Peoples Coffee


The world of milk alternatives is one that, to be honest, I’ve never really had the urge to educate myself about. I’m more than happy with mammalian mammory liquid in my coffee. This is a privileged position though; a luxury that as much as 70% of the world’s population’s bowels won’t allow them.

If you come from a European bloodline, you are likely the beneficiary of a process of recent natural selection, which favoured individuals with the ability to process lactose (found in mammal’s milk) beyond adolescence. This is an adaptation to an environment in which dairy is an available food source.

However, in many cultures this adaptation is not present – and a quick wikipedia search reveals that the frequency of adult lactose intolerance can be over 90% in ‘some African and Asian countries’.  Statistics weren’t available on lactose intolerance amongst New Zealanders, but it is said to be around 5-10% for Europeans and Australians. A study in the 1980s suggested that people of Maori and Pacific Island descent might be more susceptible to lactose intolerance, but no follow-up study appears to have substantiated this.


Of course, lactose intolerance isn’t the only reason a person might seek out a milk substitute; some people are allergic to milk protein, and I’m sure there must be people who just feel weird about drinking another animal’s bodily fluid. Whatever the reason, there’s a healthy market for alternative milk products in New Zealand and globally. These are not really milk at all – being generally derived from plants.

Not all milk alternatives are created equal, especially when it comes to compatibility with coffee. We devoted an afternoon at the Roastery to experimenting with milk substitutes and their ability to compliment espresso. I recruited two of our knowledgeable baristas, Robbie and Kaspars, to give their expert opinions on the results. We chose four products to sample: Rice milk, hazelnut milk, almond milk, and soy milk.

Rice Milk


Rice milk, or ‘Rice Dream’ as this brand is optimistically called, turns out to be more of a nightmare when paired with espresso. By itself it is thin and watery, lacking the creaminess of dairy milk. The rice lends a starchiness that is almost metallic-tasting, and the added sugar fails to mask it, this taste still comes through strongly when it is mixed with coffee. Our attempt at steaming produces decidedly average results:


The rice milk fails to produce any sort of foam; forming some half-hearted bubbles before receding back to watery flatness. Barista/Guru Robbie’s explanation for this is the absence of protein in the drink. Protein molecules, he says, melt when heated, causing them to wrap around oxygen and stretch the milk, adding texture and foam. The rice milk lacks protein, and so steaming it is reasonably futile. However I’m informed you can buy protein-enriched rice milk, which would probably perform better in the espresso test.

So, Rice Dream’s espresso compatibility rating? Robbie gives it 0/5. Kaspars is slightly more forgiving and gives it 0.5/5.

Almond Milk


Almond milk’s popularity is on the rise, and it is increasingly requested by coffee customers as an alternative to the alternative of soy – driven by changing nutritional and taste preferences. It tastes nutty – but also vaguely sour, the bitterness of the almond skins definitely comes through. It is creamier and thicker than the rice milk, and fares slightly better when steamed.


A silky layer of foam is formed, allowing for some pretty tight latte art. However, on closer inspection we find the milk has split – with a thick foamy layer at the top concealing a watery beverage underneath. Still – it tastes alright, the nuttiness of the almonds compliments the coffee reasonably well, but that sourness still comes through. This particular brand had quite a lot of added sugar, without which we suspect it would be a lot less palatable.


The verdict on almond milk? Robbie gives it 2/5, Kaspars has worked with it before and is better at steaming it without splitting – he gives it a 3/5.

Hazelnut Milk


A bit of a wild card this one, hazelnut milk is a relative newcomer on the milk alternative scene, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s destined for greatness. On its own it tastes delicious. The hazelnut flavour is very smooth with a little bit of added sugar making it taste like a liquid dessert, I could drink a lot of this. But what of coffee compatibility?


It steams reasonably well and doesn’t split, but doesn’t produce all that much velvety foam. Still, it makes a passable flat white. The hazelnut lacks the bitterness that we struggled with with the almond milk, and the sweet nuttiness compliments the coffee without overpowering it. Though hazelnut milk could never pass for the real thing, it doesn’t need to – it’s a nice product in itself, and I look forward to trying it in other drinks and recipes.

