January 25, 2023

How do you roast coffee for milk?


It’s impossible to deny just how popular milk-based coffee drinks (such as the flat white, latte, and cappuccino) are in coffee shops around the world. According to 2020 data from Project Café USA, the latte was the most ordered drink in the UK, and the third-most popular beverage in US coffee shops.

In line with this, we have recently seen more and more coffee businesses create roast profiles for milk-based beverages. In essence, these roast profiles allow the coffee’s characteristics to shine through, while also ensuring that its flavours pair well with different types of milk.

So, how can you develop roast profiles for milk-based coffee beverages, and what are the benefits of doing so? To find out, I spoke with co-owner of Edison Coffee Co. in Texas, US, James McWhorter, and green buyer at Roast House Coffee in Washington, US, Aaron Jordan. Read on for more of their insight.

You may also like our article on whether we should weigh milk in coffee shops.

A barista pours milk into espresso to create latte art.

Consumers around the world have enjoyed milk-based coffee beverages for decades. In its 2022 Fall National Coffee Data Trends report, the National Coffee Association found that lattes and cappuccinos are among the top three most popular drinks in US coffee shops

“Although more customers are ordering pour overs and batch brew at our café, milk-based drinks (usually between 12oz and 16oz, or 354ml and 473ml) make up the majority of orders at our coffee shops and tasting room,” James tells me.

“In part, this is a result of the growing number of high-quality plant milks,” he adds. “Furthermore, milk-based beverages are generally more palatable to people who are trying specialty coffee for the first time.”

Aaron points out that seasonal beverages also help to boost the popularity of milk-based drinks in coffee shops.

“Many specialty cafés have their own seasonal milk-based drinks,” he says. “For example, the pumpkin spiced latte can be found on many specialty coffee shop menus during autumn.”

A barista fills a grinder hopper with roasted coffee beans.

Why do coffee roasters develop profiles just for milk?

“For a long time, roasters have mainly focused on roast profiles for espresso and filter,” Aaron says. Some roasters also create omni roasts, which have been developed to be used as either espresso or filter.

In recent years, more roasters have developed roast profiles which are specifically designed to be used as espresso for milk-based drinks. Essentially, these roast profiles ensure that the coffee’s flavours are expressed in a way which is complementary to the natural sweetness and creaminess of milk.

For example, Ethiopian or Kenyan coffees roasted to lighter profiles tend to be brighter and have more floral and fruity flavours. Ultimately, this means that milk could overpower these more delicate tasting notes – or even result in sour and unpleasant flavours. In turn, many consumers often prefer these coffees to be served without milk, including as espresso or pour over. 

This has led some roasters to develop blends or single origin coffees designed to pair well with different milks. Typically, these coffees will have more traditional flavour notes, such as chocolate, nuts, and caramel. 

Coffee beans roasted for milk in a cooling tray.

So, how do you roast coffee for milk?

When creating a roast profile which is tailored specifically to pair with milk-based drinks, it’s essential to understand how the coffee’s flavours will interact with the milk.

Origin is an important factor to consider. Generally speaking, Central or South American coffees have more moderate acidity levels and more balanced flavours of chocolate, nuts, and fruit compared to African coffees, which tend to be more bright and dynamic.

These flavours and characteristics are largely a result of the terroir which the coffee is grown in – including elevation, climatic conditions, and quality of soil.

In general, coffee grown at lower elevations in warmer climates will usually be less acidic and have more chocolate and earthy flavour notes. Meanwhile, coffees grown at higher elevations in cooler climates will have more acidity, as well as more fruit-forward tasting notes.

“A coffee with low acidity and base flavour notes of chocolate, caramelised sugar, and nuts will pair well with milk,” James explains.

James and Aaron both say that while many roasters often prefer to use blends for their milk-based drinks, single origins can also work well – although the flavours must be balanced.

