A Guide to Dairy-Free Milk Alternatives

Recently we have been working with Gut Instinct on their new range of milk alternatives which is set to launch in September. With the undeniable rise of non-dairy milks over the last few years, this month at Bristol Twenty HQ we thought we would look at the milk choices out there and how they work with our coffees.

Hold the Dairy: Cows Milk vs Plant Milk

Before we look at milk alternatives, let’s check in with cows milk and its somewhat decline. Cows milk has been a staple for decades, and has always been thought to be packed full of essential goodness, so why are people turning their backs on it? We all love milk right?

A recent article in the Guardian implied that we might not love milk as much as we think. It stated that 15% of people of European descent, 75% of people of African decent, 50% of people of Indian descent and almost all Asian and Arabian descent are intolerant to the lactose in cows milk. But it’s still good for us right?

There are a lot of studies out there that suggest that milk is actually detrimental to our health, and in fact does not prevent osteoporosis as originally suggested. One study found that rates of osteoporosis are in fact higher in countries that have easy access to dairy products. It is suggested that lobbying efforts by the dairy industry after the World Wars, once rationing had ended, were responsible for this misinformation.

milk alternatives

Environmental Impact

On top of this, the dairy industry is also now being held up for it’s environmental impact. The methane produced by the industry is thought to be up to 23% more responsible for global warming than carbon dioxide emissions. Then there is the water used for animal feed. Its thought that to keep a single cow can use up to 5000 gallons of water a day. There is also the soil degradation from keeping livestock on land causes, and the harmful fertilizers used to grow cattle feed that are polluting the waterways from runoff.

So it’s not that great, what should we do? Basically as with everything, we should be utilising other sources for our food, so that one area isn’t over stretched.

As people begin to choose plant based foods occasionally over meat, we should also consider plant based milk alternatives over cows milk occasionally to spread the burden.

Plant based products aren’t without their flaws though.

The high levels of estrogen in soya milk are thought to contribute to hormonal health problems in men and women, although this is widely disputed.
The water needed to grow almonds for almond milk, in the California desert, is still substantial albeit less than the dairy industry. However coconuts that grow with little water and oat which is a winter crop, have less impact again. If we were to change our thinking and alternate our choice of milk, or even omit it once in a while, this would help to spread the pressure on any one industry.

So when choosing which milk to use how do you go about it?

Milk alternatives are usually made by blending water with a seed, nut, or grain, and adding thickeners and emulsifiers to create a creamy texture and prevent separation. They are also fortified with vitamins and minerals, with the same or more calcium and Vitamin D than would be found in regular cow’s milk.

There are many reasons to choose non-dairy milks and almost as many types to pick from. But which plant milk works best with specialty coffee? Can you make a vegan latte that tastes good?

It can be difficult to know whether to choose soya, almond, or oat milk. Some non-dairy options have overpowering flavors and others are difficult to foam.

In recent years, the use of plant milks has exploded. Many people are trying to reduce their intake of animal products and the specialty coffee market is no exception.

Let’s find out more about the different qualities of plant milks and which ones best complement your coffee.

milk alternatives

Whether you choose non-dairy milk for ethical, health, or other reasons, it’s important to find one that doesn’t overwhelm the subtleties of your coffee.

Types of Plant Milk

This is probably the best-known plant milk around the world.

milk alternatives

People have been using soya alternatives to animal products for generations. It is great not just for those who want to avoid dairy, but also for people with nut allergies. It is also widely available.

But dependant on the manufacturer and additives, soya can either foam very well or not-so-well. It can texture well, but from my experience this tends to be down to brand and barista experience. You need to control the spin in the pitcher really well to be able to keep a great texture with soya.

And how does it taste? Some say soya is a great neutral-flavored milk that can work well with specialty coffee. Others report it as tasting like cardboard. I personally find the taste overpowers many of the lighter, more delicate roasts, it varies, but can be quite overpowering. The nutty flavor means that soya can complement coffee from South American origins but distort the qualities of African beans, which tend to have fruity notes.

In this little study I completely changed my mind about soya, it textured well and tasted good in a lot of the coffees. I particular think it works best with our Copan-Cabana and Heritage blends.

This dairy alternative has reportedly overtaken soya milk as the leading plant milk in recent years.

milk alternatives

Some consumers prefer it because of concerns about soya’s relationship with female hormones. Others are worried about almond farming’s use of water. But how well does almond milk work with specialty coffee?

