From the Coffee Issue
“Sorry, we’re out of oat milk.” If you live in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Seattle or any other city with a bustling coffee culture, chances are you’ve witnessed the rise—and sudden fall—in oat milk supply. But if you ask Mike Messersmith, General Manager at Oatly, he’ll tell you, “This isn’t an Oatly story. There was a rising consumer demand and awareness for new and different plant-based options. We just hit the market at the right time.”
According to Messersmith, the recent boom in plant-based milks—in which Oatly rode the crest of the wave—came down to two factors. First and foremost, the hypergrowth of the specialty coffee and tea market, which shows no sign of slowing. Per Messersmith, “Everyone is becoming more comfortable with and aware of specialty coffee. People now have the confidence to walk into a shop and order a cortado, but they may not have known what that was fifteen years ago.”
Second, there’s the boom in the plant-based space, with consumers becoming more educated and questioning the status quo. “With the rising awareness of climate change, people are feeling helpless and overwhelmed,” Messersmith notes. “There’s a lack of faith that governments will solve the crisis, and in that anxiety, people are looking for ways to personally shift their behavior.” For twenty-five years—although not always under the name Oatly—the goal of the Swedish brand has been to help consumers make a step in that direction, without compromising the dairy-based habits of their morning cereal or coffee.
When Oatly entered the U.S. market in 2016, the momentum behind specialty coffee was already full-speed ahead, but plant-based eating was just starting to gain traction. Just ask former Intelligentsia team members and the founders of Los Angeles’ G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger (GGET), Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski. “The plant-based trend really started seven to eight years ago,” Babinski asserts. “At that point, soy milk was around as a staple, but there weren’t enough people consuming it—or even trying it—to get that business to really take off.”
Back in their Intelligentsia days, Glanville grimly recalls the poor quality of soy used by most coffee shops: “Soy milk was the thing everyone knew was terrible—it was usually sweetened and came in those tetrapaks—but there was a sense of ‘throw the vegans a bone.’” His feelings about plant-based milks only began to shift when a fellow employee brought in a deli container of homemade almond milk from a neighboring restaurant. “It was just as creamy as whole milk, so I tried using it to make cappuccinos. What sold me was that it was a small-batch, quality product that felt as intentional as the coffee we were serving our customers.”
Today, at G&B and GGET in Los Angeles, customers of both pro-dairy and non-dairy persuasions line up to try the coffee bar’s iconic almond-macadamia milk. If that sounds laborious to make, it is. “We wanted to improve on the one-dimensional quality of most plant-based milks, but we initially avoided macadamia because it was too expensive,” Babinski explains. “Ultimately, the macadamia adds a fattiness and creaminess that a good cappuccino should have—even in smaller quantities—so we went with a ⅔ almond, ⅓ macadamia recipe.” Of course, none of that recipe testing would matter if the Go Get Em Tiger team wasn’t willing to wake up at four a.m. each day to process sixty pounds of nuts through a Vitamix.
“We like doing things other people are unwilling to do,” Glanville underscores. “We take pride in it, and we’ve found, to this day, that not a lot of other coffee shops make their own nut milks.” The pair also have a housemade oat milk, in a nod to more recent trends, although they prefer the nutritional density of nuts as a milk replacement. “The creamier oat products on the market tend to include rapeseed (aka canola) oil to boost viscosity,” Babinski explains. “That just doesn’t sound that appetizing to me.”
With that being said, Babinski understands its popularity: “Soy milk worked better with darker roasted coffee. As people are roasting lighter and lighter, soy became untenable because it separates in more acidic coffees. Oat milk, as far as flavor and texture, is more complementary to lighter roasts—which is meaningful.” The pair also acknowledge that many industrialized nut milks are taxing on the environment, noting their own choice for sustainable almond sourcing is Blue Diamond, a coop of small producers. Glanville explains, “We’re cultivating food on this land, and there is always a point [with a given ingredient] where it becomes irresponsible—where you’re pulling more out of the soil than there is to give.”
For consumers seeking a clear-cut answer on which plant-based milk is the most sustainable, chances are you’ll run into some significant dead ends. According to a 2019 article from FoodPrint, “variables like greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, land use, chemical runoff and soil degradation all have to be considered for each stage of production—from growing the raw ingredient to processing and transportation.” Even for the same product, those factors can vary widely from brand to brand, adding yet another layer of complexity. The organization also notes that if you consider nutritional density in the equation rather than sustainability alone, the title of “best” alternative would likely go to different products.
Part of that complexity is also the question of your local environment. “For a crop to be considered sustainable, it needs to grow without excessive watering, pesticides and herbicides,” Messersmith explains. “On a micro level, almost anything can be sustainable and fine. But at scale, there are certain types of ingredients or food systems that have unintended effects.” In Oatly’s country of origin, Sweden, almonds are difficult to cultivate, whereas oats grow in abundance. Beyond being a low-intensity cover crop that can easily coexist with other agricultural products, oats also have the added benefit of being very neutral for consumers with food allergies.
Yet while oats may grow sustainably in abundance, mastering the processing of the product is less simple. “We only do oats,” Messersmith attests. “Part of what I believe has made Oatly stand out [from other oat milks] is that companies using multiple inputs often have a one-size-fits-all approach. Our manufacturing process was specifically developed to mirror how the human body would digest an oat flake, including how to maintain the nutritional content of the product.”
Whether oats, almonds, hemp, coconut, soy, rice, flax or any number of dairy alternatives, what remains clear is the role played by the coffee community in advancing the plant-based milk trend. “Specialty coffee is all about optimizing the end product—from sourcing, to roasting, to preparation. It’s such a waste to let down all that other work in the last minute of production—which is why we partnered with cafés across the Nordic region and Copenhagen to create Oatly’s barista blend,” Messersmith explains. When rolling out that product in the U.S., Oatly extended that strategy further, initially—and exclusively—placing the custom blend at the finest coffee shops across the country.
Even beyond the question of milk, Messersmith has found the specialty coffee community has a genuine interest in sustainability. “The coffee industry is very much threatened by climate change. Fifty or sixty years from now, it’s not unlikely that certain beans will be impossible to grow or harvest,” he says. He believes precarity makes coffee professionals unusually invested in exploring a plant-based future. Combined with the daily role coffeeshops often play in consumers’ lives, cafés may be uniquely positioned to provoke future-forward thinking, one cup at a time.