“A light, vibrant, and fruit-forward single origin coffee can add complexity and juiciness to a milk-based drink,” Aaron tells me. “However, a more developed, rich, and smoky blend can create more balance of flavours.”

Processing is another crucial consideration when developing a roast profile for milk-based beverages. Each processing method has its own unique effect on coffee flavour, which can ultimately influence the brewing method, too.

“If you want to serve a fruity and complex cappuccino, we recommend using a natural or honey processed coffee,” Aaron says. “However, if you want more of the chocolate and caramel flavours to shine through, we recommend using a washed coffee from Latin America.”

This is because natural and honey processing methods allow the sugars to develop more, leading to more fruit-forward and intense flavours. Washed processing, meanwhile, results in cleaner and brighter flavours.

In turn, some roasters use a blend of processing methods for their milk-based beverage roast profiles, which can create more balance and well-rounded flavours.

“All processing methods have their place to be used as milk-based beverages,” he adds.

The roast profile itself is also important to factor in, as coffees taste different as light, medium, or dark roasts.

James tells me that choosing a roast profile is largely dependent on a number of variables, including origin, bean density, and the characteristics of the coffee that you want to highlight. The latter can include acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body, and aftertaste.

As milk-based coffee beverages contain espresso, it’s essential that roast profiles for these drinks are developed with this in mind. Espresso extracts much more quickly than it does with filter coffee, which can increase the likelihood of underextraction. This can result in more sour and acidic-tasting coffee, which often doesn’t pair well with milk.

To combat these issues, some roasters opt for medium to dark roast profiles so that the coffee can be more easily extracted.

“Solubility is very important for espresso,” James says. “We typically use longer and more developed roast profiles for espresso compared to filter coffee.”

This allows more of the sugars to caramelise and fully develop – creating more complementary flavours to pair with a range of milks.

A roaster empties roasted coffee beans into a plastic bucket.

Tips and advice for roasters

It’s evident that roast profiles for milk-based drinks help to improve overall beverage quality, but how can roasters get the best out of them?

“We experimented with filter roast profiles for espresso,” James says. “It was difficult to dial in the coffee as espresso, and it was also too acidic and the flavours weren’t able to cut through larger milk-based drinks.

“Over time, we developed an espresso roast profile that emphasises the positive attributes of the blend,” he adds.

Aaron, meanwhile, says that it can be easy for roasters to not focus on consumers’ preferences when developing these roast profiles.

“Not every roaster has the same clientele with the same flavour preferences, but if we are looking to create a more accessible specialty coffee industry, then roasters need to consider what their customers want, too,” he says.

“When developing your milk-based beverage roast profile, you need to keep in mind how it is going to be consumed,” James agrees. “Moreover, you need to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new.”

Roasters also need to be mindful of the different types of milk in their coffee shops when developing milk-focused roast profiles.

The rise of dairy alternatives has been impossible to ignore in the specialty coffee industry, including the recent 2023 World Barista Championship rules and regulations change which allows competitors to use them in their milk beverage routines.

As dairy alternatives tend to be less creamy and rich than cow’s milk, roasters need to take this into account when developing a specific roast profile. However, the flavours and textures of different plant milks can vary somewhat, which may affect how the coffee is roasted.

For instance, oat milk has more neutral flavours than soy or coconut milk, so lighter roast profiles may work best, whereas darker roasts can more easily cut through the prominent flavours of soy and coconut.

Tim Wendelboe roastery in Oslo, Norway.

For many roasters, roasting for milk-based beverages is becoming more and more common. Not only do these roast profiles make sure the flavours in a coffee complement the milk – no matter which type you use – they also help to improve overall beverage quality.

Ultimately, to create a roast profile which works best for them, Aaron recommends roasters to start with an end cup profile in mind for their milk-based drinks.

“Develop a profile accordingly, then roast, taste, adjust, and repeat,” he concludes.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the evolution of milk foaming technology in the coffee industry.

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