March 23, 2022

Should we allow plant milks in the World Barista Championships?


The World Coffee Championships (WCC) exist to promote and showcase excellence in the global coffee industry. WCC competitions such as the World Barista Championships (WBC) and World Latte Art Championships (WLAC) allow professional baristas to demonstrate their high-level skills and coffee expertise.

However, in recent years, there has been criticism over a lack of inclusivity and accessibility in these competitions. One of the issues related to these criticisms, but which is often overlooked, is the rule that competitors must use dairy in their routines.

Some argue that the unwritten ban on plant-based milks excludes certain competitors. The rule also acts as a barrier to further innovation – a characteristic which these competitions, particularly the WBC, are revered for by the specialty coffee industry.

To explore the case for allowing plant milks in the WCC (with a particular focus on the WBC) I spoke with three coffee professionals. Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on what the future holds for plant milks and coffee.

pouring latte art

Rules on using dairy in the World Coffee Championships

The 2021 WBC Official Rules and Regulations state that competitors must produce a “milk beverage” containing “one single shot of espresso… [and] steamed cow’s milk”. The rules also state that competitors can be provided with only “whole milk”.

Similarly, the 2021 WLAC Official Rules and Regulations state competitors “are required to use the milk provided by the WLAC”. This is also exclusively cow’s milk.

Jack Mockford is a barista at Gourmet Coffee Bar in Leicester, UK. He explains to me why he thinks the exclusive use of dairy became a rule.

“Mainly for traditional reasons,” he says. “It’s been assumed that the best way to make a milk-based coffee beverage is with whole milk because of its high-quality microfoam – particularly for cappuccinos.”

However, things haven’t always been so straightforward. Cristian Tellez is the Director of Coffee at Ditta Artigianale in Toronto, Canada. He is also a brand ambassador for Myracle Kitchen, the North American arm of the plant-based Rebel Kitchen brand. 

Cristian competed in the 2019 Canadian Barista Championships using oat milk instead of dairy. He tells me about when he believes the requirement to use dairy was added.

“The rules generally assumed that people would use cow’s milk, but it wasn’t stated as an official rule until an UAE competitor allegedly used camel’s milk,” Cristian says. “The judges didn’t know how to assess this, so the cow’s milk rule was instated.”

However, while camel’s milk may be a less popular alternative to cow’s milk in the specialty coffee industry, plant-based milks are considerably more established. The global non-dairy market is expected to be worth US $40.6 billion by 2026.

“In the signature beverage round of the WBC, there’s so much freedom for competitors to express themselves,” Jack tells me. “So why should they be restricted to using a particular type of milk in the milk-based round?”

coffee with oat milk

Why are plant-based milks excluded?

Josh Tarlo is the Head of Coffee at Kiss The Hippo in London, and the 2018 UK Barista Champion. He emphasises the importance of distinguishing between the WBC and the WLAC regarding the rule on dairy.

“It’s important to separate the WBC and the WLAC on this issue as it’s for different reasons,” Josh says. “However, both are most likely based on a lack of will by decision makers – maybe because they’re taking on a controversial subject.”

He elaborates on how changing existing rules, or instating new ones, could be an arduous task for World Coffee Events (WCE) and the SCA, who organise the WCC events.

“There would be a need to revise score sheets and rules, and this task may be too difficult or time consuming,” he says. “This is down to the volunteer nature of the committees who make these changes.”

Jack, meanwhile, believes that funding plays a significant role in maintaining the current rules on using dairy.

“There might be some financial incentive to not make changes because of funding from certain sponsors,” he tells me. “Usually a dairy company sponsors the events, which may mean there’s resistance to changing the rules.”

Jack highlights how allowing plant milks could also lead to further rule changes.

“If plant milks are accepted in the competitions, WCE would also have to address which animal milks can be used. If plant milks aren’t allowed, WCE can strictly stick with a specific type of cow’s milk.”

Cristian adds: “Dairy comes directly from cows, so it’s essentially one ingredient, whereas plant-based milks consist of several ingredients.

“It can become complicated because plant milks are effectively a blend of different ingredients,” he says. 

coffee with oat milk

Issues with excluding non-dairy milks

There are a number of issues with excluding plant milks from WCC events.

First and foremost, Jack says: “Vegan or lactose intolerant barista competitors can’t experience their coffees to the same extent as other competitors using dairy.

“If they’re not able to compete using milk that they can drink, it puts them at a fundamental disadvantage.”

Cristian, meanwhile, explains how he has often had to put aside his personal values to take part in coffee competitions.

