August 14, 2020

A Guide To Working With Plant Milks

Alternative milks are only getting more popular with each passing year. Oat milk sales in the US increased by 171% between 2018 and 2019, and the UK plant milk market was valued at US $320 billion last year.

In light of this rise in consumption, it’s important that baristas are aware of the best way to work with any given non-dairy milk. By developing an understanding of the product, they will then be able to create high-quality, consistent beverages for customers.

This article is a guide on how to work with some of the most popular non-dairy alternative milks.

Lee este artículo en español Guía Para Baristas: Cómo Trabajar Con Leches Vegetales

What Are The Most Popular Alternative Milks?

Sales of non-dairy milks reached US $2.11 billion in the US in 2017. Almond had the biggest share of the market with 64%, while soy came in at 13% and coconut made up 12%.

More coffee drinkers are taking an interest in plant milks. David Jiscoot, Marketing Director for Alpro UK and Ireland, elaborates. “Demand for plant-based coffees out of home has exploded over the past 12 months, with more than half (50.3%) of coffee drinkers now claiming to drink plant-based coffees out of home. Of these people, 54% are drinking plant-based coffees at least once a week.” 

In 2019, US sales of oat milk surpassed soy for the first time. Oat milk was first manufactured in Sweden in the early 1990s, but it has seen a surge in popularity over the last few years. Today, some coffee shops are even using oat milk by default and charging more for dairy, such as Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas.

David says that cafés need to be aware of the appeal of non-dairy alternatives. “In order to cater to this demand, coffee shops should ensure that they have a range of plant-based drinks specifically formulated for use in coffee on offer,” he says.

Peter Jones is the General Manager of Trident Booksellers and Café in Boulder, Colorado. 

“We serve soy, coconut, almond, unsweetened almond, and oat milk. Oat and almond are the most popular,” he says.

You may also like Which Is The Best Non-Dairy Milk For Specialty Coffee?

How To Steam Plant Milks

Because plant and animal milks have a number of chemical differences, they have to be prepared differently in coffee shops. Firstly, Peter says it’s important that baristas use plant milks that are designed specifically for barista use. “You need to use the ‘barista’ series of whatever brand you are using, as they [contain] stabilisers (dipotassium phosphate)”.

These stabilisers ensure that the milks don’t split and curdle when they come into contact with the acids in coffee. This means that both the texture and the visual appeal of your beverage are preserved when the milk is steamed.

It’s also important to note that milks with a higher fat content will have a more stable texture after steaming. “Rice milk was very popular back in the early 2000s before almond milk’s rise in popularity, but it does not have any added fat,” Peter says. “Oat milk has canola oil added, which helps with the foaming and texture.”

Soy

  • Thanks to its high protein content, soy milk can be aerated (stretched) very well. This is because the protein molecules in soy milk surround air bubbles, making it easier to create foam.
  • Soy milk steams almost twice as quickly as cow’s milk. This is because it contains more acidity regulators and stabilisers. Try to not incorporate too much air when you start steaming, otherwise the milk may become too foamy.
  • It is temperature resistant, so even steaming as high as 65°C will produce a microfoam that works well for latte art.

Almond

  • Almond milk is lower in protein than soy milk, so it doesn’t steam and foam as well. It also has a watery consistency that creates a thinner layer of microfoam.
  • It struggles at higher temperatures and is smoothest at around 55°C, so using a thermometer might help.
  • Incorporating more air at the beginning of steaming – just a few seconds more than cow’s milk – will improve the texture.

Coconut

  • Although it is high in fat, coconut milk is low in protein. Creating microfoam can therefore be tricky. However, its higher sugar levels can mean it often has a thicker texture when steamed.
  • Coconut milk can become very thick and stiff at temperatures around and above 65°C, so be careful when you heat it. This is because the proteins inside the milk denature, and as there are so few of them, the foam breaks down more quickly.

Oat

  • Oat milk is also low in protein, meaning that it usually needs a longer steaming period than cow’s milk to create stable microfoam.
  • It performs well at most temperatures, even up to 65°C.
  • Similarly to almond milk, adding more air when you start steaming will produce a consistent, smooth texture.

