Article by Sean Edwards Managing Director Café Culture Magazine – Café consultant
Oat milk has been my go-to for the last few years and as it seems, I am not the only one.
I love dairy but dairy doesn’t love me. Like most ageing adults, dairy intolerances can creep slowly into your life and stomach issues can start to occur after dairy consumption. Dairy is still an amazing feat of nature and provides incredible nutritional benefits.
I made the slow switch to plant based milks when I first started to work in marketing almond milk about seven years ago. I never really liked soy milk and lactose free milk was always too sweet in my coffee.
Almond was a good starting point in my plant milk journey, but it always challenged me with its strong almond flavours slightly distorting my milk-based coffee which had its own unique profile.
Like many people switching from dairy, I pretended not to think about it too much. When I discovered oat milk, it was a positive swing to my belief that you can create the perfect plant based cafe milk, thereby happy flat white drinkers again!
I have been extremely lucky in my career to be at the forefront of developing plant based milks for cafes and selling this concept to the consumer.
I do admit it was only a few years back when most plant based alternatives were pretty average when combined with espresso coffee. They would never foam up well when they were heated, they would split when added to coffee, tasted terrible and were horrible shades of browns and greys.
Since then, I have worked with some of the smartest food businesses in the world and have met some very clever food scientists who were willing to listen to the industry and design products that fitted into the process of making a great milk-based cafe beverage.
It’s not an easy job to try and replicate nature and design a non-natural milk that will work just like dairy when heated by steam and combined with strong acidic espresso.
I can see at the moment, plant milk businesses are going through a development phase, exactly just what the dairy industry experienced 10 years ago when cow’s milk had to be designed to get around the seasonality issue.
National dairy businesses were constantly experiencing milk that would not steam at the change of each season. Scientists at the time struggled with the lipolysis effect and they had to make radical changes to the milk that was heading off to cafes.
We saw big changes in cafe milk design, like protein and fats being added to cafe dairy milks and the introduction of whey via adding permeates.
The plant milk businesses are now at the same design phase with developing cafe milks and will probably be there for some time yet. Lifestyle choices are another big change that did not exist when dairy was at its peak and consumer buying trends are now more educated and observant.
Choosing a plant milk in a cafe is not all about being just a high quality product, it’s also about personal choices like ethics, environment, family and the choice of diet you are dabbling in.
This brings me back to oat milk as the most preferred plant milk in cafe. Why is this the case?
Oats have been consumed for hundreds of years as a breakfast cereal, mostly as a porridge-based meal. The natural creaminess of oats when combined with water gives a similar mouthfeel to dairy milk and the flavours are quite subtle and naturally sweet due to the natural maltose in the oat.
When plant milk creators started exploring with oats, the process was much more simplified in the design as the challenges were far less than with other strong flavoured nut milks. Oat milk is lower in protein, so other plant proteins are often added to stabilize these milks.
Another task is getting the foamability right, oat milk needs to have surface emulsifiers added to give stability to the milk to prevent splitting through the heating and coffee blending process of a cafe drink.
Stabilizers can be gums and lecithin’s, and fats from vegetable oils are also added for better flavour and mouthfeel.
I am often getting asked my professional opinion on what the next plant milk to enter the cafe market will be and I am hedging my bets that oat will be around for a few more years and will be top of the pack in the coffee world very soon.
Almond is still number one and soy drinkers will never change their positioning. If you look at the current industry reports coming out of the UK, oat milk has doubled its sales in the home market in the last 12 months with revenue sales of over 300 million dollars.
This is also happening in Australia with companies like The Alternative Dairy Co going from their introduction of oat in the cafe two years ago to now leading the cafe sector, passing strong competitors like Oatly and Minor figures.
ADC has seen unbelievable growth rates of 951% and that was also just the cafe sector in a Covid climate.
This is being driven by popular choices from smart cafe businesses who are seeing through the smoke and mirrors of marketing to get on board with a company that has concentrated totally on creating the perfect plant base for them and their customers.
Plant milks have also risen I believe, due to a slow destruction of the dairy industry and their lack of involvement in the cafe industry.
Running a cafe/coffee media business, we saw 10 years ago a big investment in product development from the dairy industry into the cafe/coffee arena.
My business at the time benefitted immensely from the excitement of milk-based beverages in cafe with good revenue in sponsorship, consulting and advertisement. Like today, coffee milk-based beverages are still around 95% of all cafe coffees served.
The dairy industry started focusing on retail to the point where retailers controlled them completely in pricing and formulation, thus losing site of their profitable cafe business.
I believe big changes to the dairy industry, with major overseas sell-offs and large structural adjustments has definitely led them to losing big chunks of their business to the lifestyle market of plant based followers.
Plant based milk companies are throwing mega dollars at the industry with now some of the biggest food base giants like Nestle, Kerry and Danone raising billions to enter the market.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos helped raise 235 million dollars for new start plant business NotCo with NotMilk along with plant based converted celebrities like Roger Federer and Lewis Hamilton.
The dairy Industry, in my eyes, has lost their way and need to reboot its whole concept and start respecting the farmers, the land and their once loyal consumer, otherwise dairy milk will become extinct.
Yes, there will be another hero in the cafe plant milk arena as future trends change and technology gets better.
It’s so hard to see what’s next, whether it’s AI (Artificial Intelligence) milk, Pea Protein milk or a fruit milk. I also see movement with barista formulations using blends of different plant combinations which has always worked well with coffee and wine.
Just Saying! Why not add soy to stabilize an oat drink, or a more nutrient rich pea or vegetable protein to create the perfect cafe milk. Some of the worlds largest food service businesses are already advancing in this development and have the budget to be front of mind with consumers. Watch out!
I am still backing oat milk for the next 5 years because it works for myself and millions of new followers.
Drinking a milk-based coffee has become a major pleasure to the Australian coffee consumer and the world is following our un-weaned national habits. Having oat as a replacement for dairy has been one of the biggest and sustainable trends I have seen in the marketplace over the last 20 years.
The momentum for plant milk is not stopping and they will just get better designed for all facets of food service markets, so sit back and taste the future.
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