A taste test of alternatives to milk milk
Once upon a time the only milk available was, well, milk milk. That is, it originated from a mammal, mostly cows but also goats or sheep. However, in much the same way that coffee is no longer just coffee there has been an explosion in the non-dairy milk offer found on both the supermarket shelf and in your local coffee shop.
We started out with soya milk as our only dairy free alternative but today find ourselves stocking almond and oat milk and are increasingly hearing requests for coconut milk. It’s quite extraordinary how this market has exploded in just a few years but little is written about the impact this spectrum of flavours has on your cappuccino or latté. Do you still get an enjoyable cup of coffee or is it more of an endurance test? Can we as coffee shop owners made a recommendation as to which coffees work best with which milk alternatives?
Well there was only one way to find out and that was to do some comparative tasting of some of our most popular drinks. I chose a filter coffee, a cappuccino and a latté and compared the drink quality of a drink made with dairy v non-dairy. I was surprised and depressed in equal measure!
This is quite a gentle extraction process so I was expecting to see notable differences in flavour but was pleasantly surprised.
Visually, the oat milk leaves the coffee looking quite dark whereas all the other alternatives gave a similar appearance.
Aromatically, dairy brings a soft sweetness to the drink, something that is not achieved with the non-dairy alternatives, however the oat milk gets closest.
Taste – Dairy will always give a sweeter taste as the fat of the milk coats your taste buds. Despite its dark appearance, the oat milk does still soften the coffee taste. Soya is also acceptable. However, the almond milk brings a slightly unpleasant dryness to the mouth.
Overall the milk alternatives held up surprisingly well.
As an espresso based drink the coffee base is more intense than a filter coffee. It is however the milk steaming process that results in quite different finishes between the milk alternatives.
Visually, the dairy milk gives the best appearance with a glaze of thick micro-bubbles. Both almond and oat achieve a dense foam, but not as fine as dairy. Steaming soya milk is a fight, and achieving a consistent micro-foam is nigh on impossible. This is reflected when the steamed soya milk is poured on the espresso. The crema starts to split and results in an unappetising messy appearance.
Aromatically, again dairy delivers a light sweet aroma, however the news isn’t so good for the non-dairy alternatives. The distinctive aroma of soya really does dominate the coffee, whereas both oat and almond tend to neutralise the aromatics.
Taste – Dairy delivers a well-balanced sweetness. Oat milk has a sharp taste and you get the sense that the foam simply sits on top of the coffee unlike dairy which combines well through the whole drink. Soya though overwhelms the taste buds and it’s a struggle to get any sense of the coffee flavours. Finally, almond milk tastes truly dreadful. The dryness you get in the filter coffee moves up a few levels on the taste scale and becomes papery and stale. It made me wonder why we offer almond as a non-dairy alternative.
Visually both oat and almond milk have a similar appearance to dairy milk but as soon as you add the coffee shot the oat milk takes on quite a dark appearance. Soya milk visually looks almost lumpy and from experience can easily “split” if too hot when the coffee is added. Almond milk has the most similar appearance to its dairy cousin.
Aromatically, soya is the most pungent and in my view is truly unpleasant, however both almond and oat are tolerable.
Taste - this is a completely different kettle of fish. Soya latté I’m afraid is truly dreadful and in my view shouldn’t be anywhere near a coffee shop. Almond milk in turn has this overwhelmingly old paper flavour and it too brings into question why it should darken the serving area of any decent coffee shop. On the positive side oat milk does actually give the impression that you are drinking a Café Latté.
In conclusion, whilst there is no doubt that dairy milk and coffee offers the best combination of flavours, I do feel that oat milk isn’t too far behind. From my taste test I would suggest that coffee shop baristas should be looking to recommend alternative coffee roast styles to those looking for non-dairy alternatives. For instance, although you might normally use a dark roasted coffee in a latté made with dairy, why not suggest a medium or light roasted coffee for oat milk?
It’s more difficult to make a similar recommendation for soya and almond as their inherent flavour is so overwhelming. Probably best to stick with a darker roasted coffee to give the drink a fighting chance!