Our collective yogurt palate has shifted. Within the past decade or two, America has witnessed a (welcome) yogurt renaissance of sorts. It all started with the Greek yogurt boom of the early 2000s, which helped American shoppers get used to a thicker style of yogurt. But it wasn’t long before another kind of yogurt came onto the scene, stealing dairy-lovers’ hearts: Icelandic skyr.
Made with four times the milk, skyr packs a higher protein punch than regular yogurt and is supremely thick and creamy, all while containing a fraction of the sugar. In the yogurt world, skyr is like a decadent palate cleanser — if such a thing exists. And we have have Siggi Hilmarsson, the Icelandic founder of siggi’s, to thank for all that.
We got a chance to chat with Siggi to learn more about how siggi’s made its way into mainstream grocery stores, his biggest business lesson, and the secret to making skyr at home (hint: it involves a bathrobe)!
First of all, how does one make skyr?
It’s not that complicated to make! Basically you just start off with the milk, which you heat up to break down the proteins. You heat it to a temperature that is hospitable to the cultures, which are finicky beasts. Cultures work best at a certain temperature, so the most important thing is controlling it. You heat the milk up somewhere in the range of 110 to 120°F, then you put cultures in (a spoonful of existing yogurt) and try to maintain that temperature as long as possible so the cultures can do their magic. The trick is to keep it that temperature for anywhere between six and 12 hours.
Does this all take place on the stove or the oven or in a special yogurt maker?
That’s the thing. Most people don’t have ovens that keep the temp that low. So I would just heat it up to the right temperature on the stove and then take the pot and wrap it in towels, and bathrobes, and sweaters — anything I could find that would insulate the temperature. It’s kind of a funny contraption! Then the day after, when I woke up,I would have regular yogurt. That’s just the first step to making skyr.
So what do you do then? How is it different than yogurt?
Then you take the yogurt you just made and strain it with a cheesecloth. I hang it up and keep a bowl under it to catch the water that drips out. While that happens, I would go to the office and come back at night and the yogurt in the cheesecloth would shrink into a thick and creamy skyr. To make 1 cup of skyr you need 4 times the milk that you would need if you were making normal yogurt.
Was this something you grew up making in your family’s kitchen?
We didn’t make it at home because you could buy it in the store! My great grandma used to make it at home, but it had sort of died out as a sort of homemade thing when I was growing up.
After I moved to the U.S. to go to graduate school, I started to make a lot of observations about the foods I was eating and buying and noticed that a lot of food that I was used to not having a lot of sugar there, had a lot of sugar here. I also became concerned about the length of ingredient lists.I know that desserts, cake, and candy usually have a lot of sugar— not things like bread and yogurt!I really missed the thick, strained skyr that I used to eat at home in Iceland and started to make it in my kitchen. That was a huge “aha” for me.
What was your day job when you first started thinking about doing the yogurt thing full-time?
I was a management consultant and was quite awful at it! I was looking for meaning in my life and I didn’t really know what to do. Making yogurt was sort of a hobby in my own kitchen. One of my business professors, who had been to Iceland, liked the idea of me starting a yogurt company. He told me that if I quit my day job, he would be my mentor and first investor. That was one of the first indications that I could really do this. He encouraged me to make the jump.
Okay, so you have the recipe down, you’ve secured a mentor and investor… what’s next?
The second encouragement came from the store Murray’s Cheese. I had a friend who worked there and gave her some yogurt. They told me, ‘hey, if you start making this on a regular basis, we will stock it.’ That was the second indication that I had something that was commercially interesting.
Were you full speed ahead from there?
Without my professor’s encouragement or Murray’s as a customer, I would have never made the jump. Those were so important. But there was also a third thing which was more personal. I had a Scandinavian mentality and wasn’t fully Americanized like I probably am now. The attitude there is that people are more worried about failure than Americans. But I woke up one day and realized that this is such an awesome product. I felt really proud of it and knew I wouldn’t feel awkward if it failed. It was something worth representing even if it never took off. That was the personal validation that I needed.
Biggest curveball you faced?
In 2007 I got approached by Whole Foods. At that point in time, I was selling at 15 stores and small markets. Whole Foods wanted to take it nationwide and we decided to start with the entire East Coast. I didn’t realize how big of a deal that was. The plant we were working out of was very small and couldn’t handle the volume. We had to shut down and rebuild the whole plant to be able to supply to the market.
Well that seems like a good problem to have in theory…
Good and bad! It was a nerve-wracking six months because we were basically off the shelves while we worked to rebuild the plant.
Supply and demand!
We were lucky that Whole Foods was so great to work with during that outage. They were so supportive while we, as a small producer, got back on track.
Advice you’d go back and give yourself?
My advice is to sort of assume you’ll be successful. It sounds a bit like a phrase that people throw out but it’s actually meaningful. If I had assumed I would be successful, I would have planned to be ready for the volume you needed. You can’t have it both ways, wanting to be successful and then not planning for it infrastructure-wise. But you can’t have this hubris to build this huge facility and then have demand fall 10 percent of where you thought it would be. It’s a little bit of a gamble but it’s all in the planning.
What’s the next move for siggi’s?
We are in 10 countries now! We have started launching the product internationally. My primary goal, now that I’m less involved in the day-to-day, is to keep the quality the same. That’s what made us successful in the early days: we offered a totally different yogurt that was super high-quality with much less sugar, much thicker. I want to make sure we continue to grow but never lose sight of what got us there. We can’t take that for granted.
After that, then you start layering new product innovation. We just launched a new lactose-free yogurt and another super-popular product called Simple Sides. They have a little side cart with granola on the side — ithas basic stuff like almonds, dried cherries, nuts, no added sugar.
The other thing we are really proud of is that we launched no-sugar-added yogurt. It has fruit flavors but all the sweetness and sugar in it comes from milk and the fruit. It has even less sugar than our regular yogurt.
Do you have a fantasy siggi’s flavor?
We had a really delicious grapefruit flavor back in the day. It was absolutely amazing if you like grapefruit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most popular in the world. It didn’t do really well so we had to discontinue it but I truly, truly, truly miss that flavor and would love to bring it back.
What kinds of flavors would never work?
We have experimented a bit with more savory flavors and we see that people are interested in trying them but they haven’t seemed to pick up on savory yogurt flavors as a permanent trend. The only thing we’ve done that has sort of worked that way is an orange/ginger flavor but that’s a unique instance.
Do you actually eat siggi’s every day?
I mostly eat skyr for breakfast. I usually have plain 4%. My ideal scenario is to have it with walnuts and blueberries. It depends a little bit. If I know I’m going to be eating a lot at the office, sampling new product and stuff, I may have something else for breakfast to make sure I’m not totally yogurt-ed out!
Then I also have skyr for dessert. I eat lemon-flavored triple cream which is 9%. I put pine nuts in it and it feels like an Italian dessert.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Siggi!Follow siggi’s on Instagram and check outall their products here.
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