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, 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’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.
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.
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.
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
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