Nogged Out Loaded: A trip around the Triangle with eggnog

The sun has finally risen through a small rectangular window inside Maple View Farm’s milk-processing room, and Luis Velasquez already needs a drink.

For the last 20 minutes, Velasquez has methodically unpacked new glass bottles from heavy cardboard boxes and routed them, one row at a time, through a hulking, customized dishwasher that looks a little like an industrial trash compactor. Between boxes, he steps through a doorway, lifts a little plastic cup from a short desk and reaches for a near-full quart bottle, spinning steadily on a carousel-like bottling machine. He nabs the glass just before a bright yellow cap seals it.

Velasquez pours an ounce or so into the cup, wedges the bottle into place alongside those already in the queue and returns to his post a few feet away. He lifts the cup to his lips, takes a sip, sits it down and then smiles to no one in particular.

It’s a Thursday outside of Hillsborough in early Decemberthat is, eggnog-making day on Maple View Farm. Velasquez approves of the morning’s yield.

Since 1996, eggnog has been a staple of Maple View Farm’s annual output, becoming an area holiday tradition as trustworthy as the Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn or Ira David Wood III’s yearly turn in A Christmas Carol. In 2015, if the temperatures finally dip, Maple View may sell more than 7,000 gallons of eggnog, up by nearly 1,000 gallons from last year.

But it’s not just a seasonal tiding for Roger Nutter, a sixth-generation dairy farmer who lives a few hundred yards up Dairyland Road (where else?) on the 400-plus-acre farm his family acquired in 1963. In the two decades since Maple View started bottling its own milk, the farm has become an anomaly, as almost all of its neighbors have shut down and sold cattle and resources off to dairy conglomerates. Like the ice cream Maple View sells during the summer, eggnog is not only a revenue source but an essential bit of brand identity, a late-year reminder of the milk, butter and cream that Nutter and a team of 12 employees produce before dawn every day.

“A lot of these big companies have stopped picking up milk from small farms like ours,” says the 54-year-old Nutter, who resembles a broad-shouldered version of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and speaks in a quiet manner that suggests this problem matters too much to broadcast loudly.

“Our goal,” he continues, “is to be able to sustain the farm and the family and the animals.”

At 6:07 a.m., Nutter looks on calmly as his team prepares the day's output. It's still dark outside, but the processing room is incredibly bright, the overhead beams bouncing off the water-covered concrete floor and pale yellow walls so faded that they, too, have started to resemble eggnog. The air is thick and warm and spiced with cinnamon and sugar and nutmeglike an eggnog sauna, really, but more comforting and embryonic than nauseating.

Shep Stearns hovers over a large, square stainless steel mixer, pushing the contents back and forth with a spatula the size of an oar. Nearby, Leonard Bergey has already started disassembling the plant's separator, a Dalek-like device that opens to reveal an array of nested metal discs. These work together to pull cream from whole milk. To make eggnog, Maple View actually adds cream to its whole milk, but the separator still cleans the milk one last time before it empties into the mixer that Stearns tends.

For the last 40 minutes, Bergey, who relocated nine years ago from a defunct family dairy farm in Virginia to take this job, has been routing the eggnog into a labyrinth of overhead pipes that lead to a pasteurizing machine. There, heated elements hold the eggnog above 183 degreesor 15 degrees beyond the government-mandated requirement for milkfor 15 seconds before cooling it and pushing it through another series of pipes into a towering storage tank.

From its short-term holding cell, the new eggnog passes into the lines of a compact and wondrous bottling station, led today by Nutter's partner of 12 years, Ann Israel. Clad in a Christmas sweatshirt emblazoned with two teddy bears holding candy canes and smiling, Israel moves like a machine herself behind the line. She inspects most every bottle, rarely dropping the near-constant conversation she keeps with Nutter and a rotation of employees.

"Have you tried it yet?" she yells to me over the industrial din, looking up briefly. "Reach in any time."

Maple View is a family farm with an assembly line, a facility that uses modern production techniques to preserve an antiquated agricultural model. Likewise, the eggnog's ingredients encapsulate the modern tension of a place like Maple View at a moment when more consumers are interested in the organic, sustainable and handmade, but most consumers still want the affordable.

Every eight hours, beginning at 4 each morning, workers milk about 170 of Maple View's 450 cattle. The milk that becomes Thursday's eggnog was gathered on Wednesday, for instance, and pumped underground from a nearby storage tank and into the processing room. No, the milk is not organic, but for it to be any fresher, you'd need two hands and a little steel pail. The five-gallon buckets of cream that Bergey dumps into the mixer are strained from the reduced-fat milk they make every day of the week except Thursday.

But the rest, Nutter admits, is largely outside of Maple View's purview. To wit, for this 345-gallon batch, Stearns cuts five 50-pound bags of white Dixie Crystals sugar and dumps them, one by one, into an electric funnel; a dozen years ago, Nutter says, ceding to grocer demands, Maple View stopped using high-fructose corn syrup.

Meanwhile, Bergey splits open two white bags of "Egg Nog Base" at their seams. Containing a tallow-colored mix of powdered-and-pasteurized egg yolks, whey, spices, sugars and thickeners, these sacks come from Dairy Ingredients, a Michigan-based company that ships such mixes to at least two continents. Asked about the eggs' origin, the presidenta quick-talking and guarded man named Greg Nielsenwill only say that the sources are indeed governed by the USDA.

"If we were doing small batches of eggnog, we'd probably supply our own eggs," Nutter says with a furtive smile. "But as much as we'd like to do that now, that would be a lot of eggs to crack, I guess."

Nielsen is dismissive, too, about his company's "Natural Egg Nog Flavor," a viscous brown syrup that Bergey pours directly from plastic gallon jugs into the mixer. Distributed by Dairy Ingredients but developed by a partner whose name Nielsen will not disclose, the concoction consists of water, ethyl alcohol and the presumably broad category of "natural flavors." Smelling it from the bottle's mouth stings the nostrils, as if you'd snorted eggnog spices rather than swallowed them. I ask Nutter if he's ever tried it by itself, and he allows his first real chuckle of the very early morning.

"No, no, not at all," he says, smiling and wincing at once. I nod.

But I temporarily forget all this when, at last, I follow Velasquez' lead, take Israel's advice and fill my own little plastic cup with the morning's new eggnog. It is thick and smooth, and the warmth of the spices feels like a blanket above the sharp cold of the fresh milk.

Finished, I stare down into my cup and, like Velasquez, smile to no one in particular. It's a Thursday outside of Hillsborough in early Decembereggnog-making day on Maple View Farm.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Dairy Christmas"