Alternative milks claim to be great for the planet and your coffee, but are they really that good. We tested as many as we could, so you don't have to.
Non-dairy alternatives to milk have seen a huge rise in popularity, but which work best with speciality coffee?
In the words of Mark Kurlansky, author of Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, dairy is “one of the most argued-over foods in human history”. One minute it’s essential for good health, the next it’s branded an environmental killer. But while that argument may never be settled, one thing is for sure: the past decade or so has seen the arrival of a whole range of exciting and diverse alternatives to milk.
Until the late 2000s, the only real alternative to milk for those with lactose intolerance was soya (or soy) milk. That came with its own health controversies – too much can be bad for those with thyroid disease and is said to cause fertility problems – and it wasn’t always easy to find. Few people actively chose to drink soya milk anyway; doing so was seen as an oddity. But something has changed. Around the world, plant-based alternatives to milk – also known as “mylks” – now form an industry estimated to be worth $16 billion. According to market research company Mintel, UK mylk sales have increased by 30% since 2015. It seems the consumption of mylk has shifted from dietary requirement to lifestyle choice.
So why are people drawn to the alternatives? According to the British Nutrition Foundation, only about 5% of the UK are thought to suffer any degree of lactose maldigestion, but far more people than this have been choosing non-dairy alternatives. This is partly because of the general rise in plant-based diets, but people also choose mylks for health reasons: most are lower in saturated fats than cow’s milk (and other animal-derived products such as goat’s milk), while rice and coconut mylks rarely cause allergic reactions, and almond is a better source of vitamin E than dairy. Another key reason for switching to mylks is the increasing evidence that dairy farming is harmful to the environment.
Test the best
There’s no doubt that mylks are here to stay, and the shift in consumption has brought an explosion of different options – you name the nut or seed, and chances are someone has turned it into a mylk. There’s even a machine called the Nutramilk Nut Processor that allows you to make your own mylk. This was used at the 2018 UK Barista Championship by Will Pitts, who created a salted cashew cream for his competition drinks and came a creditable fourth overall.
Which brings us to the reason we’re talking about this: how do all these options work with speciality coffee? If you’re a barista or café owner, what do you offer your customers? Caffeine decided to test as many non-dairy alternatives as possible to see which would work the best with the top-drawer coffee we love.
We rounded up 16 different mylks to test with the help of baristas Lauren, Simone and Ollie at Extract Coffee in Sustainable Bankside. Each mylk was served in both a natural and washed coffee (we used Extract’s natural Unkle Funka and washed Dr Strangelove) and these were served blind to our team of judges: Ceiran Trigg of Ancestors Coffee, Jessica Worden of Gail’s Bakery and Sonja Wittenberg of Well Grounded.
They judged each mylk on flavour (acidity, sweetness and balance), texture and mouthfeel, whether it stretched and foamed, whether it held the pattern and uniformity when used in latte art, and whether it would work in a professional setting.
Without further ado, let’s press on to the results…
Our expert baristas found that oat mylk was one of the easiest alternatives to use in speciality coffee. Not only is it fairly neutral in flavour, it works well in both natural and washed espressos. All four of the oat mylks (Alpro Oat for Professionals, Califia Farms Oat, Oatly and Rude Health Oat) proved pleasant to work with – all steamed easily and became silky in the jug with no unpleasant aromas.
In fact, the oat mylks did so well in the tests that there was very little for the judges to criticise. All four combined well with the coffee and held their latte art well, making it hard to choose a clear winner.
When pushed to pick one, though, the judges decided that Oatly’s Barista Edition provided a highly natural flavour, allowing the flavour of both espressos to really shine through without much distortion, and was the best oat mylk on the table. Rude Health’s Oat also impressed our baristas and judges, steaming well and holding latte art impressively, and blending well with the espressos’ complex flavours.
Caffeine recommends… Oatly Barista Edition
As with oat, there are plenty of almond mylks on the market to choose from. In our tests were Rude Health Barista Almond Organic, Califia Farms Barista Blend Almond, Alpro for Professionals Almond and Blue Diamond Almond Breeze.
It should be said that almond mylk, unlike other mylks, has come under fire from environmentalists: reports claim it takes approximately five litres of water to grow just one almond*. And with 80% of the world’s almond production in California, which frequently experiences severe droughts, it is hard to square this as a sustainable choice. (It’s also worth noting that Alpro sources its almonds from the Mediterranean region.)
Almond mylk has also had a bad reputation in the speciality coffee world, with many reporting that it curdles when combined with coffee, primarily because of its acidity levels. To combat this problem, wait for the espresso to cool slightly before pouring in almond mylk.
Another factor that can count against it is that many almond mylks are sweetened. If you’re choosing mylk over dairy as part of a healthier lifestyle, almond may not be the wisest choice – or, at least, it requires you to check the ingredients and nutrition info carefully. It also has a naturally lower fat content than other mylks, which means it can be difficult to froth and won’t hold latte art.
Despite its reputation, though, our judges and baristas were pleasantly surprised by Rude Health’s Barista almond mylk. When paired with both Unkle Funka and Dr Strangelove, it was well balanced and didn’t mask the taste of the coffee too much. It did add a cherry-like sweetness, which may be a little overpowering for some, but it held latte art very well and produced a lovely shiny foam. Califia Farms’ mylk also produced a well-balanced cup with a slightly buttery texture and a more subtle level of sweetness.
