05/08/2021

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Espresso

The Best Nondairy Milks for Espresso Drinks

Espresso

Various studies have shown that some nondairy milks are better than cow’s milk  in a espresso for the environment and, potentially, for our health. In any case, it’s definitely becoming more common for people to avoid diary milks for and choose plant-based beverages instead.

Swapping almond milk for whole or 2% in cereal or in pancake batter is one thing, but the question of whether any of these plant-based alternatives can hang with espresso is less clear. Will they steam decently? Will they taste weird? And what about that precious latte art?

 We decided to put a selection of commonly available nondairy milks to the test in a side-by-side tasting session of lattes and cappuccinos, conducted by a panel of five coffee professionals who all have sensory-analysis training. In other words, we got serious about drinking what is essentially nut juice.

Tested Diary Products

Firstly we would like to mention that this article is not based on test of each non-diary milk avaialable in the market but the tests on most common ones. Instead, we focused on the most popular and most readily available brands found in supermarkets, department-store groceries, and specialty markets, with just a little bit of online shopping thrown in. For the most part, this meant that “barista” versions didn’t make the cut all that often, as they’re often sold by distributors straight to cafés and restaurants and are harder to find in stores.

Here is the list of products we tested:

  • Silk Soy – Original
  • Pacific Soy – Barista Series
  • Pacific Almond – Original
  • Califia Farms Almondmilk – Original
  • Silk Almond – Original
  • Pacific Coconut – Original
  • So Delicious Coconut – Original
  • Tempt – Original (hemp)
  • Milkadamia – Original (macadamia)
  • Oatly – Original (oat)
  • Ripple – Barista Style (pea protein)

Second, before we lay out the top-rated nondairy beverages from our tests, Here it is important to point out why cow’s milk works so well in espresso-based drinks. It isn’t just that it’s a magical combination of fat, sugar, and protein that tastes great when blended with the bitterness of coffee. That combination also means it’s capable of producing and maintaining a perfectly silky and smooth microfoam texture. When a barista introduces heat and air into the milk via a steam wand, the protein chains are activated and create a surfactant that captures bubbles and holds them to create the frothy texture. The fat in the mixture helps to create a silky, creamy texture because it allows the milk to coat the bubbles, creating the viscosity that we all love in a cappuccino.

It stands to reason, just from the outset, that any nondairy milks that can serve as a good substitute in espresso drinks will likely have to mimic that ideal combination you find in cow’s milk.

Nondairy Milk Taste Test Results For Espresso

Foam Texture

The clear winner on foam texture for both lattes and cappuccinos was a total dark horse: a “barista series” offering by Ripple, a company whose pea protein beverage wasn’t in our original testing plans but seemed interesting enough to try. (Ripple produces both “barista” and standard nondairy milk, but the barista version was easy enough to find on the shelves of a local food co-op.)

The foam was silky enough to hold latte art and pliable enough to spring back when pushed aside on the cappuccino, which is the sign of a quality bubble matrix. Oatly scored second-highest marks on consistency for both drinks, and Silk’s Soy came in hot at third. Hemp was a pleasant surprise on texture: Not only did it accept air in a way that allowed for microfoam creation, the foam also remained relatively resilient in the cup, so the drink held on to its latte art.

Coconut milks scored poorly in general: Neither version held microfoam at all, and the milk remained thin, so that tasters barely registered a difference between the foam in the latte and the cappuccino. This makes sense, since the lack of protein in coconut milk (as opposed to nut- and seed-based plant beverages) means it doesn’t have sufficient surfactants to bond the base liquid with the air being introduced by the steam wand. In order to truly create that luxurious, velvety texture, your plant-based milk needs something closer to an optimal balance of fat and protein—sorry, coconut.

Flavor and Sweetness

Plant-based milks don’t naturally contain a lot of sugar, but many brands offer sweetened versions, usually with added cane sugar. In most cases we opted for the unsweetened version of the products we tested—or “original,” when available, which is typically sweetened somewhat.

In our testing, Milkadamia and Oatly tied for best overall flavor: The panel liked the “sweet” and “milky neutral” taste of Oatly as well as the “cereal milk” and “vanilla extract” flavor of Milkadamia. Interestingly, the tasters found Milkadamia to have the highest perceived sweetness, even though Oatly contains 10 more grams of sugar per serving. The pea protein-based “barista series” beverage Ripple came in a very close second.

Hemp milk didn’t fare so well. The tasters thought it contributed a “seedy” or “leguminous” flavor, and more than one compared it to fish-oil supplements. Coconut milk’s flavor generally fell short of expectations, too, in part hindered by its thin texture. A richer and creamier foam allows the liquid, and its flavor, to linger on the palate longer; the coconut milk foam matrix collapsed quickly, and neither the latte nor the cappuccino was able to coat the tasters’ tongues.

Silk’s Soy, which also contains cane sugar, came in with silver marks. Califia’s unsweetened Almond Milk was the caboose, just behind So Delicious Coconut Milk (original), which contains cane sugar but, again, seems to have been undermined by its texture.

Overall Winners

Our panel generally agreed that the top three plant-based milks we tested were Ripple, Milkadamia, and Oatly, in that order. Coconut in general didn’t do so hot: Both coconut brands were at the very bottom of the list, with no noticeable difference between the “barista” and the standard versions. Also riding on the caboose was the unsweetened Califia Almond Milk, which our tasters found off-tasting when mixed with the espresso.

Despite its “fishy” notes, Hemp landed smack-dab in the middle, saved in part by its decent texture.

Conclusions

Most plants make liquid, but not all plant liquid belongs in an espresso drink. It comes down to your priorities: Are you in this for the foam, the flavor, or the total package?

The option that seems to sit at the intersection of sweetness, texture, and flavor is Ripple Barista Style, though it might be hard to find in non-specialty stores. Same with Milkadamia, It was on top positions in ranking and was given good feedback from the testing members, but might be somewhat difficult to source without ordering it online, depending on where you’re located. Oat milk is the new hotness, much more widely available, and still earned good marks from the tasters. Silk was the soy milk of choice in the early-to-mid 2000s, and, based on our testing, Silk Soy Milk is still a solid standby after all these years.