Coffee is an egalitarian item: it is for everyone, regardless of your milk choice. And there is no getting around the fact that alternative milk is here to stay. Whether for health, ethical, religious or ecological reasons, one in every three Brits are now choosing non-dairy milk, and we thought it was about time we took a look at which kinds of milk work best in a variety of coffee-based drinks. So here’s the Coffee Bean Shop’s guide to the best vegan milk for coffee.
What are milk alternatives for coffee?
Milk is a part of everyday life for a lot of people, yet it can have its downsides. Lactose intolerance and the effect of dairy farming on both the animals and the planet are hot topics and it’s no secret that the saturated fat content found in milk is not always the best idea for our health. Cue the rise in milk alternatives. There are simply plant-based drinks that are created to replicate dairy milk in consistency or use, depending on the type you buy and how you want to use it.
Plant-based milk development has come a long way, the days of alternative milk splitting in reaction to the acidity of coffee are, thankfully, long gone. Basic plant-based milk tends to have lower protein contents, so they do not support air bubbles as well as dairy milk does. However! There are options on the market that now replicate dairy milk and can create fantastic milk substitutes for your daily brew. The key is simply to know what to look for, for your particular drink style. Let’s take a look at the most popular types of milk alternatives and see if we can decide on the best vegan milk for coffee.
Before we begin there is one caveat - we are talking about these milks in general and not any particular brands. Our tips below are for the pure, unadulterated milk types to allow you to make your own decisions on which to go for.
Different brands will have their own ingredient lists and make-up, so will all perform slightly differently. Because milk alternatives do not always act in the same way as dairy milk naturally, they sometimes have ingredients added in order to replicate the behaviour of dairy milk. Try them for yourselves to find the best option for you.
Tips for the best vegan milk for coffee
When it comes to deciding on which milk works best for your caffeinated beverage, the first thing to consider is what kind of drink you are planning on making.
What works with instant coffee may not act in the same way when frothed for a cappuccino.
Here are some general tips for choosing the best vegan milk for coffee:
- It seems an obvious thing to say, yet so many of us forget: before using your alternative milk, make sure you give it a good shake first. They are usually made up of different ingredients that settle over time, so ensuring they are nicely mixed before pouring will give you the best shot at a smooth, fully incorporated end product in the cup.
- It is an unfortunate fact that in some coffees - without the magic of the steam wand to add thickness - alternative milks can feel thin and weak when compared to their dairy counterparts. Even if you are having a splash of milk in a brewed coffee, try heating the milk a little, to give it some texture and to avoid the cold milk shocking and curdling.
- If you are keen to taste the coffee rather than the milk, opt for a more neutral-tasting milk such as soya or oat and choose a style of drink that uses less milk, such as a cortado, piccolo or long black with milk.
- A good rule of thumb is to go with pairings that work well naturally if the milk itself has any form of flavour - nut flavours with strong blends; coconut with mochas for example.
Best Non-Dairy Milk to Froth
It is an unfortunate fact that in some coffees - without the magic of the steam wand to add thickness - alternative milks can feel thin and weak when compared to their dairy counterparts.
But, how well do vegan milks perform when creating the holy grail of frothy coffee - the cappuccino?
When frothing milk for a cappuccino (or stretching/texturing for a latte, flat white, cortado, etc.), it is important to remember that not all milk alternatives will act in the same way as dairy milk. This is because of the chemical reactions that happen when we heat milk, and the fact that we are after results that have been honed based on the way that dairy milk reacts under certain conditions.
It is the protein found in milk that we stretch- which is why coconut milk is hard to stretch. It does create a foam, but this tends to be thick and sits on top of a much watery drink.
Next, not all alternative milk has the same boiling (or scalding) point. Whereas we know to stop heating and frothing dairy products around 145-165℉ some alternative milks need to be stretched a lot quicker as they have a lower boiling point, so will burn quicker.
Oat - Oat is a favourite for a reason: it performs pretty much the same as dairy when it comes to steaming. Do make sure you have mixed the milk in its container first though, as it is more prone to separate than other alternative milks, and you want a fully mixed milk to be able to steam to a thick consistency.