Pouring Techniques For Latte Art

Pouring latte art with non-dairy milks can be difficult. This is because their unique chemical compositions affect the stability of the microfoam once they are steamed.

Peter explains: “Almond and oat perform equally as well for latte art. [They] are basically the same ingredients – water, cane sugar, almonds/oats, dipotassium phosphate, sunflower lecithin, gellan gum, and salt.

“Coconut milk does not have a stabiliser in it and it’s thicker, so it sits on top of the espresso. The same is true for soy.”

Soy

  • The microfoam is very stable in soy milk, meaning you have more time to pour latte art.
  • As soy milk foams very easily, it can quickly become too foamy. Bang and swirl the pitcher more than you would with other milks to create a consistent texture. Pouring with too much foam can create messy, uncontrollable latte art.

Oat

  • Pouring harder and faster with oat milk will result in cleaner-looking latte art.
  • Allow oat milk to rest for around 30 to 45 seconds, before you add it. This will result in more evenly textured milk. 

Almond

  • Almond milk loses its microfoam quite quickly, so pour as soon as you can.
  • Once steamed, almond milk has an inconsistent texture with lots of surface bubbles. Make sure to bang and swirl the pitcher – although not as much as you would with soy – and the texture will become more smooth.
  • Almond milk’s watery texture means it flows quite quickly. Make sure you pour gently for greater control over your latte art.

Coconut

  • Coconut milk can contain quite large bubbles once steamed, but plenty of banging and swirling will turn these bubbles into a finer microfoam.
  • If steamed properly, your coconut milk will have a glossy appearance. This is a sign of well-textured milk.

How Do Alternative Milks Affect Taste & Texture?

The range of ingredients in plant milks mean that they will significantly affect the overall flavour and mouthfeel of coffee, and even chai, hot chocolate, and matcha.

“There are many factors that will influence the taste and texture of the final product you serve to customers when working with plant-based alternatives,” David explains. “This includes – but isn’t limited to – the temperature you steam at, the intensity of the coffee being used, and anything you may add to the drink.”

Soy milk provides a creamy consistency and can provide a longer-lasting aftertaste. Its flavour can be quite bean-like and nutty. Pairing soy with medium roasts won’t overpower the coffee.

Thanks to its thin layer of microfoam, almond milk has a thin texture that can result in a less substantial mouthfeel. It also often has a lingering, bitter aftertaste that can mask the flavour of your coffee.

Coconut milk can have a similar effect, masking the more delicate flavour notes in your coffee. However, it has a much heavier mouthfeel than almond milk. David recommends pairing coconut milk with stronger flavours, as they complement each other well. “Alpro Coconut For Professionals, for example, works well with dark, chocolatey roasts, cold drinks such as cold brew, or hot chocolate.”

Oat milk’s “light, delicate flavour”, however, “really puts the coffee first and brings the best out of lighter roasts”. It also has a creamy texture and a neutral aftertaste that allows the coffee’s characteristics to shine through. 

Oat milk is often likened to dairy in terms of taste and texture, so if a customer is looking for an alternative that is most similar to cow’s milk, it is a good option. However, it’s important to understand that most plant milks shouldn’t be treated as a perfect substitute. None of them have the same flavour and texture as dairy milks – and as a result, they create a different experience for the customer.

“All of the plant-based milks have added sugar, so they are sweeter than cow’s milk. That is something to keep in mind, especially if customers are buying the plant milk based on its perceived health benefits. That is why we carry a special unsweetened almond milk with no sugar,” Peter says.

If a customer seems confused, it might help to explain various characteristics of the alternative milks you have in stock. This will allow them to make an informed decision.

“[It’s] about personal preference and what the customer is looking for. Each of our For Professionals drinks have been carefully crafted to ensure a flavour which complements a broad range of coffee types,” David says.

Using a wide range of non-dairy milks in your café will mean you can cater to a variety of tastes and lifestyles. And it won’t just increase customer interest and satisfaction – it’s a great way to hone your skills as a barista. So, next time you reach for the almond or soy milk, consider trying another alternative. You might be surprised by the results.

Enjoyed this? Then read Indonesia’s Iced Coffee Revolution

Photo credits: Neil Soque, Marco Verc, Peter Jones 

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!