The History of Malted Milk Powder

1920's era Horlicks bottle
Bottle circa 1920 from Flying Tiger Antiques.
In India, it's made with buffalo milk, and it was originally patented as infant formula. Explorers brought it to the North Pole at the turn of the last century as a lightweight food, but in the US it's most commonly mixed with ice cream and served as a treat. But what is malted milk powder and how did we get it?

As a term, "malt" refers to the result of a specific process: a grain is placed in a warm environment so that it sprouts, then quickly dried. The result is a naturally sweet mash that is used as a base for beer and whiskey. Malted milk powder is that sprouted, dried grain, ground up and added to powdered milk, wheat flour, and sometimes other ingredients, like sugar - or, in the case of its original incarnation, grain that is sprouted and cooked with the milk, dried, and then ground all together. (The result is similar, though the process is different.) Even without additional sugar, malted milk is sweet enough to replace sugar in some recipes - most restaurant and hotel pancake mixes do this. If you want to try this at home, one tablespoon of sugar can be replaced by 1/8 cup of malted milk powder.

The history of malted milk starts in England. In 1869, James Horlicks qualified as a pharmacist in London. He began working on a supplement for infants and invalids. However, he encountered a problem common to artists and scientists: he lacked funding. Unable to raise the capital he needed to market his new drink in Europe, he left the UK in 1873 and joined his younger brother, William, a mechanic who had London left four years earlier in order to work with a distant relative's quarry in Racine, Wisconsin. The two brothers founded J & W Horlicks in nearby Chicago and began manufacturing their new formula.

By 1883, the brothers were back in Racine with a US patent for "granulated food for infants" that they were marketing as "Diastoid." (In 1887, they gave up that rather unappetizing name for the more enticing "malted milk," which they trademarked.) Their patent combined "the nutritive parts of the cereals with milk... and render[ed] such food free from all souring tendency irrespective of the climate... [while being] readily soluble in water." In other words, James had created a nutritious powder from barley malt, ground wheat (or oats), and milk that would not easily spoil and could be mixed with water for an instant drink.

Malted milk powder
Malted milk powder.
Malted milk gained unexpected popularity with explorers who found it ideally portable, and the drink made its way to both the North and South Poles on expeditions. James returned to England to import his American-made product back home and was eventually created a baronet, which meant that people had to call him "Sir" as though he was a knight, and William stayed in Wisconsin, becoming a patron of Antarctic exploration - and like many wealthy patrons, he managed to get something named after him. In his case, he got a mountain range, not just a building. (I'd call that a win.)

Flash forward to 2011, and malted milk powder is most commonly found in brittle, malted milk balls, and the milkshakes that we simply call "malts." It's less popular as a standalone drink in the US, where the major manufacturers are Carnation and Ovaltine, but Horlicks remains popular in the UK, India, and Southeast Asia. Interestingly, India, the brand's largest market, continues to consider malted milk a health food drink aimed at children. Horlicks became popular there in the 1930's, and now 2 billion cups of the stuff are consumed every year. But the formula for Horlicks in India is slightly different than the rest of the world: there, given cultural concerns, the powder is made from buffalo, rather than cows milk. While I doubt the flavor difference is that odd after the manufacturing process is done, it still sounds a bit strange to my Americanized ears. Buffalo milkshakes, anyone?

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