Coffee shops sell more milk than they do coffee. We may as well call them milk shops, says Jesse Kahn of Durham, North Carolina-based speciality coffee purveyor, Counter Culture Coffee. "The most popular drink that most coffee shops sell is a 12-ounce milk-and-espresso drink," he explains. It's what most coffee shops call a latte. As such, the type of milk or dairy alternative a shop serves is one of its most important decisions.
In recent years, the "milks" on offer in high-end coffee shop have shifted toward more dairy-free options. With the rise of restricted diets—and a heightened awareness of food ethics—dairy substitutes have become a vital commodity.
When America’s second-wave coffee shops popped up in the 90s, soy milk was usually the only dairy alternative, if there was one at all. And the soy milk on offer—in coffee shops and on supermarket shelves alike—was ultra-pasteurized, processed, and homogenized. In other words, the opposite of fresh.
Coffee shops sell more milk than they do coffee.
But, in recent years, soy’s reign has weakened. "Soybeans have come under fire over the past decade for a number of reasons, primarily because they get monocropped in the U.S.," explains Kahn. "I think that like all other food and beverage trends, you can track the shift to the general buzz in the world about healthfulness, about what’s good and bad."
While ethics are a major factor—cafe owners and customers are both increasingly interested in avoiding monocrops and highly processed food—soy milk's decline can likewise be connected to shops making more products in-house. After all, a homemade ingredient means more control over the final product, and a stronger brand message in a time when DIY goods have become cultural capital.
In the last couple of years, coffee shops who haven't entirely done away with soy milk have begun to offer a second nondairy option—usually almond, but sometimes rice or hemp milk. Now defunct New York healthy food chain Organic Avenue previously provided fresh cashew milk, while MatchaBar, also in New York, makes coconut milk in house for customers to blend with tea and coffee. But out on the West Coast, it's a whole other story, with specialty milks galore.
When considering nondairy selections, celebrated roaster Heart Coffee in Portland, Oregon found that boxed alternatives "had a lot of additives or preservatives that we didn't care for," according to co-owner Rebekah Yli-Luoma. So Heart decided to make their own, in-house, and settled on an almond-cashew blend based on flavor and how well it steamed.
Great house-made milks can become a big selling point for coffee shops. Last June, The New York Times suggested that Los Angeles’ G&B Coffee might be making "The Best Iced Latte in America," thanks in large part to their house-made almond-macadamia milk. Not too far away, when Venice-based Superba Food + Bread debuted last year, the eatery's house-made hazelnut milk latte was an early standout. Similarly, chef Travis Lett's white hot bakery Gjusta serves a killer hazelnut-almond milk, too.
... coffee shops who haven't entirely done away with soy milk have begun to offer a second nondairy option—usually almond, but sometimes rice or hemp milk.
At chef Ashley Christensen’s new Raleigh, North Carolina coffee shop, Joule, customers' only nondairy option is a pecan-almond milk, made from state-grown pecans and almonds (the latter adds stability), plus dates, which both sweeten and stabilize. According to Joule’s Kaitlyn Goalen, they wanted to capitalize on the abundance of pecans in their area. "That was the first entry point—to have something local, and to keep within the standards of our other offerings."
Meanwhile, Laura Sorensen, owner of Brooklyn, New York’s newly opened Stonefruit says, "I love almond milk ... I can make it myself, though we go through so much at the cafe that I purchase it from a distributor."
To Froth or Not to Froth
"Nothing fake behaves the way that animal proteins and sugars behave..."
According to Kahn, if you’re drinking nut milk cold, homemade versions taste better than boxed types. For example, Pacific Foods' Barista Series almond milk (used widely at coffee shops across the country) is strangely thick when consumed cold. Per Kahn, it's "like drinking a beverage base made for your granita machine." But when building hot drinks, boxed options perform better because of added stabilizers and foaming agents. They can’t precisely mimic the foaminess or the mouthfeel of steamed dairy milk, but they do a better job than the homemade stuff.
"That’s the awful fact about food science," states Kahn. "Nothing fake behaves the way that animal proteins and sugars behave. You just can’t mimic what true milk proteins do. But they’re trying, and they’re getting closer."
Yet, some still find soy milk superior. While Kahn believes soy leaves a "legume-y aftertaste," it’s creamier than boxed almond milk, and richer too. And many of soy milk's faults—aside from the fact that soy is, indeed, a monocrop—are exaggerated, or due to the echo chamber of food media.
"I think the really distressing issue here," says vegan cookbook author and certified nutritionist Gena Hamshaw, is that so many folks are moving away from soy because of unfounded health fears. It's one thing to prefer almond because of the nutty flavor, which is definitely great in lattes; it's really different to insist on nut milks in place of soy because you've been persuaded that soy is ‘bad.’" While the USDA considers soy a major allergen, it affects only 0.2 percent of the adult population, as compared to peanut allergies, which affect 0.6 percent.
Without a doubt, milk shops will still continue to sell coffee. But whether almond, oat or cashew-coconut milk takes the stage remains to be seen.