"It's the best milk I've ever had," says Bernice Magill, a Wheat Ridge resident who's enjoyed Karl's whole Grade-A milk delivered to her door since 1948. She credits it with helping her raise two healthy, now-adult sons. "Sometimes I run out and have to get milk from the store," she admits. "It's awful."
Karl's Dairy is taking steps to make sure that no customer ever runs out again. The family-owned dairy is marking its 65th year (an astounding record in this day of food conglomerations) by expanding the retail operations on the original farm, at 12015 Irma Drive (at 120th Avenue) in Northglenn. The new store (complete with a sign, something the dairy didn't have until last year) is looking to compete with the Krispy Kreme and Sonic outlets just up 120th, chains that sell reconstituted nostalgia while Karl's serves up the real thing.
But making it easier to score the state's best milk isn't Karl's only goal. "The younger generation, they don't see the family farms anymore," says Scott Durland, who grew up at the dairy, working alongside his father, Ed. "How many kids in these suburbs have ever seen a cow get milked, or the open space out in those fields? I want my family to be able to come and see the way we lived when we were young, to see our heritage."
So in addition to stocking dairy products, Karl's store also houses a handful of vintage cars and milk carriages that have been a part of the dairy's history. There's also a nod to the 21st century: Clara, an automated talking cow, who, at the push of a few buttons, wags her tail, squirts out a dose of fake milk and explains how real cows make milk.
Although this new-tech bovine might wow younger milk drinkers, it can't match the ageless appeal of the dairy's signature product, which creates authentic word-of-mouth buzz. "Fresh milk just tastes better," says Ed Durland, who has worked the farm since the '60s and whose parents bought the then-ten-year-old dairy in 1947 from its original owner, Karl Obludo. "You get ours on your table less than 24 hours from the time it leaves the cow." (According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, store-bought milk reaches the table an average of three days after milking.) Adding to the milk's appeal is the fact that it's sold in old-fashioned glass bottles that keep the milk colder and fresher for longer periods. "Milk's a lot like beer," Ed notes. "The colder the better."
Karl's cows are on a thirteen-month milking cycle that starts with artificial insemination (to get the cows pregnant and start producing milk) and ends about six months after the cows bear calves. Cows get two months off before starting the cycle again; after about five years, the animals are usually sent to a local packing house to play another role in the food chain: hamburger. "Basically, we try to keep the cows pregnant the whole time they're here," Ed explains. "If you treat a cow properly and make them content, they give more milk."
Treating Karl's 200 Holstein cows properly involves feeding each one twenty pounds of alfalfa, fifteen pounds of chopped corn, twelve pounds of corn silage, seven pounds of cottonseed and a pound of vitamins daily, washed back with fifty to sixty gallons of water. (Karl's cows do not receive injections of BST, a hormone used by large dairies to boost milk production.) The end result is just four to six gallons of milk a day per cow. "They're not very efficient," Scott Durland admits.
Efficient or not, these four-legged factories are the stars at Karl's. Self-guided tours of the dairy house are a longtime hit with visiting school groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and curious milk drinkers. Twice a day the cows move in, sixteen at a time, to stand side by side in milking stalls, where attendants give each cow's teat a wash and a rub before attaching it to an automatic milker. Five minutes later and gallons lighter, the cows are shooed out as another shift moseys in.
The milk is flash-chilled, pumped into an adjoining room and lightly pasteurized at 172 degrees for seventeen seconds before it's homogenized (to keep the milk fats in suspension), then bottled. Bottles of whole, 1%, 2% and skim milk are sent to the retail store out front, as well as to a second Karl's retail location, at 6990 Pecos, and a small number of mom-and-pop stores around the metro area (including Connie's Corner Market, 1399 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton, and Heinie's Market, at 11801 West 44th Avenue in Wheat Ridge).
The rest of the bottled milk -- about half of the output -- is placed in cooled bins alongside the bottling house, where Karl's ten drivers pick up their supplies for more than 3,500 home-delivery clients. Many of those clients are second- and third-generation customers.
Separated fat from Karl's reduced-fat milk is sold to a butter maker in Wyoming, while much of the company's lushly decadent cream goes to local pastry makers. Karl's is one of only two producer/vendors in the Denver area (the other is in Longmont) who sell milk from cows they raise and manage. While the state's other milk processors blend milk from different dairies, Karl's is a sole-source wonder, the dairy world's equivalent of single-malt Scotch.
Like a good single-malt, Karl's milk delivers elevated flavors not found in its blended counterparts. Compared to a mass-market milk like Lucerne, Karl's whole milk boasts a silkier, buttery texture that slides blissfully across the palate. While store-bought milk delivers a hint of sourness in the nose and palate, Karl's caresses the senses with notes of vanilla, sweetness and fresh-squeezed flavor. Cranking up the cholesterol never tasted so good. And even Karl's reduced-fat milks feature similar -- though less emphatic -- advantages over their supermarket counterparts.
Karl's cows aren't the dairy's only asset, however: The farm stands on what is now prime real estate. "We get offers from developers all the time," says Ed's daughter, Daneen Rucki, who has returned to an active role in the operation. But the extended Durland family is keen on staying there, even as housing developments rise on all sides.
"They're a cornerstone of our community," says Joyce Downing, a Northglenn councilwoman and a member of that city's Historic Preservation Commission. "It's a gathering place; it has that community, small-town feel. We're thrilled to have them in Northglenn." So thrilled, in fact, that Northglenn has considered granting the farm a historic designation in order to ensure that it stays intact as a dairy, or at least open space.
"This is important, in some very emotional way, to me and this family," Rucki says. "When you learn all of life's lessons -- sex and death -- right here on the farm, it becomes real important."
Sex? "Reproduction, I should say," she explains. "My son was asking me how babies are made, and I thought, 'This would be so much easier to explain if I just brought him out to the farm more often.'
"We have a lot of young kids in the family again," she adds, "and all of us who grew up here want to preserve it for our children. And for other kids."
Although Bernice Magill has never been to the dairy itself, she's benefited from its family-friendly attitude. After her husband returned from WWII and couldn't find a job, she was unable to pay Karl's bill. "They told me, 'Lady, don't worry about it. You will get milk, and when you can pay the bill, pay the bill. I'm not going to deny your children any milk.' Can you imagine that?" she asks. "It always stuck in my mind that those people could be so trusting."
"We've tried other milk, but it just doesn't compare to Karl's," says Dave Kenfield, another satisfied customer who's had milk delivered for nearly thirty years. "When I feed store milk to my grandkids, they stick their fingers in their mouth, as if they're gagging."