December 30, 2015

Hold the Dairy: A Barista Guide to Alternative Milk

I have a confession to make: I don’t really drink alternative milk. Being part Swedish, I could drink heavy cream all day long and love it. But not everyone is blessed with an iron stomach; there are those among us that, due to dietary restrictions or lifestyle choice, need to drink dairy alternatives.

Alternative milk is a necessary part of taking care of your customer’s needs. And if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. So I decided to do a taste test with various readily available alternative milks. I’ll go over why I chose the milks I did and why I left others out. And I’ll even give you a recipe for making your own nut milk.

Lee este artículo en español Alto a los Lácteos: Una Guía Para Baristas Sobre Leches Alternativas

The 4 Main Types of Alternative Milk

With all the special diets out there, the demand for alternative milk is at an all time high and will only grow. There are a number of readily available options, particularly if you live in urban areas. But after conducting an informal survey of my alternative-milk-drinking friends, I narrowed down my list of alternative milks to just four choices: soy, almond, hemp, and cashew. Some milks were left off because they are generally considered to not mix well with coffee (pistachio and coconut). Others, like macadamia nut, though popular among Third Wave coffee shops were unavailable in my small town and so could not be included in the taste test.

The taste test was conducted by steaming the milks and using them in cappuccinos, in the hope of really highlighting both how the milk interacted with the espresso and how well it steamed. This, to me, is an important part of the test: alternative milks are notorious for steaming badly, in turn making latte art incredibly difficult.

1. Soy

Soy was chosen, in spite of the disdain for it among third wave coffee professionals, because it is a non-dairy and non-nut alternative. Many people, my wife included, have nut allergies and may need or chose to avoid dairy.

The milk steamed reasonably well and I was able to produce some blurry latte art in the cappuccino. It produced a distinct sipping chocolate flavor when combined with espresso. There was a thick layer of microfoam that didn’t dissipate.  

I think soy has a bit of an acquired taste. If you grew up drinking it, it’s likely that you enjoy it. If you didn’t, like a lot of us in the West, then you may have to work at it to enjoy it.

You may also like How to Include Non-Dairy Milks in Your Coffee Shop Menu

soy latte

Steaming soy milk is hard. It often gets washed out or clumps.

2. Almond

I find, in my shop, that almond is the most popular milk alternative. And for those looking to avoid soy products it’s a great place to start.

The almond milk we used felt thin when compared with the soy milk. However, the taste was superior to soy and asserted itself much less than the soy. Because it was thinner, the almond milk steamed much closer to skim milk.

Almond milk

Commercial almond milk is often thin and watery. Fix it by making your own.

3. Hemp

If you want to avoid both soy and nuts, then you’re probably going to look at hemp milk. It steams very much like soy but the taste is quite different. For lack of a better culinary equivalent the taste is similar to rope. (Yum.)

It washes out easily and, unlike soy, the microfoam will eventually dissipate – with the key word there being “eventually”.

Hemp milk

Hemp milk had a similar consistency to soy.

4. Cashew

Cashew milk is similar to almond milk. In fact, if you want strictly cashew milk, make sure you read the label because sometimes commercial cashew milks are blended with other nut milks.

It’s sweeter than almond milk and has a milder nutty taste. Steaming cashew milk also presents the problems typically associated with alternative milks; it’s even thinner than almond milk. It also consistently produced large, soap-like bubbles.

cashew milk

Cashew milk: the thinnest of the bunch.

Alternative milks have always presented a unique set of problems for baristas. Lacking in milk fat, they often don’t steam as nicely as cow’s milk.

However, good results can be achieved with practice. Aggressive grooming of the steamed milk is often necessary. Spend the time you need to get excellent, consistent results – just like when you were learning how to steam milk.

And to see even better results, don’t just rely on store-bought milk.

Make Your Own Nut Milk: A Recipe

I work in a shop that makes a lot of things in house. We roast our own coffee. We create all our own syrups and sauces. We make a lot of our food from scratch. But I was always scared to make my own nut milks. There was something mysterious about it that kept me from giving it a try.

Homemade nut milk

Making your own almond or other nut milk can help balance out the problems often found in commercial versions – and it’s only two ingredients.

Then I was assigned to write about alternative milk and figured no article on the subject would be complete without a recipe for making your very own. Much to my relief, it turned out to be far easier than I’d expected.

Follow this recipe for easy nut milk:

  1. Select some unsalted nuts. I used roasted almonds for my experiment. Most recipes call for raw nuts, but I think the roasting brings out more flavor.
  2. Soak the nuts in water overnight in the fridge. You can soak them for longer if need be – just make sure it’s no shorter.
  3. When you’re ready to make the milk, drain off the water and rinse the nuts. Place 1 cup in a blender and add 1 ¾ cups of filtered water (water ratio can be adjusted if needed). The better your water tastes, the better your milk will taste. Blend the nuts and water for 3 to 5 minutes on high. The results should be a puree.
  4. Strain the puree through cheesecloth and squeeze it until you have damp nut flour.
  5. Return the milk to the blender and blend on high for 30 seconds to obtain a smooth and consistent flavor.
  6. The nut milk will tend to separate fairly quickly. Shake it to recombine, and store it in the fridge for up to a week.

When we tasted our house-made almond milk next to the commercial one, there was no contest. The house made almond milk was richer, more flavorful, and steamed much more like cow’s milk than any of the commercial alternative milks. If you are able to make your own nut milks, it’s definitely worth the effort.

Alternative milks are a part of the third wave landscape now and their popularity are increasing. As baristas, we owe it to our customers to give them the best product possible by putting in the same hard work we did when first learning to steam milk. And even if you’re never convinced, house-made almond milk will give your customers the lactose-free coffee experience they’re after – complete with latte art.

Photos by E. Squires (@ercsguitar).

Feature Photo Credit: FrankBoe

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