Back in the day if you couldn’t (or chose not to) drink dairy milk, your options were essentially limited to soy or no milk at all. Now, there are supermarket shelves and cafe fridges dedicated to sexily packaged alternatives: soy, almond, oat, coconut, macadamia, pea, hemp and rice milks, all competing for the non-dairy-drinking community’s buck.
But it’s oat milk that’s having a moment. In London, many cafes refuse to sell soy, citing the fact it can be highly processed, not to mention difficult to pair with coffee without curdling. In New York in 2018, a shortage of Oatly milk, caused widespread “panic”, a flurry of opinion pieces and cases of the stuff to be sold on Amazon for US$200 a pop. In Australia, oat milk is fast becoming an alternative milk staple, on equal footing with soy.
But what’s so good about oat milk? And how exactly do you milk an oat?
Swedish food-science professor – and Oatly founder – Rickard Oste invented oat milk in the mid-1990s. He used natural enzymes to break oats down into small components, then separated the starchy liquid from the hard oat shells, adding canola oil for fat content (similar to adding cream to dairy milk). While Oatly was the world’s pioneering oat-milk company, it’s taking off in Australia alongside a number of other products made with a similar formula – from the barista-focused Minor Figures to Vitasoy (which started selling an oat milk at the beginning of this year) and US company Califia Farms (which launched its product in Australia in July).
While oat milk has been slower to build momentum in Australia than overseas (we’re a small market, so haven’t been a focus), baristas are starting to come around to using it in coffee. That’s got a lot to do with its neutral taste (compared to, say, the sweetness of soy milk or the nuttiness of almond), which allows the flavour of the coffee itself to shine through.
“Oat milk is thicker and creamier in consistency compared to almond and soy, and has a similar mouthfeel to dairy,” Peter Pappas, chief commercial officer at Califia Farms tells Broadsheet. “The biggest difference is that oat milk has quite a mild, neutral flavour which complements drinks like coffee without overtaking the flavour. When you have a soy or almond latte, on the other hand, you can taste the flavour of those alternative milks.”
Minor Figures was the first company to start selling oat milk to Australian baristas, back in early 2018. Best known for selling canned nitro-brew, the company was founded in East London by two Aussies and recently expanded to Melbourne. Its oat milk was crafted purely to complement coffee.
“Minor Figures Oat [milk] is different to other oat milks because it comes from a different starting point,” co-founder Jonathan Chiu tells Broadsheet. “We’re a coffee company, not a milk company, and we always start product development from the perspective of coffee. As such, we only make oat milk because we believe it to be the best plant milk for coffee.”
Sure it’s good in your coffee – but how’s it rank for environmental friendliness? An Oxford University study has found oat milk is better for the environment than dairy and other plant-based milky drinks. It uses fewer resources – less land and way less H2O – than most other alternatives. Pappas says oats can grow in harsh, arid areas, making it an ideal milk option for an increasingly hot, dry climate.
Like other alternative milks, oat is more expensive than dairy in both the supermarket and your reusable coffee cup. But with Minor Figures alone reporting a growth of 400 per cent in sales since the beginning of the year, and its milk being served in more than 60,000 cups of coffee across Australia, there’s a good chance this plant-based alternative will stick around regardless.