July 5, 2019

How to Include Non-Dairy Milks in Your Coffee Shop Menu


Plant-based milks are more popular than ever before, with worldwide sales projected to exceed US $34 billion by 2024. But each non-dairy milk has a different flavour and texture, so which should you include in your coffee shop menu?

Read on to learn more about how to prepare plant-based milks, which types you should consider adding to your menu, and whether to charge extra for dairy-free alternatives.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Incluir Leches Vegetales en el Menú de tu Tienda de Café

Iced milk and coffee drinks. Credit: Lee Soo Hyun

Which Alternative Milks to Offer

Andrea Allen is a co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab and a frequent competitor in the US Barista Championship. She says that “alternative plant-based beverages have experienced a huge growth in the past couple of years” and that “a lot of our customers periodically drink dairy and periodically drink a plant-based beverage and enjoy those for different reasons.”

It’s important to consider why customers are choosing these milks when designing your menu. You should also understand how each one works with specialty coffee. Let’s take a look at the main types of plant-based milks.

  • Soy Milk

For many years, this was the standard dairy-free milk. It’s readily available, affordable, and can be easier to foam than some other plant-based milks. But not everyone is a fan of its flavour and texture, which can also vary a lot among brands. Some consumers also have concerns about its effect on health. Andrea says that she has “never seen a huge movement of people coming into the shop dying to get soy”.

Soy has a tendency to curdle when heated or when introduced to the acidity of a cup of coffee. To prevent this, steam it slowly and don’t go as high as you might for dairy. You could also consider pairing soy milk with a coffee that is low in acidity, when possible.

  • Almond Milk

Almond is reportedly the most popular plant milk worldwide, accounting for two in every three pints sold. It has a distinctive sweet and nutty taste that some people find appealing. Others dislike the unique flavour, which can overpower subtle coffee notes.

Like soy, it has a tendency to curdle if it’s heated quickly or not mixed correctly. However, Andrea says that “there isn’t anything specific about almond that is challenging” and says that in her experience it is easier to steam than coconut milk.

Almond milk has received criticism because it requires water-intensive farming and is often shipped around the globe. Although it’s still more environmentally responsible than dairy, there are other plant-based milks that use less water and have similar levels of carbon emissions. If you’re concerned about climate change or marketing your café as environmentally responsible, you may want to choose soy or oat milk over almond.

  • Oat Milk

Sales of oak milk have soared in recent years. With a balanced flavour and creamy texture, it can make a great substitute for dairy. It has a strong and enthusiastic following with both consumers and baristas – in fact, the Oatly brand was so popular in 2018 that it experienced a shortage in the US.

Andrea says that she sees “tons of people trying to get oat beverages and, if we don’t have oat milk in stock, they will just leave and not get anything else”. 

Although oat milk is easy to work with compared to some other plant milks, it is lower in protein than dairy. This means that foam can quickly destabilise.

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An almond milk cappuccino. Credit: Louis Hansel 

Other plant milks used in coffee include coconut, cashew, and rice, though they’re less popular than soy, almond, and oat.

Although there are general rules about how to handle each type of plant-based milk, there are differences in flavour and texture among brands. Some manufacturers add stabilisers while others prefer to avoid additives. There are also specific barista products that are designed to foam and avoid splitting.
You could also make your own plant-based milks. But are you able to make a consistently good product that works well with your menu? 

Andrea says, “If a shop could make their own and it functions the way they wanted, it tasted the way they wanted, and hit the costs standpoint, then it would make total sense to make it in house. Whereas for other people, it makes total sense to order it from someone that already has gone through all of those steps and really honed the process down.”

A barista pours latte art. Credit: Tyler Nix

How Many Types of Plant-Based Milk to Carry

Not everyone agrees on which dairy alternative is best and the different milks have different pros and cons. So it makes sense to offer more than one. Andrea says, “It is becoming an expectation that coffee shops have multiple plant-based beverage options.”

But don’t be tempted to offer every type of plant-based milk you can find. As with dairy, you need to carefully plan your stock levels, so that you don’t waste money on spoiled inventory. Keep an eye on how quickly you are getting through your stock and respond accordingly.

A variety of milk-based coffee drinks. Credit: Nathan Dumlao 

Awareness of Allergies

Keep in mind that nut and soy allergies are fairly common. Onyx Coffee Lab offers almond, coconut, and oat, which Andrea says is “the best range” for customers with common allergies but that also complements their coffees. 

It’s also important that nut- and soy-based milks are prepared separately from other drinks to avoid contamination.

Andrea says to “treat every plant-based beverage like it might be for someone with an allergy”. She tells me that her coffee shops have separate equipment for each type of milk, which are colour coded to avoid cross-contamination. 

“It’s just a matter of being able to afford a few extra things for your drinks station and making sure that your staff are disciplined enough to execute that,” she says.

A barista holds two drinks. Credit: Nathan Dumlao 

Training Baristas to Work With Non-Dairy Milks

The more types of milk you offer, the more time you will need to invest in recipe development and barista training. To maintain good quality and reputation, your baristas need to be able to foam and texture plant-based milks and know which are best-suited to which coffees.

Andrea tells me that steaming is an area that requires specific focus because plant milks behave differently under high temperature. “There is a challenge of trying to get our baristas to get the correct information and the correct practise to be able to execute drinks in a high level manner,” she says.

She tells me that because non-dairy milks are ordered less frequently, her staff members have less opportunity to perfect their skills and need to commit extra time “during the training process and during the follow up training process” to be able to replicate results consistently.

A barista steams milk. Credit: René Pollock

Should You Charge Extra For Alternative Milks?

Many coffee shops have an additional charge for non-dairy milks, but as they grow in popularity, consider whether this is appropriate. Even if you don’t use much plant-based milk and it is more expensive for you than dairy, you risk alienating customers if you offload the cost onto them. Your immediate profit margin may be reduced, but instead you could gain a loyal customer base that bring in more money over the long-term.

Consider whether you want to reduce the cost per unit by buying plant milks with long expiration dates in bulk.

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A barista pours milk into a glass. Credit: Andrew Tanglao 

Highlight Your Non-Dairy Options

It should be clear on your menu which dairy-free milks are on offer. Customers who can see they have options at a glance may order a more expensive espresso- and plant-based milk drink, rather than a pour over. They may also be more likely to return if they know you carry their favourite non-dairy milk or can cater to their allergy.

You may also want to highlight the features of each type of milk, from the different flavours and textures it brings, to its environmental credentials. Celebrate these qualities and make them into a selling point, just as you would draw attention to a coffee’s origin or roast.

Look at plant-based milks as another unique ingredient and an opportunity to make exciting new combinations. Andrea says that her cafés always have a drink that features a plant-based beverage on the menu and that “customers love it”. She says that they “enjoy it as a whole beverage and don’t necessarily even think of it as an alternative beverage”.

Latte art. Credit: Frankie Photography

By taking the time to learn about different types of non-dairy milk, you can expand your menu and customer base. Why not set up a training session for your baristas with several different types and challenge them to create new coffee-based combinations?

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