The discerning Robbie grants it 3/5, and Kaspars agrees… two 3’s.

Soy Milk

You’re likely to be more familiar with soy than the other milk alternatives we’ve profiled. It remains the milk substitute of choice for most baristas, as it is known to stretch well, and can generally be trusted to do well with espresso drinks. Soy milk is what we serve at the Constable Street Cafe for those lactose-challenged customers, and our baristas are used to working with it. Robbie and Kaspars tell me that brand is king when it comes to soy milk; the protein and sugar contents significantly influence the final product.


So, you definitely get that distinctive soy flavour – I know people who love that and others who hate it – but in terms of steaming the milk does well, probably best of the four we’ve tried. The coffee comes through and holds its own nicely, and the soy doesn’t completely dominate, but it will never have the ability of dairy milk to quietly showcase coffee flavours while adding the perfect subtle sweetness.

If 5/5 is cow’s milk, soy fares pretty well on our unscientific rating scale – the boys both give it 4/5.

Hemp Milk?


We would have liked to include hemp milk in this blog. It’s made from the seeds of the hemp plant which can contain very tiny trace amounts of THC but of course nothing that could produce a psychoactive effect. Hemp milk is a wonderful health food – high in protein, omegas 3 and 6, and tons of other nutrients. It is also efficient and sustainable to produce. Its protein content would make it quite ideal for steaming and use with espresso, and it’s also said to have a pleasant creamy finish and a subtle flavour.  However, the Food Ministers of Australia and New Zealand have recently reversed a long standing legal standard from Food Standards Australia New Zealand which said hemp seed products were safe for general consumption. The reason given for the reversal is that “The use of low THC hemp in food may undermine drug reduction strategies by contributing to a public perception that low levels of cannabis are acceptable and safe to consume.” I’ll let you form your own opinion on that one.


Love coffee but don’t drink milk? We’d love to hear your thoughts on milk alternatives in coffee in the comments below.








February 9th, 2015

Posted In: Uncategorized


  • Henry says:

    The water needed to grow almonds is frightening.

    and i’m sceptical about soy’s health risks, I don’t want to grow breasts, or do I?

  • Tasha Batsford says:

    I have had to turn to moo juice substitutes since having my children because for some reason, producing my own milk has made me unable to drink the milk of a fellow mammal – go figure.

    I have to admit, I have struggled with milk alternatives in coffee, not least because soy can very easily be overstretched, leaving a semi solid lump floating on the top of my flat white in a nod to a famous cocktail known as the women’s revenge.

    I have to admit, despite the complete lack of foam potential, rice milk seems to feature a lot in my house because it is fairly tasteless in of itself. I am also a big fan of hazelnut in coffee (less so elsewhere) and despite loving almonds, I struggle with the taste of almond milk.

    The strange thing about using milk substitutes for any length of time is your soon find cow’s milk a really odd taste; on the odd occasions I have risked a “normal” flat white, I actually find the taste unpleasantly sweet.

  • matt says:

    Really love this write up – you have a gift with putting things simply and well.
    And, this is definitely a topic that is now so much more real to customers than 10 years ago when those with allergic reactions didn’t think to question why they had a sore gut after drinking coffee.
    Raw dairy for me.

  • Lee says:

    I had never heard of hemp milk…. and now in annoyed I can’t try it! :@

  • Frank says:

    How does coconut milk fare?

    • Kelle says:

      Hi Frank,

      We didn’t include coconut milk in this little experiment but I have subsequently heard that it makes a good companion to coffee as long as you doing mind the relatively high fat content. I couldn’t comment on it’s ability to stretch but it is very creamy and delicious!

  • Mike CURRY says:

    Great I like your idea. I love coffee.
    Thank you for posting.

