When you order a coffee, it isn’t as straightforward as merely asking for a cappuccino or a flat white. The barista will typically ask “which milk would you like”, which used to be as simple as requesting semi-skimmed over full fat. The rise in veganism in recent years has encouraged a range of alternatives to dairy in coffee shops. Vegan options go beyond that of soya; now there is a never-ending list of new milks such as oat, rice, coconut and almond influencing the market.
There is increasing transparency in the dairy industry. Cow’s milk is now less desirable to a lot of coffee drinkers who have become more aware of the supply process. Rice, oat and soy milk reportedly have combined carbon emissions amounting to a third less than dairy, estimated at 2.6kg in total compared to dairy milk at 3.2kg per litre. However, there are independent variables within each option, so further investigation should be made before making a judgement based on environmental impact. For example, increased demand for almond milk in the US is having a damaging effect on bees in California, home to 80% of the world’s almond production.
With more people guided by their moral compass, the demand for food and drink free from animal products has exploded. As more people switch from dairy to plant-based milk in their cup of coffee, we should consider different factors that impact taste and consistency.
Physical differences between dairy and plant-based
One of the compelling characteristics of dairy in coffee is the higher fat content. This gives your drink its smooth flavour to cut through the bitter espresso. David Cutler-Colclough, Coffee Specialist and Brand Ambassador for Lavazza UK says: “When looking to have all the characteristics of dairy but in a plant-based alternative, first we must understand what makes dairy so good for steaming and adding to espresso.” The components differ in dairy and plant-based milks, which affects both the flavour and the consistency of your coffee.
David says: “Dairy contains roughly 5% sugar (lactose), 3% fat and 3% protein. Protein acts as a surfactant which helps to trap tiny bubbles of air during steaming, which are then coated by the fat adding flavour and mouthfeel.” These are contributing factors to the creaminess and silky quality of your drink.
He adds: “Plant-based milks have very different make-ups which mean they behave and react differently when steaming, often resulting in unstable foam and a rougher mouthfeel due to the increase in larger air bubbles.” It is common for curdling to occur when alternatives like soya come into contact with coffee, which causes a very unpleasant drinking experience. To avoid this, try pouring the milk first, adding the coffee slowly to temper the milk or perhaps even using a low-acidity coffee.
Which milk tastes best in your coffee?
When finding which plant-based options work best for you, consider the drink you are making. “Latte is the most milk dominant coffee drink so you will notice the flavour of your milk a lot more,” David explains. He suggests almond and coconut to work particularly well in longer drinks. Other nut-flavoured milks such as hazelnut and cashew are emerging on supermarket shelves. They have a more distinctive flavour and can be more expensive.
Cappuccino has slightly more balance between milk and coffee flavour so the milk should complement the coffee in this instance. David personally prefers oat milk in his flat white when drinking a dairy alternative. “A lower proportion of milk means the flavours and texture balance nicely with those of the coffee.”
Although dairy is cheaper, plant-based milk has a much longer shelf life and is cost-effective if you buy in bulk. To discover which milk is right for you takes patience to experiment with your chosen blend, but ultimately it is down to personal taste. With growing environmental and ethical awareness, the use of milk alternatives is a trend challenging dairy and making permanent waves through the coffee world.
David Cutler-Colclough is a coffee specialist, brand ambassador for Lavazza UK and a resident coffee expert on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch.