How drinkable yogurt crossed continent and cultures to bring the Middle East into middle America

This dairy disruptor is so 2013.
This dairy disruptor is so 2013.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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The love affair Americans are having with yogurt is so passionate it’s dominating the dairy section of the grocery store. And as more food companies and grocery stores cater to the refining tastebuds of American consumers, a wider variety of yogurt and yogurt-like products are taking over the shelves.

In particular, food purveyors are banking on drinkable yogurt, thanks in part to the quickening pace of the American daily lifestyle, which privileges on-the-go breakfasts and snacks over languorous meals around the breakfast table. The same impulses that have forced cereal companies to focus on breakfast bars and single-serving cereal cups have been a boon for yogurt makers.

Thomas Bailey, a dairy industry analyst at Rabobank, says drinkable yogurt has “caught fire” and should continue to pick up for several more years. Its growth—which is still relatively small—will partly be driven by yogurt makers piling into every imaginable flavor and style to compete for grocery shelf space.

Alongside big box brands from Yakult Honsha, Danone and Grupo Lala are upstarts like Maple Hill, Ronnybrook, and Früzinga. General Mills, which is launching a drinkable yogurt line in 2017, is hoping to target Hispanic consumers, some of whom have already glommed onto sweet yogurt beverages sold in Mexico.

“We’ll introduce several Yoplait yogurt beverages in cities with large Hispanic populations,” said General Mills CEO Jeffrey Harmening at an investor conference in July.

Drinkable yogurt, still a fraction of the US yogurt market, was its fastest growing sub-segment in 2015, according to Euromonitor analyst Jared Koerten.

But the origins of the beverage go way back. Often called ayran (paywall), drinkable yogurt is an ancient mainstay of the Middle East and India, where its traditional taste is savory and salty, unlike the fruity, sweet yogurt flavors that typically grab American consumers. Doogh, a thin, salty yogurt drink that is a staple in Iran, is often left out for days to enhance its sour taste. By contrast, in the US, “yogurt has for too long been a sugar-delivery mechanism,” Siggi Hilmarsson, founder of tart Icelandic-style yogurt brand Siggi’s, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014.

In recent years, however, a slice of American consumers has warmed to more exotic and savory ways of consuming yogurt. The meteoric rise of fuller-fat Greek yogurt (paywall) helped acclimate the American palette to a creamier, simpler taste without all the sugar (paywall). Growing interest in probiotics and gut health turned Americans onto kefir, a thick, cultured diary drink hailing from the Caucasus with a similar taste to yogurt. The tangy beverage is made from cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk and kefir grains, which are rich in bacteria and yeast.

“It brings memories back,” said Naji Boustany, chef at Manousheh, a small Turkish restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. “People can get crazy and cut cucumbers or add mint to [ayran], or just drink it just straight.”

Boustany has noticed more of his customers ordering ayran, perhaps with its well-documented health benefits in mind. For others, (including this reporter) enjoying the salty kick of varieties like Manousheh’s will take more time.

But then, there’s a need for rapprochement on both sides. ”I don’t drink sweet tea, for example,” Boustany said. “I’m not a sweet drinks guy.”