  • Matt says:

    This was just what I needed! Thanks for taking the time to do this and then report on your findings. I’ve been veggie for decades but, after seeing a harrowing video at a recent Morrissey concert I’m seriously considering going vegan. BUT, I love coffee (and quite milky, too) so…
    I have tried Almond and pretty much agree with Tasha’s comments – the taste of it breaks right through the coffee and just doesn’t work (for me, anyway). Today I tried rice milk and was pleasantly surprised. No foaming though, which is bad news. It’s blandness does help, I feel. Thanks to your report i now know about hazelnut ‘milk’ and will hunt for that. I agree with Lee about the hemp issue – how daft is that?!
    Finally, coconut milk – sounds like a really bad choice for coffee (as many if these alternatives do, on paper at least) but I will give it a go if it’s ‘good’ fats. Cheers Kelle

    • Pat Needle says:

      Decided to take the vegan path but finding a substitute for milk in coffee is the biggest challenge for me.
      Have tried almond, coconut and soya milk and none of them appeal to me in coffee, although I enjoy the almond milk in cereal.
      Anyone who can come up with something which you can add to coffee and it still tastes like coffee will be my hero!

  • Sam says:

    Can you please recommend your favorite soy milk brand for espresso drinks?

    Thank you!

  • Kel says:

    Hi has anyone had a problem with dairy and adult acne. I never experienced problems with my skin since having two children. I’ve just decided to cut dairy from my diet n include more greens, I love coffee alot and would love a good suggestion for milk substitute, or any advice for anyone that has had related skin dairy problems. Thanks.

    • Ruslan says:

      It’s been a decade long struggle. Part of the reason why I was searching for a milk alternative. It seems like I have been able to counterbalance the lactose with a drink of fresh squeezed lemon juice in the morning and before bed.

      • Was really interested in what you said about lemon juice counterbalancing lactose. Does that mean it takes away all ill effects? I would love to know more! Many thanks, Katie

    • Belinda says:

      I am having problems with adult acne (Rosacea) and am trialling one month dairy free to see if this helps

      • Philip S says:

        I suffered with adult acne for decades, and only recently went dairy and gluten free. I had no idea that dairy was the culprit. Even a piece of dairy chocolate will result in acne within 20 minutes.
        So now I avoid dairy like the plague.
        I have tried every alternative to cream in my coffee, nothing compares to dairy though.

  • Katie says:

    Will definately give the hazelnut a try..thanks for the info. I wish I liked soy but cannot bear the aftertaste…….I have tried some milk alternatives that tend to curdle in a normal cuppa….however, I have been using Almond milk to make cake base and yoghurts lately that is not bitter – it is PUREHARVEST brand…..with no added oil and rice syrup instead of sugar….when I’m brave enough I’ll try it in my coffee…..I wondered if maybe the oil in the milks could create a problem or not ….so I am trying to find oil free ones, there are a few…there is also Macadamia Nut milk here in South Australia…..not sure what that will do but if it’s good I’ll post about it. Thanks though, even your frothless coffees look great.

  • Irene says:

    Coconut milk is putrid in coffee, but the fat is a good source of fat even though it is “saturated” (which just means solid…).

    Also a lot who are intolerant to cow’s milk are also sensitive to soy as well.

  • Matt says:

    A lot of us are going off dairy in New Zealand at the moment and I am looking for an alternative. Thanks for this helpful review, I will get some soy milk tomorrow!

  • Ann says:

    Do many places in New Zealand have lactose free milk?? In Australia, we have a few brands (Liddells & ZymIl), of lactose free milk. It tastes just like “regular” milk – albeit a little bit sweeter.

  • May says:

    I use coco+almond mylk which seems to work pretty well..also, when it’s nice and hot out there I’ll have an iced coffee with just a bit of soy+dates+cinnamon+ice+water and coffee and it is da bomb!!!!!!!!

  • Amanda Faraimo says:

    This blog is such a good read but just wondering have you tried goats milk!? I have tried it in instant moccona coffee and can’t stomach the taste but that could just be the brand. I’ve heard goats milk straight from the goat is much much better. I am so keen to get a good milk substitute for coffee.

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