This would be my second-favorite plant milk but be cautious as some brands often split in the cup. This is when the milk curdles and separates. It is more likely to happen with an acidic coffee and can also be caused by a large difference in temperature between the coffee and milk. The barista versions tend to work better, but the use of stabilizers in the milk make me question its healthy credentials.

With all brands of almond milk I’ve worked with, regular or barista version, there in an overwhelming bitterness in the first few sips. Once you get past that, it can be enjoyable, really sweet and smooth.

It can definitely complement some light roasts but higher acidity cups will distort and get an odd sourness. Latte art is easily manageable and texture can be good with a barista almond milk. I think it works best with some of our single estate coffees in particular the Las Acacias Estate from Colombia.

This plant milk is quickly gaining popularity, and for good reason.

milk alternativesIt has the most neutral flavor of all alternatives to dairy and doesn’t overpower the coffee. If you’re having a Brazilian bean, you’ll taste Brazil. If you’re having an Ethiopian, you’ll taste Ethiopia. Depending on the brand, it can work much better than dairy for taste, but texturing depends on brand and the water-to-oil ratio.

Some companies seem to have tried to mimic the qualities of dairy and match its nutritional content as closely as possible, which I think has backfired. These products can be too oily, and therefore mask the coffee flavors and taste nutty.

Other manufacturers have put the coffee first and made plant-based milks to suit light coffee. Their fat content is less, with not as much oil. Therefore, the coffee remains the focus of the drink, which is how I believe it should be. I think it works best out of all of the alternative milks and tastes great with any of our espresso blends, especially Formula 442 and Formula 318.

Hemp, hazelnut, and cashew milks are widely disregarded for speciality coffee drinks.

  • milk alternativesHazelnut has a distinctive flavor that can mask or distort the nuances of the beans.
  • Hemp doesn’t maintain any texture at all and will just break down instantly. It also bubbles no matter how I’ve textured it. It has a fairly neutral flavor, meaning the taste of the coffee can peak through nicely, but leaves a watery, runny mouthfeel that I find undesirable. Hemp is too watery to work with.
  • Cashew milk has a milder flavor than almond milk but is also naturally sweeter, which can be overwhelming in coffee. It also doesn’t foam well. These types of milks are less commercially available and can be more expensive than soya, almond, and oat products.
  • Coconut milk is creamy and rich, which helps it mimic the mouthfeel of a dairy-based drink. But it has a lot of saturated fat, which masks coffee flavors, and it has a distinctive taste of its own. There are a number of products combining coconut with other plant milks to bring body and creaminess to otherwise watery milks. Coconut milk works well with our matcha, turmeric, beetroot powders as well as our range of hot chocolate, but not so good in coffee. Although the 21TEN blend does taste good against the sweetness of the coconut, even though the texture is a bit watery.

This is probably the best-known plant milk around the world. People have been using soya alternatives to animal products for generations. It is great not just for those who want to avoid dairy, but also for people with nut allergies. It is also widely available.

But dependant on the manufacturer and additives, soya can either foam very well or not-so-well. It can texture well, but from my experience this tends to be down to brand and barista experience. You need to control the spin in the pitcher really well to be able to keep a great texture with soya.

And how does it taste? Some say soya is a great neutral-flavored milk that can work well with
specialty coffee. Others report it as tasting like cardboard. I personally find the taste overpowers
many of the lighter, more delicate roasts, it varies, but can be quite overpowering. The nutty
flavor means that soya can complement coffee from South American origins but distort the
qualities of African beans, which tend to have fruity notes.

In this little study I completely changed my mind about soya, it textured well and tasting good in
a lot of the coffees. I particular I think it works best with our Copan- Cabana and Heritage
blends.

This dairy alternative has reportedly overtaken soya milk as the leading plant milk in recent years. Some consumers prefer it because of concerns about soya’s relationship with female hormones. Others are worried about almond farming’s use of water. But how well does almond milk work with specialty coffee?

This would be my second-favorite plant milk but be cautious as some brands often split in the cup. This is when the milk curdles and separates. It is more likely to happen with an acidic coffee and can also be caused by a large difference in temperature between the coffee and milk. The barista versions tend to work better, but the use of stabilizers in the milk make me question its healthy credentials.

With all brands of almond milk I’ve worked with, regular or barista version, there in an overwhelming bitterness in the first few sips. Once you get past that, it can be enjoyable, really sweet and smooth.

