Acarrot isn’t just a carrot. Lamb isn’t always lamb. Wine doesn’t have to get you tipsy. And the milk in your morning latte could be poured like beer. In some ways, food is so fundamental that it doesn’t change much. It’s built on an elemental, eternal equation: we put kilojoules into our mouths and our bodies convert them into energy to fuel our lives. In other ways, food is humanity’s most dynamic playing field. The way it’s grown, bought and sold, transformed by manufacturers and eaten in restaurants and homes is always shifting, pushed by health trends, yanked by the profit motive, driven by ethical issues and – now, urgently – by sustainability concerns.
The following four innovators work across different fields but they’re united by the notion of getting great food to more people in a range of different ways.
Ed Crick and The Udder Way
Three years ago, Ed Crick was running a trio of cafes in Launceston and feeling bad about milk bottles. “Every year, we were using almost 30,000 plastic, two-litre milk bottles,” he says. “I thought it was pretty stupid. It was the only product not delivered in bulk.” He searched the world for solutions, came up empty and so decided to create a fix himself. “I’m a builder by trade,” he says. “There was some practical knowledge from that, but it was mostly determination to fix a problem.”
In 2021 he launched The Udder Way returnable and reusable kegs that hold 18 litres of milk, the same amount as a traditional milk crate holds in nine two-litre bottles. The kegs have the same footprint as crates, too. “They fit into existing infrastructure: a cafe’s fridge and ordering system, a dairy’s conveyor belt,” says Crick. A dispenser connects to the kegged milk and baristas access it through a tap, like bartenders pouring a beer. The cost for a cafe is $1450 for the initial set-up, with the cost of milk equivalent to that sold by the bottle.
“We started with 10 cafes in Tassie and went from there,” says Crick. They are now nearing 500 cafe and retail units across Australia and New Zealand. “The
average cafe eliminates between 7000 and 10,000 milk bottles a year using our system,” he says. “Overall, we’re saving about 1.6 million milk bottles a year and that should triple by the end of 2023.” Grocers are also able to install a keg system for customers to come in with their own refillable milk bottles.
The kegs are traceable. “Every tradie has a milk crate in the back of the ute,” says Crick.
To avoid the same thing happening with his kegs, the team developed a tracking app. “Kegs are scanned in and out of venues,” he says. It’s not just about preventing theft. “We keep track of how many times they’ve been washed and used.”
Testing suggests the lifespan of a keg is at least 800 washes or eight years.
Tom Pye is co-owner of Good Ways, a Sydney sandwich shop and deli. They’ve installed The Udder Way in their Alexandria outlet and plan to do the same in their Redfern shop. “Any way we can make even a small impact, we like to do,” he says. “The system works, it’s pretty cheap to set up, it’s a simple, functional design: there’s nothing to go wrong.”
Part of the feel-good factor is that recycling felt so bad. “The trust in people actually recycling something is pretty low,” says Pye. “We pay for our cardboard recycling but so often we see the guys just chuck it in the garbage truck. This is transparent. There’s no way these are going in the bin.”
It’s rewarding work for Crick. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “I feel lucky to have a business that also does good. Everybody is thinking about sustainability. The key thing is to make somebody’s life easier and it doesn’t cost more. Why wouldn’t you do it?”
Paul Bevan and Magic Valley
Paul Bevan is devoted to growing lamb, pork and beef in a Melbourne laboratory but he has absolutely no desire to sizzle up snags or burgers for himself. “I’m not making it for me,” he says. Bevan has been vegan for 10 years and vegetarian for 20 years before that. “I don’t miss meat personally,” he says. “We’re making a product for meat eaters who love the taste of meat.”
A vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, Bevan says his ultimate win would be removing animals from food supply chains entirely. “I’m a pragmatist,” he says. “I looked at activism and politics [Bevan ran as an Animal Justice Party Senate candidate in 2016] but I decided technology was the pathway to having the biggest impact.
“As much as we hear more about veganism, it’s still sitting at about 2 per cent of the Australian population. Producing a better vegie burger isn’t going to solve the problem.”
The way Bevan sees it, if lab-grown meat has the same texture, flavour and nutritional profile as animal-derived meat and if it costs no more, creates fewer carbon and methane emissions and involves no animal slaughter, why wouldn’t it then become an obvious choice for meat eaters?
“Meat eaters want meat, but ideally they’d like a more sustainable and ethical product,” says Bevan. That’s what his Magic Valley start-up is betting on.
Cultivating meat involves replicating animal cells outside an animal, thereby creating a product that’s biologically identical to traditional slaughtered meat. Bevan and a team of seven scientists start with skin scrapings from live animals – “our lamb is Lucy, who is back with her flock”.
They then direct the skin cells to become muscle, fat and connective tissue using the same technology employed in regenerative medicine. The cells are prompted to replicate in a concoction rich in amino acids and glucose, then combined into a meat product.
So far, a few months after the first batch was pulled from bioreactors, the meat is “unstructured”, the science word for “sloppy”.
“The cell biology part isn’t that complicated,” says Bevan. “The hard bit is scaling it and creating the texture, structure and mouthfeel of a steak. We are producing grams at the moment. We want to produce millions of kilos.”
He’s confident that steaks – lots of them – are in Magic Valley’s future and that their technology and the mix of animals they’re cultivating will give them an edge in an industry that has about 100 companies worldwide working towards a kill-free future (there were only four in 2016).
Another Australian player is Sydney-based Vow, which is growing meat from animal cells but isn’t necessarily aiming to replicate the experience of eating any particular animal. Co-founder George Peppou tweeted the “world’s first cultivated democracy sausage” as he voted in the recent NSW election.
Both Vow and Magic Valley spruik the nutritional advantages of cultivated meat. “We can add Omega-3s and remove saturated fat,” says Bevan, who believes Magic Valley has an ethical edge, too. “A lot of companies use fetal blood serum,” he says. “Aside from the cell scraping, we are animal-component-free. To me, that’s key.”
Lou Zarro runs the food incubator at the Melbourne Innovation Centre and is one of the few people to have tasted the closely guarded Magic Valley lamb. “The science behind it is remarkable but the product is strangely unremarkable,” he says. “It tastes normal, it just tastes like meat.”
Paul Bevan has a finance background and worked for eight years at the big banks before leaving to launch two start-ups, one was a martial arts centre, while the other was in finance brokering. “Both businesses were great but they didn’t align with my passion and what I value in life,” he says. “Now I’m definitely living in accordance with my values and working towards a mission that’s very important to me.”
Cate Looney and Brown Brothers
Cate Looney has been crafting wine for 23 years but she’s astonished by her latest project. “I could never have imagined I’d be making zero-alcohol wines,” says the senior winemaker at Brown Brothers. But here she is in the lab, adding droplets of grape juice concentrate and extracted grape tannins to a beaker of de-alcoholised wine in an ongoing experiment to create a red wine that’s booze-free but delicious.
Brown Brothers has already released non-alcoholic prosecco and moscato: zero-proof white wine is easier to make palatable. The tannins and heavier body of red wine mean it’s a much tougher proposition. “Alcohol adds so much weight,” says Looney. “You remove it and your acid sticks out and you get a thin, lean palate. The easy thing to do is add sugar and you’ll get your mouthfeel back, but if you’re trying to make something that’s not just a big, sweet drink you need to find other techniques.”
Brown Brothers doesn’t remove the alcohol itself. It sends wine off-site to a South Australian facility that uses a spinning cone column technique that physically strips the alcohol from the liquid in a low-temperature distillation process. The wine is returned to Victoria for fine-tuning. “We haven’t nailed a red wine yet,” says winemaker Katherine Brown, whose great-grandfather planted the first vines in Victoria’s King Valley in 1885. “But Cate comes from a food tech background: she’s been able to understand the flavours and mouthfeel and work with those qualities to rebuild the profile. We’re getting there.”
Brown didn’t anticipate the family business would move into non-alcoholic beverages, but she completely understands the shift in drinking behaviours. “I love a glass of alcohol but I am also happy to enjoy a zero prosecco, be part of an occasion with the cheers-ing, then drive home and chase the kids and do all those things life throws at you,” she says. The family legacy encourages response to consumer demand. “One of the things my grandfather passed down is that we listen to our customers,” says Brown. “The amount of people who say to us, ‘I love wine but I want to cut back on my drinking’ is striking. Maybe alcohol will become more of a special-occasion thing and ‘no’ and ‘low’ products will be about everyday enjoyment. If you’re a wine producer and not getting involved in this category you might be getting left behind.”
