 13 years, in Washington, Northern Virginia and Baltimore. Chrome Dairy was the only milk anyone carried," Mr. Hennessey said.
In the last two years, certified organic milk has become available, but it costs more -- $3.29, compared with about $2.25 for Chrome, although customers who buy Chrome also pay a $1.15 deposit on each bottle.
The organic milk is from Wisconsin, and it's homogenized -- run through a pressurized pump -- which some customers feel is one more process their milk does not need.
"People really would like it raw," Mr. Hennessey said, but it is illegal to sell raw -- or unpasteurized -- milk. The pasteurization is a flash of bacteria-killing heat -- 164 degrees for 15 seconds.
Lamie Zeigenhorn, self-proclaimed "old hippie" and mother of four, said Chrome milk tastes as good as the raw milk she used to buy from Amish farmers 15 years ago.
"My older sons don't like the lower-fat milks, but they will drink this [skim] milk," Ms. Zeigenhorn said.
Customer goes the distance for milk
She drives 25 minutes from her home in Elkton to buy milk directly from the Chrome store in Oxford. Her youngest son, Luke, 6, watched the dairy in operation through a window, with the white-clad Mr. Beckenstrater and his workers in paper caps and hair nets.
The plant bottles milk every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, starting at 6 a.m. Distributors pick it up by 1:30 p.m. and get it to stores the next day.
The signature glass bottles always make a round trip, with the empties coming right back to the 28-year-old mechanical bottle washer, the beginning of a production line that looks like something right out of a Mickey Mouse Club educational film.
Returned glass jugs nestle into sections of a drum that dips them into a 165-degree, 3 percent lye solution and three progressively colder rinses. A row of four at a time are then thrust onto a conveyor belt, gleaming and ready for a ride on carousels and belts to be filled, capped and sealed.
Along the robotic line, workers remedy a skipped lid or replace a cracked handle.
Mr. Beckenstrater has room to do a little more business, but not much.
"I want it to stay so I can manage it," Joseph Jr. said. "We don't believe in advertising, we really don't. It gets the competition all stirred up. We sell it there at the dock [to a distributor], and that's as much as we know about it."