It can definitely complement some light roasts but higher acidity cups will distort and get an odd sourness. Latte art is easily manageable and texture can be good with a barista almond milk. I think it works best with some of our single estate coffees in particular the Las Acacias Estate from Colombia.

This plant milk is quickly gaining popularity, and for good reason. It has the most neutral flavor of all alternatives to dairy and doesn’t overpower the coffee. If you’re having a Brazilian bean, you’ll taste Brazil. If you’re having an Ethiopian, you’ll taste Ethiopia. Depending on the brand, it can work much better than dairy for taste, but texturing depends on brand and the water-to-oil ratio.

Some companies seem to have tried to mimic the qualities of dairy and match its nutritional content as closely as possible, which I think has backfired. These products can be too oily, and therefore mask the coffee flavors and taste nutty.

Other manufacturers have put the coffee first and made plant-based milks to suit light coffee. Their fat content is less, with not as much oil. Therefore, the coffee remains the focus of the drink, which is how I believe it should be. I think it works best out of all of the alternative milks and tastes great with any of our espresso blends, especially Formula 442 and Formula 318.

Hemp, hazelnut, and cashew milks are widely disregarded for speciality coffee drinks. Hazelnut has a distinctive flavor that can mask or distort the nuances of the beans. And hemp is too watery to work with.

  • Hemp doesn’t maintain any texture at all and will just break down instantly. It also bubbles no matter how I’ve textured it. It has a fairly neutral flavor, meaning the taste of the coffee can peak through nicely, but leaves a watery, runny mouthfeel that I find undesirable.
  • Cashew milk has a milder flavor than almond milk but is also naturally sweeter, which can be overwhelming in coffee. It also doesn’t foam well. These types of milks are less commercially available and can be more expensive than soya, almond, and oat products.
  • Coconut milk is creamy and rich, which helps it mimic the mouthfeel of a dairy-based drink. But it has a lot of saturated fat, which masks coffee flavors, and it has a distinctive taste of its own. There are a number of products combining coconut with other plant milks to bring body and creaminess to otherwise watery milks. Coconut milk works well with our matcha, turmeric, beetroot powders as well as our range of hot chocolate, but not so good in coffee. Although the 21TEN blend does taste good against the sweetness of the coconut, even though the texture is a bit watery.
milk alternatives

Handling the Heat

How milk reacts to heat and foaming depends on its proteins. Vegan milks obviously contain different proteins than the lactose and whey proteins in cow milk, so they behave differently under stress.

Temperature changes, the acidity of coffee, and the impact of frothing cause plant milks to curdle more easily. I would advise steaming dairy-free milks to a slightly lower temperature than cow’s milk to prevent this from happening.

With any non-dairy milk, pay attention to the ingredients list. There are many products made specifically for baristas that are designed to handle the strains of coffee preparation. The additives in these products vary among manufacturers.

Stabilizers are often added to allow the milk to better handle heat and foaming, so products containing these are good choices to create a cappuccino. But if you’re looking for a “clean” alternative to dairy, you may prefer versions without any stabilizers, even if it means a flatter drink.

Also, take a look at the amount and type of sweeteners and fats that are included and consider whether they are complementary to the coffee beans you’re using.

Too much fat or sugar can mask coffee flavors and be unpleasant to drink. You can’t simply treat plant milks as dairy.

People don’t consider the difference of flavor when you add milk, be that dairy, oat, or soya. It will dramatically change the flavor of the coffee.

My Top Pick

My overall preference as the most versatile alternative that textures would have to be oat. But you do need to make sure it works across your menu. As well as dialling in your espresso each day, I would suggest dial in a flat white with oat milk.

Dial it in for the alternative milk and you’re in a whole other ball park. You begin to understand how different origins benefit different alternative milks and what works best. This way you can order coffees that are at their peak with your alternative milk of choice.

There is an increasingly large choice in the non-dairy milk market and many products are created for baristas. With this variety, it is likely you can find a plant milk that works with your choice of specialty coffee and lifestyle.

So, take a look at different milks and make sure to read the ingredient lists. If you’re still uncertain, ask your roaster for their suggestion and try a few different kinds with different beans. You might be surprised which plant milks complement the flavor notes in your coffee. I would also encourage people to try out alternatives or even enjoy your coffee black once in a while.

Spreading your choices across a wide range reduces intense farming in any one field.

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