Soya - Soya, while a consistently well-performing milk, does require a bit of practice. Also, watch the temperature, or you’ll burn the milk, and the smell of burnt soya milk is truly an experience you do not want to be a part of.
Coconut - Go for a lower temperature and make sure you really swirl the jug afterwards to ensure a fully mixed consistency.
Almond - Opt for the unsweetened variety for more stable bubbles, but don’t expect a type of foam that is conducive to latte art. If you are after that, you could try adding xanthan gum.
In conclusion, while most vegan milk will froth to a certain extent, Soya and oat milk are the best non-dairy milk to froth, as they are easiest and most consistent when it comes to creating cappuccino milk.
So, what are the alternative milks that are on offer?
Oat Milk in Coffee
About: Oat milk has climbed to the top of alternative milk boards in recent years and has a creamy, slightly savoury tone to it. While the flavour is relatively neutral, you can still taste the oats, with the end result being a coffee drink reminiscent of biscuits.
It is also one milk that you can make at home by soaking oats in water and straining them.
Performance: Oat milk froths well with a bit of practice, thanks to its relatively high protein content. Make sure that you look out for an oat milk made for use in coffee for the best performance.
Most store-bought oat milk contains acidity regulators that will help to prevent it from splitting or curdling when added to hot coffee, but always try to avoid fridge-cold milk to lessen your chances of this happening.
Almond Milk in Coffee
About: Almond milk is one of the most popular plant-based milks, yet you are less likely to find it in your favourite coffee shop. This is not because of its taste or stretching properties, it is simply because it’s made from nuts, which once introduced to a steam wand, means that anyone with a nut allergy can no longer be served: not ideal in a commercial environment.
Nuts flavours traditionally work well when paired with coffee, but some may find almond milk’s nutty tones a bit overpowering.
Performance: Almond milk will curdle when poured straight into a hot cup of coffee. Try warming it first, even if just using a dash of it. It can also separate when heated, sometimes.
Soya Milk in Coffee
About: Soya milk (or Soy milk) was the king of alternative milks until oat milk came on the scene, and it is still a really good neutral-flavoured substitute for dairy milk. It is a tried and tested favourite that pretty much every coffee shop now stocks. It has a creamy texture that replicates dairy really well, but the flavour can be underwhelming for some, especially when the non-sweetened variety is used. (Remember, dairy milk is naturally sweet, which is why a lot of people forgo sugar in their lattes. If you find that none of the alternatives quite match your enjoyment of dairy-based beverages, try adding a little something sweet and give it another go.)
Performance: Don’t overheat soy (it goes lumpy) and don't pour cold soya into hot coffee - it will curdle. But, with a good thermometer, there is no reason you cannot create latte milk to rival its dairy counterpart.
Coconut Milk in Coffee
About: Coconut milk can be divisive - fantastic if you love the taste of a bounty bar, less so if you don’t like coconuts themselves. It’s hard to get away from the flavour with coconut milk, but it does create a wonderfully, naturally sweet, full flavour if you can get around the taste.
Performance: Frothing coconut milk can be challenging. It will create bubbles, but they tend to fall flat pretty quickly as it has less protein, and cannot hold its form for long. Plus, it has a lower boiling point, so you need to get to a nice frothed consistency in a shorter amount of time, a challenge for even the most skilled barista.
Cold coconut milk will curdle in hot coffee - warm it a little first.
Other Vegan Milks for Coffee
We’ve only just skimmed the iceberg of the world of alternative milks. There are so many to try, with brands that have their own unique blends and properties. Why not check out milk made from different nut varieties, rice, hemp or even potato?
Plus, the high protein content of pea milk is making it the new kid on the block when it comes to flavourless but powerfully frothy alternative milk. Give peas a chance!
There is also a wide range of combined milk so that you can get the health benefits of one, with the characteristics of another. We particularly like a coconut and rice blend.
Just as we all have our favourite drink types (at the moment, ours has to be the mighty cortado), what type of milk you decide to have in your coffee is a purely personal choice. But what shouldn’t be up for debate is that you get the very best drink by using the freshest, highest quality coffee beans available. That’s what the Coffee Bean Shop is all about: the very best coffee beans in the UK, freshly roasted every single day.