Non-dairy milk options have become immensely popular in coffee shops around the world. Whether for dietary reasons, a preference for sustainability, or a simple desire for variety, many coffee drinkers are turning to non-dairy milk options for their favorite espresso beverages. In this post, we’ll dive into how non-dairy milk affects coffee beverages and what the best options are in terms of flavor and texture.
How Milk Types Affect Coffee Flavor
Dairy milk has been the go-to ingredient of lattes as long as they’ve been around. The mild flavor of dairy milk complements a wide variety of coffee roasts without overpowering the tasting notes. Dairy milk also includes the perfect amount of proteins and fats that give steamed milk a silky, foamy texture that makes the perfect latte.
Non-dairy milks, on the other hand, all have varying amounts of both flavor and textures that can influence the taste of an espresso beverage. The bitter notes of nut milk can bring out similar bitterness in dark or medium roasts, while sweet coconut milk can help balance out those flavor profiles.
Non-Dairy Milk in Coffee vs. Dairy Milk
Dairy milk has long been the companion of coffee, but non-dairy milk is on the rise. Let’s look at how they compare to one another in flavor, texture, sustainability, and health.
Because of its neutral taste, dairy milk is by far the most popular add-in for coffee. However, many non-dairy alternatives also boast neutral flavors, like soy milk and rice milk. Milk made from cashews or almonds may have strong nutty flavors but may still complement certain roasts well.
The protein and fat content in dairy milk helps create a rich, silky texture which is why it's a favorite for lattes and other specialty espresso drinks. Comparatively, non-dairy milk has far less protein and fat to help create a thick and creamy foam. Many plant-based milk products will feel watery compared to dairy milk (with the exception of oat milk) and won’t produce a great foam. Fortunately, many brands produce specific barista-grade varieties to ensure beverages made with non-dairy milk are on par with ones made with dairy milk.
Commercial dairy milk production is extremely harsh on the environment. A considerable amount of water is needed to produce the milk commonly bought in grocery stores, roughly 4.5 pounds of water to make just 1 pound of milk. Additionally, cows produce a high volume of methane into the atmosphere and can cause massive ecological damage.
Small dairy operations are much less harsh on the environment. With fewer cows and machinery to produce emissions, local dairy farms are one of the most ethical and economically friendly places to source dairy milk. If you’re concerned about the environment but still love fresh dairy milk, sourcing from a local dairy farm is a great option.
Compared to dairy milk, plant-based milk alternatives require much less water to produce. Some non-dairy crops are versatile and also beneficial to the environment, such as hemp and hazelnuts. Hemp crops can help build up soil health while hazelnuts help prevent soil erosion.
Dairy milk is a fantastic source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and more. It also contains a high volume of omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Plant-based milk alternatives have a multitude of health benefits as well. Though typically lower in protein, non-dairy milk options are good sources of vitamins A and E as well as omega-3s, folic acid, antioxidants, and more.
8 Best Non-Dairy Milks for Coffee
Here are our favorite non-dairy options for making coffee and espresso beverages.
1. Oat Milk
Oat milk has quickly become a non-dairy favorite for baristas and coffee drinkers alike. Oat milk has a malty, wheaty taste that perfectly complements coffee. It also steams very well, replicating the silky foam dairy milk typically produces. For non-dairy drinkers who also want to avoid nut-based milk, oat milk is a fantastic alternative.
Oat milk can separate, however, which means the foam will rise to the top of the steamed milk instead of staying incorporated together. That’s why it’s important to use barista series brands when making steamed milk for coffee.
Learn more: 5 Best Oat Milks for Coffee
You should try: Oatly Barista Edition
2. Soy Milk
Soy milk is the pioneer of non-dairy milk options in coffee shops. In fact, most coffee shops should have soy milk if not other non-dairy alternatives because of its accessibility and popularity. Soy milk has a very mild flavor which doesn’t compete with the flavor of the coffee at all, and it steams nearly as well as dairy milk due to similarities in protein structures. Because of its versatility and flavor, soy milk remains one of the most popular non-dairy alternatives for coffee lovers.
You should try: Silk Original Soy Creamer
3. Almond Milk
Almond milk has quickly risen in popularity as a non-dairy option. Almond milk boasts a good flavor and produces decent foam even though it is low in protein. The flavor is nutty and can be slightly bitter if unsweetened, which is why many coffee drinkers opt for sweetened or flavored almond milk. It can also separate after foaming, so some experimentation is in order when steaming this non-dairy option.
There are some arguments that almond milk is not an environmentally friendly choice due to the amount of water used to produce it compared to other plant-based milk options. However, a gallon of almond milk requires less water than a gallon of dairy milk does.
You should try: Califa Farms Original Almond Barista Blend
4. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has a much thinner texture than many others on this list. Due to the low protein and fat content of coconut milk, it cannot replicate the same quality of foam as traditional dairy milk can. However, some coffee drinkers prefer the flavor of coconut milk to other non-dairy alternatives, especially when nut milk options are not available to them. Coconut milk is best used as an addition to brewed coffee rather than in lattes.
You should try: Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk
5. Cashew Milk
Cashew milk is milder in flavor than almond milk and is generally considered more environmentally friendly. Cashew milk is also low in calories and may help lower cholesterol. It’s also high in vitamins A and E.
Cashew milk can be more expensive than other non-dairy options because it’s labor-intensive to produce and often imported. Additionally, it is on the thinner side and therefore not the best option when you want a foamy espresso beverage.
You should try: Silk Unsweetened Cashew Milk
6. Rice Milk
Rice milk is very mild in flavor and is a great option for those who want to avoid nut milk options. However, rice milk has very little protein, which means it will not froth well compared to other non-dairy options. While this is a great option for brewed coffee, avoid rice milk if you want a foamy latte.
You should try: Pacific Foods Barista Series Rice Milk
7. Hemp Milk
Hemp milk has a rather strong flavor which many people find off-putting, particularly in coffee. Despite this, hemp milk contains plenty of healthy fats which are not only good for you but also help support a decent foam. It also provides ten percent of the recommended daily amount of iron. Hemp crops are also rather sustainable and ecologically friendly.
You should try: GoodHemp Barista Hemp Milk
8. Hazelnut Milk
Hazelnut milk is more bitter than its cashew and almond milk relatives, but hazelnut has always been a popular complementary flavor to coffee. Hazelnut milk is low in fat and proteins, so it does not mix or foam as well as other non-dairy options. It does have high amounts of vitamins B and E and has no cholesterol, making this a very heart-healthy option.
You should try: Elmhurst Milked Hazelnuts
Cheers to Variety
There are so many options out there when it comes to non-dairy milk for coffee. Whether due to lactose intolerance, dietary restrictions, or a push to reduce your carbon footprint, we encourage you to try out one of these non-dairy options in your next cup of coffee.
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