A barista’s guide to dairy alternatives: tips & tricks

tips tricks dairy alternatives

Matthew Lewin shares his top 10 tips & tricks for making the most out of your dairy alternatives.

I’ve really enjoyed taking a deep dive into the world of plant-based milks in the past few columns and hope you’ve learnt something new along the way. Now that we’ve covered the ‘theory’ behind plant-based milks, this time around we’ll get straight to the practical things you’ll need to know when working on the coffee bar.

Here are my top tips & tricks to help you master dairy alternatives in your café.

1. Have the right options available.

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

More and more customers are becoming plant-based milk drinkers, but people often have different tastes and preferences. There are many options on the market and having too many can make service difficult to manage. If you have the ‘big three’ of oat, almond, and soy on your roster, alongside dairy and light/skim milk, you should be able to satisfy most customers.

The Vitasoy Café for Baristas range includes these three milks, which have optimal taste for pairing with coffee. They are also locally made and support the Australian community and rural farmers, as well as the barista championships. Having worked with Vitasoy for a while now, I’ve come to really appreciate their vision and goal to become widely known as the best plant-based milk for coffee.

2. Keep your milks cold, even after opening.

During the morning rush, you’re likely to be going through bottles and cartons of several different dairy and plant-based milks. While it’s easier and quicker to leave them all on the counter for easy access, you don’t want them out of the fridge for more than a couple of minutes.

Leaving them out too long becomes a food safety issue, but beyond that, room temperature milks don’t texture as well as cold milks. 

They won’t perform as well while you’re steaming and will lack clarity and sweetness in the cup. It also frees up bench space, giving you more room and flexibility to work, which balances out the speed benefits of having all the bottles and cartons out anyway.

PRO TIP: Try to keep your milk jugs cold too. This helps keep the milk cold before you steam it and gives you more time to work with it.

3. Shake the carton every time before using it and try to use cartons with lids.

Most baristas know to give the carton a shake before opening it, but really, you should be doing this every time you use a plant-based milk. This is because plant-based milks contain several solids and liquids, which can separate if they’re left to sit, so a quick shake will harmonise the dairy alternative and give it a consistent performance from cup to cup.

Working on coffee bars, I’ve come to prefer plant-based milks like the Vitasoy Café for Baristas range that come with an airtight lid. This makes it easier (and cleaner) to shake repeatedly and does a better job of keeping air from oxidising the milk after opening the carton.

4. Introduce air to milk in vortex immediately after you start steaming. 

Start with the tip of your steam wand submerged in the milk so you can get it spinning. Once the vortex is going, start introducing a light amount of air. You should only be hearing little hisses. Stop introducing air once the milk is around 40°C and you’ll get a much sweeter product.

PRO TIP: If you’re using powdered hot chocolate or chai mixes, use a small whisk or nanofoamer to blend the powders into the milk before you start steaming. This ensure a more even texture and stops the powder from clumping.

5. Steam all plant-based milk as you would for a flat white, rather than a latte or cappuccino.

Plant-based milks can foam faster than traditional dairy, so you don’t want to introduce too much air into it. Think about it like a flat white compared to a latte or cappuccino and aim for only 0.5-to-one centimetre of foam for each coffee.

6. Don’t push dairy alternatives past 55°C to 60°C and keep your cups preheated.

Plant-based milks will denature and split at a lower temperature than dairy, so you don’t want to overheat them. To make up for the lower temperature, use preheated cups so the coffee cools down slowly. The simplest way is to keep cups upside down on top of the coffee machine.

PRO TIP: Try to use ceramic cups instead of glass. They’ll hold the heat better, the coffee will taste better, and their design is usually easier for the barista to handle.

7. Keep moving and don’t let the steamed plant-based milk sit for too long. 

As soon as you’ve finished texturing a plant-based milk, it’s a good idea to start pouring your coffees straight away. Moving swiftly will avoid separation from happening in the milk jug, ensuring your customer gets a silky and delicious milk.

A steadier pour will also encourage more harmonisation between the milk and coffee, so the end drink looks and tastes better than a jumpy or inconsistent pour will. The overall experience is more of a marriage, rather than just coffee with milk added.

PRO TIP: Always use the handle to hold the cup. Especially after COVID-19, hygiene is more important than ever, so try not to hold the cup by the rim the customer will be drinking from.

8. Build a canvas.

This might sound like it goes against my last point, but before your ‘main’ pour, add 10 to 20 millilitres of textured milk to the espresso base and give it a small swirl. This creates a ‘coffee canvas’ that sets the foundation for pouring the remaining milk with ease of integration, colour contrast between the milk and coffee.

9. Pour from height.

This applies to dairy milk too. Pouring your milk from a high starting point helps it to pierce through the espresso coffee, preserving the coffee’s visual appeal. Pour slow and carefully and draw closer to the surface when you’re ready to create latte art, usually when the cup is halfway full.

During normal café service, simple latte art is always best. More complex patterns take time and can throw off the milk/coffee balance in the cup. A nice and simple heart is always a good way to go and lets you top up your cup without ruining the pattern.

10. Try to pair your plant-based milks with coffees or beverages that suit their flavour profile.

Ultimately, the customer will usually decide what plant-based milk they want, but if they’re open to different options, try to steer them to whichever one you think will work best with their drink.

Oat is creamy with a nice neutral flavour, which is perfect for lighter fruity coffees or complex mochas. 

Almond is rich and nutty with a round mouthfeel perfect for hot chocolates and chocolatey coffees. 

Soy has a decadent texture, is cloyingly sweet, and a beany taste, that works great for chai lattes and classic, dark roasted coffees. 

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 February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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