7 creamy non-dairy milk options at coffee shops

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The dairy-free market in the US is currently the top-selling plant-based food category. Valued at $2.5 billion in 2020, plant-based milk accounts for 35 percent of all plant-based food sales and 15 percent of all dairy (including animal milk) sales. It’s clearly gained an audience outside of vegan consumers, and that popularity has spread beyond grocery stores to coffee shops. Consumers want the option to enjoy plant-based milk not only at home, but also when ordering their daily latte or cappuccino. The category has exploded with options and new brands over the past decade, not only growing in size but also improving the product. Due to the vastness of this vegan milk market, it’s becoming increasingly common to find a wide variety in coffeeshops. No longer limited to just soy or almonds, both chain and independent cafes typically stock a range of non-dairy options from a range of brands, giving a bit of competition to the once-dominant Califia Farms and Oatly. From classic soy to up-and-coming pistachio, here’s everything you need to know about dairy-free options for your next coffee run.

7 dairy-free options in cafes

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1 Soy milk

While soy was once the only option, it’s being banned from many coffee shops to make way for the newer milk varieties. Soy has also fallen out of favor with many consumers due to the constant misinformation surrounding this innocent vegan beverage (more on the latter here — no, soy doesn’t give men “man boobs”). We’re personally frustrated with the withdrawal of soy as a non-dairy option, as the original has its merits when it comes to coffee and espresso beverages. Soy milk not only offers a parallel nutritional value label to cow’s milk (hello, eight grams of whole protein), it also foams excellently. In the hands of a decent barista and a functional espresso maker, soymilk can transform into velvety, tiny microfoam bubbles that provide “that first sip sensation,” as Starbucks puts it. The coffee giant introduced soy milk to its menus starting in 1997, and while there’s still a premium for this non-dairy drink, we’re relieved the company has kept soy as an option. In terms of flavor, barista-grade soy milk (such as Pacific Barista Series Soy or Starbucks’ sweetened variety) is tasteless and tends to fade into the background to bring out the flavor of the espresso. Soy milk is also tough enough to withstand heat. While other dairy products can curdle or literally taste burnt, soy remains constant. Let’s give soy another chance and put it back in the coffee shops.

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2 almond

Almond milk was one of the first non-dairy milk products, dethroning soy. By the mid-2010s, almond milk was gaining popularity—likely due to the growing retail success of Califia Farms almond milk—and either displaced almond milk to soy or completely displaced it from independent and later multi-location coffeeshops. Califia Farms claimed that its barista blend, Almondmilk — developed specifically for baristas — was the top choice plant-based milk in over 600 leading coffee shops by 2016. to rave about the superior foamability and versatility of almond milk. The marketing stunt worked, and almond milk is still popular as a dairy-free option on countless cafe menus. We’ve found that almond milk, even a barista mix, doesn’t foam quite as well as soy. It takes a skilled barista and a very expensive espresso machine to get good results when it comes to microfoam. Drinks without a lot of foam — like flat whites, macchiatos, or cortados — work better with almond milk than lattes or cappuccinos. Iced drinks also work well with almond milk since there is no foam at all.

As far as flavor goes, we found that almond milk can taste a bit burnt if the barista doesn’t keep the steam temperature under control. An espresso drink should be ready to drink as soon as your name is called – if you want to get really technical, the milk should never be frothed above 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, not all coffee shops are that specific, so chances are your almond milk tastes burnt. To balance this out, choose a flavored drink that you can pair with almond milk. An almond milk matcha latte easily masks any odd tastes caused by barista mistakes.

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3 oat milk

While almond milk hasn’t gone away, oat milk has certainly done its best to dethrone its predecessor. These dairy-free options were largely unknown in the US until Oatly hit the market in 2018. The Swedish brand slowly introduced their revolutionary product, putting it in the very capable hands of New York City’s most elite and enduring baristas in 2017. Coffee shop regulars were hooked, and by 2018 they could find Oatly in US grocery stores. The brand continued its expansion into coffee shops, eventually ending up in big chains like Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee in 2020. Starbucks’ debut was so celebrated that the chain suffered months of oat milk shortages due to unrelenting and immediate customer demand.

Oatly is still a major player in the coffee scene, but it’s not the only one. An Australian brand called Minor Figures began discreetly making inroads into independent and third-wave cafes. Longtime plant milk brands like Pacific and Califia Farms have also formulated oat products to keep up with the oat milk craze.

People love oat milk for many of the same reasons soy works so well in espresso drinks. It’s thick and creamy, lathers easily and doesn’t have an unpleasant aftertaste. Note: Oat milk is lower in protein than soy milk, but provides about twice as many calories for the same 8-ounce serving.

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4 coconut

Coconut milk has never been as popular as soy, oat or almond milk, but it doesn’t want to die out. Starbucks still carries this old-school option, as do a few independent stores. In terms of foam, coconut milk isn’t the easiest to work with. This milk is rather thin, making microfoam is basically a futile attempt. As you’d expect, coconut milk also carries a slight coconut flavor that isn’t completely masked by espresso. It works in fruity applications like Starbucks soft drinks and pink/purple/green drinks, and it’s also a passable option for iced drinks that don’t contain foam. Attention coffee lovers: you run the risk of curdling your coffee if you use coconut milk as a creamer.

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5 macadamia

As with oat milk, there really is only one prominent player in the macadamia milk category. Aptly named Milkadamia, this vegan dairy company focuses on macadamias. The Latte Da product was designed for espresso and froth applications, and while not as common as oats or almonds, macadamia milk is beginning to overtake soy in terms of availability.

Macadamia milk’s foamability is on par with almond milk — it’s not great, but a good barista and a $5,000 machine can produce decent microfoam. The option also carries a very distinct taste. It’s not quite macadamia, but it’s slightly sweet and very present when simply paired with espresso. That taste, too, can be masked by ordering a flavored drink like a sweet macadamia milk mocha.

VegNews.Elmhurst pistachioElmhorst 1925

6 pistachio

Pistachio milk is brand new on the coffee shop scene and could be the next non-dairy oat trend. The novel product was presented to food industry leaders at the Natural Products Expo West 2022 trade show in March, and the general consensus swooned. Elmhurst 1925 set up a retro coffee bar, staffed by an experienced barista who prepared pistachio milk cortados and petit lattes on request. The microfoam was on point and the flavor was unique, yet soothing and thoroughly enjoyable. Elmhurst is currently sourcing its pistachio milk from cafes. Keep an eye out for this non-dairy milk option at your local store in the months to come.

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7 hybrid milk

These non-dairy milk products are not targeted to any specific milk and are made exclusively for cafes. They claim to be a blend of botanicals that deliver extra-smooth espresso drinks that foam, feel and taste just like whole milk milk. These newer options are mostly made up of coconut cream, oil, water, and some sort of isolated protein like pea or sunflower. The high fat content allows them to produce high-quality foam, but this comes at the cost of using processed ingredients. Three hybrid non-dairy brands making their way into independent stores and some retailers are Myracle Milk, Rebel Kitchen, and Sprud. Flavor varies between brands, but flavored drinks work best to mask the aftertaste. Go for a hot drink made with hybrid milk for their superior foaming ability – they do it best.

You can find more vegan coffee guides at:
The Essential Vegan Guide to Summer Peet’s Drinks
The essential guide to summertime Starbucks drinks
Here’s how much extra you pay for non-dairy milk at coffee shops

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