Alternative Milks



Specialty coffee has been marked for years by the expansion of variety and options in just about every section of the industry. There are more coffees, more processes, more roasting styles, more types of equipment, more ways to create great drinks.

And there are more and more non-dairy milks to choose from.

Soy used to be the only regularly available option, and it was looked at askance by baristas and café owners. It was lucky if it had a regular place on the creamer counter. But now cafés aren’t just expected to offer an alternative milk (or three) but to know how to make fantastic drinks from them. With barista-focused plant-based milks, that’s easier to pull off than ever before.

Let’s dive in with a look at the alternative milks out there and some general notes on what to expect from each. This is by no means a comprehensive list of plant-based milks, but gives a profile of some of the non-dairy options more commonly used in cafés. A visit to a health-food focused grocery will reveal milks made from hemp, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), oats, brazil nuts, and pea protein. We’ve kept the flavor and texture comments fairly minimal, since each option varies quite drastically by brand. Many options come with added sweetness or flavor, like vanilla, or have been formulated specifically for use by baristas, all which affect the texture and flavor characteristics of the milk.


Process: dried soybeans soaked, then ground with water to create milk-like texture; other methods press the soybeans in filtered water to remove insoluble fiber

Tasting notes: beany, slightly malty, light sweetness

Tidbit: has the tendency to curdle with acidic ingredients

Available as barista blend? Yes


Process: made from blending coconut meat and water, or diluting coconut cream

Tasting notes: rich and aromatic, light sweetness, creamy

Available as barista blend? Yes



Process: hazelnuts are gently roasted before grinding and blending with water

Tasting notes: rich hazelnut, smoky, sweetly creamy

Tidbit: popular as a pairing with mochas to mimic a beloved chocolate hazelnut spread

Available as barista blend? No


Process: almonds are soaked, then blended with water

Tasting notes: subtle almond nuttiness, malt, mildly sweet

Available as barista blend? Yes



Process: made with a base of filtered water and cashews.

Tasting notes: lightly nutty, toasted grain

Available as barista blend? No


Process: made with a base of filtered water and macadamias

Tasting notes:
bold nuttiness, malt, sweetly creamy

Available as barista blend? No



Process: made from blending pressed, milled rice with water

Tasting notes: grainy, sweet

Tidbits: one of the most allergy-friendly plant-based milks

Available as barista blend? Yes





Next to the explosion in variety and availability of alternative milks, the greatest change in the category over the past few years has been the introduction of non-dairy milks made to play well with coffee. When it comes to coffee and milk, there is a benchmark—dairy—and there are a few constant problems with alternative milks no matter the type when it comes to making, say, a latte.

The first is that alternative milks separate in the cup, leaving what appears to be a curdled slick on the surface. Customers don’t end up with almond milk or soy milk, says Debra Kaminski at Pacific Natural Foods, “It’s soy chunks in coffee.” Second, alternative milks just don’t steam and stretch like dairy, not so much making foam as warm, separated alternative milk. If latte art can be poured at all, it usually won’t survive the handoff to the customer.

These are what alternative milk makers call “performance issues,” and that means that, as Ted Robb of New Barn, which just released a coffee-focused almond milk, says, “If you’re not a dairy drinker, when you go to a coffeehouse, your experience is often suboptimal.” In 2013, Pacific released the first alternative milk that didn’t separate in coffee, steamed well, and was made, from the start, to taste great in coffee.

Several options are available now, and the names of the products tell you who was in mind during production: Pacific’s multi-variety Barista Series, Califia’s Barista Blend Almondmilk, and New Barn’s Barista Almondmilk.

When Kaminiski was working on Pacific’s almond entry at the start of their series, she took thirty variations of the recipe to baristas who put each variation through standard café steps, judging them on their performance, be it stability, foam, taste, and even temperature needed to stretch properly. Each formulation also had to be shelf-stable for a year. Robb went through a similar process, though New Barn’s fresh almond milk must be refrigerated and used pretty quick.

To perform well, all barista alternative milks have additives, mainly stabilizers like gums or carrageenan. These make up fractions of fractions of a percent of the total makeup of the milk, but it’s possible customers hypervigilant about ingredient lists may have concerns.

The vast majority, though, will see that rosetta set into microfoam and they’ll know they’re about to experience an alternative milk latte like none before.


Coffee cuppings are used to score coffee and determine quality. When the coffee is hot, cuppers evaluate characteristics such as body, flavor, aftertaste, and balance. As the coffee cools, cuppers assess how well these characteristics work together. As the coffee grows even cooler, attributes like sweetness and uniformity are assessed.

