Q&A with Siggi Hilmarsson

Interview by Matt Kelly

For a story about yogurt in Edible Finger Lakes’ Dairy Issue, I had the opportunity to talk with Siggi Hilmarsson, the founder and CEO of siggi’s dairy. He had a lot of great things to say about skyr and yogurt, but only a portion made it into the actual story. Here’s the complete interview:

How do you explain the difference between skyr and yogurt?

Skyr is a type of yogurt that has been made in Iceland for over 1,000 years. The main difference is that skyr is strained. A strained yogurt begins with making some type of regular yogurt and then straining out the water (the whey) to make it thick and creamy. The Greek yogurt that is very well known in the United States is a strained yogurt like skyr. But there are also textural and other differences between strained yogurts. For example, Icelandic skyr is usually a bit thicker than Greek and therefore has a bit higher protein content.

What is “good” skyr? What is “good” yogurt?

I think any good fresh dairy product–whether it be skyr, regular yogurt or filmjölk–has to start with great milk. If you start with great milk and then culture it right, you will end up with a good product. After that some level of preference comes in.

Some people like their products more tart or less tart, which then determines how long you incubate and what type of cultures you use. Also texture is important. I like a bit of “curdy” texture, which dictates a bit how we incubate and subsequently stir our yogurt during the process. I dislike the use of starches as thickeners of the actual yogurt.

If you are looking at flavored yogurt, then I think a good yogurt is about balancing the flavor of the fruit or the spice with that of the natural flavor of the yogurt. You want to know that you are eating yogurt while at the same time feel and savor the essence of the fruit. It also goes without saying that great flavored yogurt should be very lightly sweetened and include no artificial sweeteners or flavorings.

How important is the use of local milk?

For us it is very important. I made my first batch of yogurt in my New York City apartment, worked on test batches at Morrisville State College, and began selling in downtown Manhattan. Our first manufacturing facility was in Chenango County. So our story is very much tied to New York State and we are very proud of it. I still live in New York. Currently the majority of our milk and manufacturing takes place in the Finger Lakes and we plan on keeping it that way as we grow.

How has customer interest changed since you started making and selling skyr?

The interest has definitely increased. When I started selling our skyr at an outdoor green market in downtown Manhattan in 2006, not a lot of people knew what thick or strained yogurt was, let alone what Icelandic style skyr yogurt was. With the growth of yogurt in general–and Greek yogurt in particular–consumers are much more into new types of yogurt and are seeking us out.

There is also a general trend towards eating less sugar. We had good interest in our product from the start since it was not very sweet. In some cases, our skyr had less than half the sugar of mainstream yogurts on the market. Even though the interest was strong there were also some consumers who weren’t used to the taste of yogurt that didn’t have over 20g of sugar in it. In the last two to three years, however, there has been a total breakthrough in the public understanding of the importance of reducing sugar in the diet; how sugar consumption is connected to obesity and the diseases related to obesity. This awareness has resulted in an unbelievable surge in the demand and interest for our product.

What are current customer preferences like regarding yogurt? Sweet vs. savory? Stand-alone snack vs. ingredient?

I would love to do more savory products. However I still think consumer preferences in general are more for fruit-type flavors, and we see that with our products too. Although I do think preferences are changing: we see consumers being very willing to try the more savory options. Our orange and ginger yogurt–although not hardcore savory–has been one of our bestsellers from the beginning.

I think both historically and for us, yogurt was first and foremost a stand-alone snack. But that has also changed dramatically in the past few years: people are using it as an ingredient to cook with in increasingly creative ways. We see at least one new smoothie recipe a day from our consumers via social media or email, each one smarter than anything I could come up with.

Do customer preferences vary based on the different regions you sell in? Is there a particular “NY yogurt eater” profile?

They do vary and it is interesting to try to figure out why. New York has some clear trends: our coconut, orange and ginger, and plain do much better in New York than elsewhere. In the South, peach does better.

Is there a “busy season” for yogurt?

The busiest season is definitely the New Year when people want to refocus on their healthy eating habits after holiday indulgences. Back to school is also pretty big.

What’s your favorite way to eat skyr?

I go through phases and moods where some concoction or the other is my favorite. But I truly always come back to one: plain skyr with fresh blueberries and walnuts, and maybe a splash of heavy cream if it has been a long day.

Matt Kelly is a writer and photographer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He works with Fruition Seeds in Naples, Lakestone Family Farm in Farmington, and Italy Hill Produce in Branchport. Matt writes regularly at BoonieAdjacent.

This interview was originally posted here.

To learn more about siggi’s, including our Behind the Bottle story on siggi’s filmjölk, read our dairy-focused Fall 2015 Issue in our archives.

Photo courtesy of siggi’s dairy

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