“For every year I have competed, I have had a certain level of moral flexibility. Since I started working in coffee in 2005, I have had to serve dairy, but I had to accept that.

“But for me, being vegan is an ethical choice that I stick to because it’s important to me.”

When performing at the WBC, competitors are encouraged to demonstrate their personalities, as well as their coffee skills and knowledge. For competitors who don’t consume dairy, the obligation to use cow’s milk arguably doesn’t allow them to fully express themselves.

However, the issues related to dairy are much more widespread.

“The dairy industry contributes 3.4% of the world’s carbon emissions. Thirteen of the largest global dairy farms contribute more carbon emissions than all of the UK,” Josh tells me. 

In addition, dairy cows often live much shorter lives – a decrease of around 14 or 15 years on the average lifespan of 20 years.

pouring latte art

Challenging the status quo

In 2019, Cristian decided to challenge the dairy rule when he competed in the Canadian Barista Championships.

“I served my milk-based drinks last, which no competitor usually does,” he says. “I was highlighting that the coffee industry talks so much about sustainability, but few of us are talking about the impacts of mass-scale animal agriculture on the planet.”

Even though the Vegetarian Society claims that only 2% to 3% of the UK population is vegan, research from The Guardian reports that over a third of people in the country are interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet. Since 2015, Google searches for “vegan” have doubled in the US; in other countries, such as Australia, France, and Spain, they have tripled.

Clearly the interest in plant milks is growing – including in the coffee industry – so why the unwritten ban on them?

“When I used oat milk, I assumed it was an automatic disqualification because usually if you blatantly violate the rules, you can be disqualified,” Cristian explains. “I actually received zero for my milk-based round, so there was no chance of me winning the competition.”

He adds that while he mostly received positive feedback for his decision – which culminated in an online petition to change the WBC rules – there was some backlash.

“Some people thought I was being selfish by taking a place in the competition knowing I wouldn’t have a chance of winning,” he says. “I understand this point of view, but at the same time, we need to provoke change in the industry.”

Josh agrees with Cristian’s perspective on pushing for positive change.

“These competitions are where we showcase not only coffee as it already is, but as we wish it to be,” he says. “We push coffee forward, we innovate, and we change it.

“If we want to align these competitions with the values of today’s coffee industry, then one of the first steps is allowing alternative milks in competitions.”

Jack points out that WBC competitors often experiment with cow’s milk in their routines, particularly for the signature beverage round.

“Competitors are allowed to select their own cow’s milk to achieve different characteristics and levels of creaminess, as well as being able to treat milk prior to the competition by using different temperatures,” he tells me. “In that respect, the competition isn’t a level playing field.”

caffe latte

Will the rules change?

Despite the fact that dairy is considered to be more “traditional”, plant milks have been around for centuries. Soy milk dates back to 14th-century China, while almond milk first showed up in medieval European cookbooks. 

However, they have historically not been as popular as dairy.

Research suggests that this is changing. According to World Coffee Portal, some 60% of people reported trying a plant milk in their coffee in 2019. Alongside this, some coffee shops are even using oat milk by default, including Blue Bottle and Onyx Coffee Lab.

So is it time for a change to the WBC rules? All three interviewees unanimously agree that it is.

Jack says: “It wouldn’t be progressive for the SCA to not reflect changes in specialty coffee culture. Plant-based milks are a mainstay in coffee shops now.

“By using plant milks, you’re not necessarily putting yourself at an advantage. Whole milk steams impeccably and you usually get the best textures when using it.”

Josh, meanwhile, believes a rule change is necessary to create a more inclusive competition environment.

“If we exclude people who have a moral objection or dietary inability to consume dairy, we lose out on their knowledge and skills,” he says.

As for how to change the rules, Jack has some suggestions.

“Any plant-based milks which are commercially available as barista-formulated products could be acceptable because they are part of wider specialty coffee culture,” he says. “The SCA and WCE can write up an approved list of plant milks that represent the scope of products available on the market.”

However, he points out that it may be necessary to differentiate between the WBC and WLAC when changing the rules to include plant milks.

“Because the WLAC scoring system is based on aesthetics, there is perhaps more of an argument to be made for having a separate plant milk competition.”

steaming milk

Ultimately, any changes to the exclusive use of dairy in the WBC is down to the SCA and WCE. But considering the enormous popularity of plant-based milks, it’s safe to assume that the competitions may take on a more inclusive approach in the future.

“The first time I ever competed I had to serve sugar with my coffee,” Cristian concludes. “The rules change and we decide this as an industry. We’re professionals, we can handle changes in competitions.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether the World Barista Championship needs to change.

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