It’s a temperamental product, though. It could be viable for speciality cafés, but you’d need to ensure your baristas were experienced in working with it before unleashing it on customers.
Caffeine recommends… Rude Health Barista Almond Organic
As the original alternative milk, soya is already found in many speciality cafés. One of the main reasons it remains the alternative of choice for many is that its flavour isn’t too distant from dairy.
Much like almond, soya has seen controversy over its environmental credentials. Brazil is one of the leading producers – it’s the country’s biggest export by value – but soya production is one of the major causes of deforestation in the Amazon, according to ethicalconsumer.org.
We had three soya mylks on test: Bonsoy, Happy Happy Soy Boy and Alpro for Professionals Soya. While they all allowed the flavours of the espresso to cut through, they separated rather quickly in the cup and resulted in inconsistent latte art. Happy Happy Soy Boy steamed well and became beautifully glossy, but didn’t combine with the coffee that successfully. The same occurred with Alpro’s soya – while it steamed well, the mylk seemed to fall under the coffee’s crema when poured into the cup.
The overall favourite among our experts was Bonsoy. It steamed well, giving the coffee a glossy finish, and while the latte art it produced wasn’t amazing, Bonsoy was the most stable of the three mylks tested.
Caffeine recommends… Bonsoy
We only had two barista-standard coconut mylks to put to the test, and they definitely had the most distinctive flavours of all the mylks in our trial. Some may find these too dominating in coffee.
Still, both the coconut mylks we tasted – Alpro and Koko – were well received by the baristas and judges, although they wondered how speciality coffee drinkers would feel about them considering how much the intense flavour masks the coffee’s complex notes. Mouthfeel, too, may play a large part in whether or not customers choose it – it’s oilier than other mylks owing to coconut’s high fat content.
That said, the consensus was that coconut mylk, particularly the Alpro, would be ideal in creative espresso-based drinks and therefore could work well in cafés that want to offer more than the standard flat white or cappuccino.
Our judges also thought that Koko was complementary to the acidity of the Unkle Funka natural, giving it a lovely cherry pie-like flavour.
Caffeine recommends… Alpro Coconut for Professionals
Besides the more common types of plant-based mylk, we got our hands on some other interesting products, namely Milkadamia (derived from macadamia nuts), Rebel Mylk (a mix of rice, cashew and coconut) and Good Hemp (hemp seeds).
These divided our judges, as their intense flavours seemed to mask those of the coffee. Milkadamia and Rebel Mylk would make great additions to a drink for anyone with a sweet tooth, so might be perfect for you if you tend to opt for hot chocolates and mochas. Good Hemp, on the other hand, has a grassy taste and a strong aroma that most of the panel found unappealing.
The Caffeine verdict
It’s fair to say not all alternatives to milk are made equal. There’s not much to be gained from trying to find that one product that out-performs all others, or from pitting plant-based products against dairy. Rather, we should be championing their differences and potential to create new and exciting flavour dynamics. As Nick Barnard of Rude Health told the Guardian, “If you like almond, then have almond; if you like gold top and you’re not lactose-intolerant, then have that. Celebrate diversity.”
Just as it’s difficult to judge mylks directly against dairy, it’s tricky to judge one type of mylk against another. An oat mylk will always produce a cup with different flavours from coconut, and so on. Each mylk suits different purposes, different taste preferences and coffees with different flavour profiles. In fact, if you’re considering using multiple mylks in your café, you should consider adapting your brewing process to suit each one.
So, whether you’re a barista or a customer, what are your best bets when it comes to choosing a mylk to put in your coffee? Our judges agreed that as it stands, oat and soya are the best for a consistently good cup. This is largely down to the structure of the plant proteins they contain, and their ability to let the flavours of the coffee shine through rather than masking them completely. However, that isn’t to say that other mylks don’t have a place in café offerings – our panel recommended Alpro’s coconut and Rude Health’s almond.
In reality, it’s not financially feasible for most independent cafés to stock every mylk option. If pushed to pick one, our experts found that the mylk that worked consistently well with both washed and natural coffee was oat. It’s easily adaptable to speciality coffee, and therefore it’s a pretty safe starting point.
There are a few things that you can do to make your plant-based mylk options work better for your customers. While it certainly isn’t easy to get mylks to perform exactly the same way as dairy (because of the biological structure of the proteins), you can ensure you’re steaming the mylk to a slightly lower temperature than dairy, which will prevent curdling as much as possible (although it won’t play well with the “extra hot brigade”).
Judge Ceiran from Norwich’s Ancestors also pointed out that we are often too concerned with dialling in the coffee to make the espresso perfect, when we should probably focus more on dialling it in so it works best with the milk (or mylk). Considering milky coffees make up roughly two-thirds of café sales, according to our friends in the business, this idea seems like a winner.
One of the hallmarks of speciality coffee is taste, and the taste of the coffee itself should always be top priority. The flavour profile of any milk or mylk, and how much it masks or distorts the coffee’s flavour profile, has to be factored into your decision when choosing alternatives.