March 2, 2023

What does the plant milk rule mean for the future of the World Barista Championship?


On 22 December 2022, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) published the Rules & Regulations for the 2023 World Barista Championship (WBC), which will take place in Athens later this year. 

As part of the updated rules for the WBC, the SCA announced that “the milk beverage course can now be prepared using plant-based or other animals’ milk[s]”. The organisation claims “these updates mark the largest competition changes since before the pandemic, opening up new service possibilities for competitors”.

There’s no doubt that these rule changes are momentous for the future of the competition. However, it’s fair to say that the push for inclusion of plant milks at the WBC has been growing for some time within the wider specialty coffee community. 

Ultimately, given the growing pressure, it was only a matter of time before the SCA allowed the use of plant milks at the WBC. But how might this rule influence the future of the competition?

You may also like our article on why plant milks should be allowed at the WBC.

A judge tastes a milk-based drink at the World Barista Championship.

Why did the SCA instate the plant milk rule?

Prior to the new rule on using plant milks, the 2022 World Barista Championship Official Rules and Regulations stated that:

“A milk beverage is a combination of 1 single shot of espresso (per the definition of espresso in the ‘Espresso’ section) and steamed cow’s milk.”

This meant national and World Barista Championship competitors had to use cow’s milk in the milk beverage course – or risk receiving zero points in the category. 

Oat milk at National Barista Championships

However, this didn’t prevent a small number of competitors openly defying the rule:

Josh Tarlo is the Oatly Barista Market Development Manager in the UK. He is also the founder of Headstand.

“I started working as a barista over 20 years ago and I have taken part in coffee competitions in the UK, Australia, and Canada,” he says. “Back then, barely anyone was drinking plant milks in coffee, but now I’ve seen so many disenfranchised baristas who no longer want to compete because they don’t consume cow’s milk.”

Along with his company Suedhang Kaffee, Mikolaj even went so far as to claim the WBC cow’s milk rule goes against the German General Act on Equal Treatment, which aims to “stop discrimination on the grounds of… belief”. 

The following month, Suedhang Kaffee published an open statement made to SCA Germany. In the letter, the company requested that SCA Germany would “refrain from the compulsory use of cow’s milk at all upcoming competitions”, as well as developing a new set of more inclusive rules for the national competition and the World Barista Championship. The organisation’s Germany chapter had two weeks to respond.

Similarly, in September 2022, Oatly published a tongue-in-cheek open letter to the SCA asking them to revoke the cow’s milk rule at the WBC.

While the SCA or SCA Germany never publicly responded to both of these open letters, the new rule on using plant milks is a clear indication that they were paying attention to these demands.

The explosive growth of plant milks

However, beyond these open letters, it’s been clear for some time that plant milks are exceptionally popular in coffee shops – particularly oat milk.

“So many of the coffee shops I work with in London and around the UK are serving more oat lattes and oat flat whites than dairy,” Josh says. “A lot of coffee shops I talk to say more than 80% of their milk-based drinks are made with oat milk, so it’s important that competitions also reflect this.”

Moreover, we’ve recently seen key players in specialty coffee, such as Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and Onyx Coffee Lab, use oat milk as the default in their coffee shops. These efforts were made not only in response to oat milk’s growing popularity, but to also lower their environmental impact.

“There is no future for coffee in a world of severe climate crisis, and we know our food system needs to change to stop that from happening,” Josh says. “For competitions [like the WBC] to allow the use of plant milks, it means being part of the change that needs to happen.”

The SCA’s response

Amy Ball is the SCA Events Officer. She explains that the SCA planned to update the WBC rules to include plant milks in 2021, but the pandemic forced them to push the updates back.

“The rule to include plant (and other) milks is part of a larger goal to open up the courses within the competition, and give the barista more flexibility to highlight the coffee in the way that they chose to,” she says. “The Competitions Strategic Committee made the change as a response to a strategic goal to embrace diversity.

“The change was not made to create a specific outcome,” she adds. “As with all rule changes, it may be some time before we see the full impact, but the committee is excited to see how competitions will evolve with this change.”

Effectively, the WBC is now more reflective of the values and practices of the wider specialty coffee sector. This could potentially be a way of indirectly addressing recent criticisms about the WBC in terms of exclusivity and elitism

Although there is always more room for improvement, the specialty coffee industry prides itself on inclusivity and diversity– and the popularity of plant milks is undoubtedly a big part of this.

A portafilter and coffee beans at the World Barista Championship.

How might it influence the future of the competition?

This year could be the first time that we see a competitor use plant milk on the WBC stage. 

Some coffee professionals have expressed excitement over the rule change, while others are more critical for a number of reasons. However, opinions aside, how will the introduction of this new rule change the competition?

Firstly, the plant milk rule will require WBC sensory judges to be even more calibrated – a task which is already challenging.

The new rule means competitors can use any type of commercially available plant milk, including oat, soy, almond, coconut, or even plant milk blends. Each kind has its own unique impact on beverage flavour and texture, so assessing and scoring milk course beverages could become more complicated.

Secondly, we have to question whether the plant milk rule really does create a more even playing field. Undoubtedly, it’s important that competitors who want or have to use plant milks (whether for ethical or health reasons) have the chance to take part in the WBC.

While allowing the use of plant milks certainly furthers this cause, these competitors could also be at a disadvantage. In terms of foamability and stability, each type of plant milk performs differently – with some producing better results than others.

It’s also fair to say that of all types of milk, whole cow’s milk typically steams and pours the best. Moreover, cow’s milk is much richer and creamier than plant milks – although oat milk tends to replicate these characteristics best.

This ultimately leads us to question whether competitors using cow’s milk will end up scoring higher in the milk beverage course.

A platform for innovation

Questioning the new plant milk rule is only natural, but it’s also important to note that the WBC has long been a global platform for beverage innovation in specialty coffee.

Although the cow’s milk rule had been in effect for years, many competitors have experimented with creating different milk textures and flavours even with this restriction in place. In his winning 2022 WBC performance, Australian competitor Anthony Douglas used cryodessicated milk, which significantly enhanced the sweetness and creaminess of his milk.

So if WBC sensory judges have been able to fairly score these beverages, then what’s to say they can’t do the same with plant milks?

Judges discuss World Barista Championship rules.

The 2023 World Barista Championship will take place from 22 to 24 June in Athens, Greece. 

While we are still yet to know how the new rule will change the competition in the long term, it seems inevitable that more and more competitors will switch to plant milks in the years ahead.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on plant milks & coffee: what does the future hold?

Photo credits: World Coffee Events

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