Non-Dairy Milks: Which Ones Are Best With Espresso?

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Dairy milk may still rule the latte universe, but a variety of non-dairy milks have been threatening its dominance since soy milk started showing up in cappuccino cups in the ’90s. And with almond and hemp milks — and even macadamia, cashew and coconut — to contend with, baristas can find themselves juggling a variety of steaming techniques as they try not to burn non-dairy milks while getting them hot enough to add to espresso. 

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Soy’s Superiority

For vegans and the lactose intolerant, soy milk is still the standby. It’s also the non-dairy choice of baristas because it creates the best foam, with a consistency that is comparable to dairy milk. This means soy milk can be used to make any espresso drink. Soy milk is also complementary or at least forgiving to many types of coffee. The nutty, creamy flavor pairs well with common flavor profiles and can even enhance the flavor of some coffee varieties and blends.

Almond Joy?

Not quite as forgiving as soy, is almond milk. While soy’s nuttiness ca complement coffee, almond milk be too much for some coffees. But an almond milk latte can still be a good thing — just be sure to stretch your milk early, and don’t go beyond 130 degrees F (55 degrees C) to avoid burning it. Almond milk also curdles at certain temperatures, which looks terrible, but tastes the same.

Almond has even begun to replace soy as the standard nondairy milk in some cafés, typically due to digestion and allergy issues that some customers have with soy. There’s also the concern among label readers that almost all soy milks contain various unpronounceable ingredients and sugar, as well as questions about the health risks possibly associated with GMO soybeans.

Nutty Options

Some coffee shops are offering seemingly exotic macadamia or cashew milk for their rich, buttery texture. And when Starbucks announced in February that it would add coconut milk to its offerings after decades of staunchly serving soy, heads turned. Reviews have been mixed, which is to be expected. Every alternative milk imparts its own unique flavor in the cup and can be tough to swallow in the same mouthful as a bright, medium-dark roast with loads of complexity.

Rice Milk: Ridiculous?

With little to no fat or protein content, rice milk steams about as well as water. Translation: don’t even try. Still, it has a subtle sweetness and virtually no aftertaste that makes it appealing. It can be good stand in for dairy or soy as a simple, lighter creamer. It works equally well with espresso and standard brews, without the nutty flavor if you’re so opposed.

Is Hemp Here To Stay?

Relatively up and coming as a popular option, hemp milk complements coffee flavors similarly to soy but is a bit thicker due to its fat content. This result is a creamier latte with a flavor that leans toward almond milk. Vegans, vegetarians and the highly health conscious are fans of its notable protein, calcium and omega-3 content.

Hemp milk also steams rather well. Read more below.

How’s the latte art?

If you and your customers do like the taste, will the latte art come deliver on its end of the bargain? Hemp milk steams similarly to soy to produce respectable lattes and cappuccinos — and even latte art.

Turns out it doesn’t have to suffer (too much) with almond and coconut milk. A latte art contest in New York in October featured winners in the coconut milk and almond milk categories who jiggled their wrists to produce some pretty impressive rosettas from milks that don’t typically froth as well as dairy or soy.

Pacific Foods’ Coconut and Almond milks, the most popular alternative milks among baristas (after the company’s Barista Soy), are part of the reason. (The NYC alternative-milk latte art contest was sponsored by Pacific Foods, and supplied the milks.) They’re formulated for coffee shops to produce a better, more textured froth for espresso drinks. Baristas tend to agree.

That said, cappuccinos are best made with dairy, soy and hemp milks. Their creaminess is one reason, and the protein content helps considerably. Almond and coconut milks just don’t produce a thick enough foam to make a respectable cappuccino.

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