A barista’s guide to dairy alternatives: beyond coffee

barista dairy alternatives

Vitasoy Café Ambassador and 2019 Australian Barista Champion Matthew Lewin discusses the versatility plant-based milks bring to a café, and how to bring the best out of your café staples.

Christmas is just around the corner, and this ‘presents’ an opportunity when it comes to seasonal beverages. Temporary items on the menu are great for promoting on social media and create a need for the customer to visit you soon so they don’t miss out. I’ve come up with a special latte recipe capturing some of the classic Christmas flavours, while still keeping the coffee front and centre (see Spiced Christmas iced coffee recipe).

matthew lewin
Matthew Lewin is the 2019 ASCA Vitasoy Barista Champion and Café Ambassador for Vitasoy.

But Australia’s Christmas is more ‘fun in the sun’ than the ‘winter wonderland’ you’d experience in the Northern Hemisphere, so I’ve also come up with a plant-based coffee milkshake using many of the same ingredients and flavour notes. This one might be a bit more appealing when you’re out and about on a 30°C-plus summer day (see the Coffee, hazelnut, chocolate and panela syrup milkshake recipe).

As much as we all love our coffee, it’s only one part of what makes a successful café. With the bar for coffee so high across Australia, a strong and creative food and drinks offering is a great way to create a point of difference.

There are so many options you can choose from to fill out your menu, but there’s three things you need to keep in mind.

One – any food or beverage you offer needs to be the highest quality possible.

Two – you want the items on your menu to be inclusive; each item doesn’t need to appeal to all customers, but you need something for everyone. 

Three – especially if you’re working in a smaller coffee bar, you want to be smart with how you use ingredients to save on costs and space.

That’s why plant-based milks fit so naturally into a café. Vitasoy’s Café for Baristas range is tailored to work with coffee for a while now, but even before then, plant milks had a place in the café for use in smoothies, other beverages, and breakfast recipes, and these are areas they still perform wonderfully.

Every morning, I have a bowl of bircher muesli with Vitasoy Café for Baristas Almond Milk and it’s such a simple recipe you could add to most cafés. There are plenty of suppliers who can provide premixed bircher muesli, and after that it’s simple to add a bit of plant milk, so even a small espresso bar can offer a brunch or breakfast option. 

Thinking about the beverages you’d find in a café other than coffee, the first things that come to mind are probably your hot chocolates and chai lattes. You could even have something like a mocha or dirty chai that combine these with coffee for the best of both worlds.

In past columns, I’ve talked about how different types of coffee pair best with different plant milks, and the same applies for ancillary beverages. However, with there being such a strong focus on tailoring dairy alternatives to coffee, I think this is a topic the industry hasn’t explored as deeply as we should have. So with the team at Ona Coffee Melbourne, I began doing my own trialling and tasting of drinks with different dairy alternatives to find the perfect marriage for each beverage.

I’ve said many times Vitasoy Café for Baristas Almond Milk pairs best with chocolatey coffees, so it should come as no surprise that we found it to be the ideal plant-based milk to partner with hot chocolates. Those almond and chocolate notes just sing when you put them together. Oat milk worked well, but didn’t necessarily elevate the hot chocolate in the same way almond did. In our experience, soy milk just didn’t vibe with hot chocolate as well as almond or oat. (See Ultimate Hot Chocolate recipe.)

PRO TIP: use a whisk to pre-blend your chocolate powder into the plant-based milk, prior to steaming for a better texture and flavour in the cup.

For the chai latte, an increasingly popular café staple, we had the exact opposite result. Almond was just a bit too much when combined with the more complex chai flavours. Oat was a good blank canvas for the drink, but when the Vitasoy Café for Baristas Soy Milk brings the texture and chai carries the spice, it takes the beverage to a whole new level. (See Ultimate Chai recipe.)

The mix of tea and spices – like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and clove to name a few – we associate with chai came from India, but they are all flavours common in other Asian countries like China, where soy milk originated. Soy milk has been paired with these spices and ingredients for centuries, so it’s not hard to imagine why they would still work together in a modern café.

When it comes to a dirty chai or mocha, oat milk really shines. Oat milk is my personal plant milk of choice when it comes to coffee, because its neutrality allows the coffee to shine through. The same neutrality is what you want out of a plant milk when you’re blending these types of drinks with coffee, which creates an even more complex flavour profile. (See Ultimate Mocha recipe.)

Of course, these are just suggestions of how you could use dairy alternatives to bring the best out of your ancillary products. The right barista, recipe, and ratios will make any combination taste delicious, and I recommend every barista test and trial what works for them.

Another bit of experimentation you could really play around with is creating entirely new beverages. 

Health-centric and plant-based green smoothies are also becoming more and more popular, especially with the weather heating up, and it’s an easy way to add something original to the menu.

Whether it’s a daily addition to the diet, more of a weekend thing, or something for after exercise, a smoothie is a great way to get your greens in. I’ve put together my own green smoothie recipe using a mix of Vitasoy Café for Baristas oat and almond milk that also highlights some native Australia ingredients. It’s absolutely delicious and serves as a great addition to any café menu or inspiration for your own creation. Plant-based milks offer a huge amount of versatility to the café, and it just takes a little creativity to unlock their full potential. 

For more information, visit vitasoycafe.com.au, or contact your local distributor or the Bega Dairy and Drinks Customer Service team on 1800 000 570.

This article appears in the December 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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