Green buyers rely on this process to identify defects and select coffees in line with their offerings. While the SCAA cupping protocol was developed for coffee, many of the principles and techniques used on the cupping table can be applied to plant-based milks. Whether you’re choosing new alternative milk options to bring in to your café, or you want to give your staff a better vocabulary to describe each milk option and how it pairs with your coffee, preparing a milk cupping provides tangential data to inform your non-dairy selections and pairings.


Cup your milks at different temperatures. Just as the characteristics of coffee change as it cools, milk will elicit different attributes at different temperatures. Taste your milks cold. Taste them hot. Taste them as they start to cool. See how different flavors come out and what your preferences are at each temperature.

At the Coffee Fox in Savannah, Georgia, café manager Clay Ehmke says they found the non-dairy milks they used for steaming just didn’t taste great cold, so they brought in another variety for their iced drinks. “We keep two varieties of each almond, soy, and coconut,” he says.

Look at how the milks behave when steamed. Perfecting latte art with cow’s milk can be challenging enough, but take out the constituents of milk that facilitate steaming (like lactose, casein, and fat), and things can get a lot more challenging. Look at how each milk sample responds to aeration. Does it stretch like cow’s milk? Does the microfoam hold more than a few minutes?

Slayer recently debuted their newest machine, the Slayer Steam, which promises to deliver better milk flavor and steam control. Marketing manager Sarah Dooley says that in testing alternative milks, they found steaming a little hotter yielded better flavor development. “We did notice that you have to steam it a little hotter to get the same results in development of flavor to standard milk,” Dooley says.

Consider your menu. Just as Ehmke noted their use of different milk brands for hot and cold beverages, how each milk will be used in the café environment may influence your decisions. Choose a few of your favorite plant-based milks and try them with the iced and hot versions of some of your coffee drinks, with your most popular house syrups, and with espresso. You may find specific varieties pair better with your syrup or coffee flavors, giving you knowledge to better guide customers through your menu.

Model the café environment. Most customers will drink their beverage slowly, whether they’re sitting in your shop or sipping on the go. Look at how steamed samples and beverage preparations behave over time. “The longer it sits, the bubbles go to the top and the heavy milk part goes to the bottom and the drink is no longer homogenized,” says Dooley. This can dramatically affect the flavor and texture of a beverage, and should be taken into consideration.

Shop around. Textures, aromas, consistency, and flavors will vary by brand, and even within a brand. Take Pacific’s soy offerings: vanilla, original, unsweetened, ultra, Barista Series—that’s just one milk, one brand. Look at what’s reasonable for you to source in your café and get a wide range of samples for your cupping.

Cup in stages. Considering the overwhelming number of choices for plant-based milks and how they can pair, don’t be paralyzed by the number of options. If you know you want to have almond milk as an offering, start there: devote a cupping just to almond milks and have your staff join you. Or, if you’ve narrowed down your choices, dedicate a tasting session to pairing contenders with popular items on your menu.


Plant-based milks can also easily be made by hand with just a few simple tools. Ehmke will help the Coffee Fox open an all-vegan branch of their business this winter, dubbed the Fox & Fig. For nut milks, Ehmke recommends using a three-to-one ratio of water to nuts as a base for your milk, then diluting as needed. He uses a Vitamix and nut-milk bags to press his mixtures and yield a filtered product, finding success with less commonly found flavors like pepita, cashew, and hemp.


With so many types of alternative milks out there (never mind all the different brands), it’s easy for the options to cramp up the selection process as you choose one. There’s a simple solution to this: don’t choose just one.

A primary reason people choose non-dairy milk is because they can’t handle dairy. Nuts and soy present the same problems for some of your customers, so why have your alternative milk be no alternative at all for someone with an allergy? If you prefer an almond milk, keeping a non-nut alternative milk like hemp or rice under the counter ensures you have options for customers.

If you serve multiple espressos, especially if you serve a single-origin, you likely have one you pair with milk and another you serve straight up. Why wouldn’t you want to match your espresso with the right alternative milk? Maybe the super fruity natural coffee you have doesn’t fit so well with your go-to cashew milk. It could be killer with coconut or hemp or rice.

Maybe one milk tastes off when vanilla is added to a latte or another just shines in a mocha. Signature drinks with distinct flavors might find a better fit with one milk or even brand of milk than with others.

Finally, there’s cold-brew. Debra Kaminski from Pacific Natural Foods said that during the two-year process of creating their almond Barista Series, they hit on a pretty good formula when they found out it didn’t work in cold-brew. That sent them back to the kitchen until they had a product that worked as well cold as it did hot.

You have cold coffee, drip coffee, and espresso. One alternative milk might not cut it for them all.