A recent study by Endeavour Group, which runs mainstream bottle shops and pubs, noted that zero-alcohol drink sales grew 150 per cent in the past two years and on-premises demand increased 130 per cent in the past year across more than 340 venues.
“Ignore it at your peril,” says Dan Sims, who runs wine events under his Revel brand and recently hosted his first zero-alcohol drinks festival. “This is not a fad. It’s not going away.”
Sims also sees red wine as the final frontier. “The tannins in red wine add complexity,” he says. “It’s a particular challenge. The drinking experience can end up being really hollow.”
Cate Looney is up for the challenge. “We’re trying to get that last 1 or 2 per cent to get the wine to sing a bit better,” she says. “There’s a lot of trial and error, but it’s really interesting.”
Kim Driver and Natoora
Natoora is built on a radically simple notion: food that tastes better is grown better, in ways that support soil vitality and therefore the health of the planet. If we prioritise deliciousness when growing, purchasing and eating, we’re part of the way to solving the climate crisis.
It sounds like a trick – eat tasty, do good – but Kim Driver, the Australian partner of global supply chain disruptor Natoora, can already see it working.
One autumn Thursday, Driver stands in his large cool room in Melbourne’s Collingwood, minutes from the city and the leading restaurants of the inner north. It’s chilly but the drifting fragrance of thyme and basil are like a promise of sunshine. Giulia Zamuner, Natoora’s head of customer service, lifts a bunch of purple muscat grapes from a crate and cradles them gently. She smells them, picks a grape from the stalk and puts it in her mouth. “I
always make sure of what I’m sending,” she says. “They are all babies to me.”
Natoora was founded in London in 2005 and now has outposts in New York, Paris and Copenhagen. The Melbourne offshoot came about when Driver, a second-generation fruiterer, hit productivity barriers, started scouting for fixes and thought Natoora was the only company anywhere in the world that was using technology to support small farmers working regeneratively, growing for the pure joy of great flavour. Natoora mostly supplies restaurants but, as it expands, home cooks will become part of its ecosystem, too.
“There are three things Natoora does which I think are unique,” says Driver. “The first one is its own app. The next is our supply chain. The third is education.”
These elements are interlinked, fostering one another. The app allows available produce to be entered, along with information about the farmer and their growing practices. Chefs order from the app, powered by information about the season and potential uses of ingredients. “It’s fully customisable,” says Driver. “So if a chef wants extra-ripe tomatoes or radishes with long leaves, they’re allowed to choose that.”
Pickers and packers work overnight and through the morning in the warehouse, servicing top restaurants with twice-daily deliveries. As stock is boxed, it’s automatically removed from the inventory. “I used to have to do a stocktake at the end of every single day,” says Driver. “It took me two hours.”
The time he’s saving is used to build relationships with farmers, sourcing good produce. Natoora sends its own vans to these farms, reducing food miles and hours lost when individual farmers truck produce to the city. “All our growers are flavour-focused, so the shelf life can be shorter and the product a lot more delicate,” says Driver. “With this system, farmers pick in the morning and we collect in the afternoon. The ingredients are with the chefs that day or the next.”
Educating chefs is a huge part of the picture, helped along via a weekly newsletter that highlights produce that’s early season, peaking or on the way out. “It gives chefs more connection to what’s happening on the land,” says Driver. “They learn the difference between a supermarket plum and one from a small organic grower.
“Food that’s more flavourful is grown under better conditions using practices that are better for the environment. Chefs are very conscious about what they’re buying, where they’re buying it from and whether it’s sustainable.”
Chef Charley Snadden-Wilson orders from Natoora for Clover wine bar in Melbourne’s Richmond. “They bridge that gap between us and the farmers we can get inspired by,” he says. “They have the same ethos and values and desire for a good product that we do. We can take comfort in that.”
He recently asked Natoora to find him some unripe plums. “I’ve wanted them for years; they have an amazing acidity.”
That’s a big win for Driver. “Everything we do is built to make the chef’s life as easy as possible, to ensure they’re getting the right product at the right time. This way they can concentrate on being creative. Flavour is the backbone of everything.”
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