Bringing the best out of dairy alternatives

Australian Vitasoy Barista Champion Matt Lewin shares how to bring the best out of dairy alternatives and why locally produced products need our support.

The ‘plant-based revolution’ has planted its seeds in the Australian coffee industry, with practically every café expected to offer its customers an alternative to dairy, if not multiple.

With milk-based coffees such a large part of the local coffee market, Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) 2019 Australian Vitasoy Barista Champion Matt Lewin tells BeanScene it’s important cafés can still cater to the growing number of people on plant-based diets.

“Products like plant milk are now a part of everyday life and increasingly on people’s radar as it continues to rise in mainstream popularity. So, regardless of how discerning someone is about coffee, they’re very likely to be aware of this and may expect today’s cafes to offer a range of plant-based milks,” Matt says. “Dairy alternatives bring additional benefits to the coffee industry and at the café level, opening the world of milk coffee to be enjoyed by more people. As now those on a vegan diet can enjoy a fantastic array of ‘milk-based’ style coffees.”

Many plant-based milks companies saw the growing and varied demands the coffee market had for dairy alternatives and created products – like the Vitasoy Café for Baristas range – crafted specifically to work well with coffee.

“When the coffee industry first started working with soy milks, we recognised pretty quickly that some didn’t interact well with the acidity in coffee, creating challenges. As a result, specific approaches at both the roasting and barista level were required to achieve acceptable results. In particular, strong milk-based coffee with soy milk was a dreaded order by baristas – that combination seemed to be fraught with failure after failure, sometimes not working at all,” Matt says.

“But it has moved beyond being a purely ethical choice, where customers would have to just accept the quality of the plant-based milk and the resulting coffee. With the growth in the market, demands for these products, and amount of competition, [made-for-coffee plant-based milks] are definitely improving and refining how they work.”

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Vitasoy has developed its Café for Baristas range to pair well with coffee.

COFFEE SHINES
When it comes to using different plant-based milks in a café, Matt says “like with all things regarding coffee, flavour is king”.

This means café owners and baristas should find the right dairy alternative to pair with their coffee and decide how much of it to use in each cup.

“We can learn a lot from the relationship between cow’s milk and how it compliments coffee, as typically it’s the most important reason why people choose to use that particular milk. All milks can both enhance or completely shut down coffee’s flavour profile. As little as five to 10 extra millilitres in the cup can also remove those beautiful nuances the farmers and roasters worked so hard to express – particularly with specialty coffee,” Matt says.

“Any high-quality coffee roastery will be quality controlling their coffee to certain standards, including particular milks they’ve selected that work best with their coffee and recommend those complementary products. Cafés can use their own, but picking the right flavour from the right plant-based milk is crucial, because some can really dominate specific coffees, making it more about the milk’s sweetness than the coffee’s ‘identity’.”

Flavour can differ from coffee to coffee and consumers have personal preferences. Matt finds subtle innate differences in terms of flavour expression, quality, and handling between the different plant-based milks, like soy, almond, and oat. But, he says all can work very well.

LET OFF SOME STEAM
As a general rule, Matt suggests baristas be extra careful when steaming plant-based milks to make sure it’s not too hot. He says to steam the milk at a relatively slightly-cool temperature dependant on the plant milk and to introduce less air than you would for dairy.

“If I’m texturing plant-based milk for a coffee, for easy reference, I’ll steam it like [I would] for a flat white every time,” Matt says. “When plant-based milk integrates with espresso, it tends to instantly react or ‘expand’ creating a layer of foam immediately. By adding a little less air to it, while still texturing it beautifully, you’ll get a nice required amount of foam. If you steam it too thick, when pouring it, you’ll experience difficulty integrating it with espresso and it will completely ‘wash’ out the colour of the coffee canvas – plus it just won’t homogenise as nicely.

“Baristas can and should do other things like pre-heating their cups, which allows for a required and ever so slightly cooler milk without the coffee being perceived as ‘cold’ by the customer.”

With several milks being used in service, Matt says it’s also important to have plenty of practice, organise your milk jugs and coffee bar, and be conscious or minimising cross-contamination. All of this adds to the professionalism of the barista and reassurance of the customer.

“The more milks we add, the more plates there are to spin for baristas. It’s a challenge in many areas to uphold high quality across the board. Yet, like anything in life, if you do it over and over enough, you’ll get better at it, so it’s key businesses invest in staff product training,” he says.

“A focus on training with and story of the product is key to quality control and delivering optimal plant milk coffees. It begins with acknowledging plant-based milks are now and will continue to be a huge growing element of the coffee industry, requiring more barista training to get the best results.”

BEST DAIRY ALTERNATIVES
Matt Lewin of Ona Coffee is the reigning Australia Barista Champion.

SUPPORT LOCAL
With products like milk and dairy alternatives, Matt says it is also important a café considers the repercussions and impacts of the products it uses.

“Consumers are placing more value on supporting local, for obvious reasons, so selecting plant milks that are produced locally is an important element to consider. If you buy local plant milks like Vitasoy, it supports local jobs and creates opportunities in the industry,” he says.

“I like knowing the soybeans come from the Riverina and the surrounds, the almonds come from Renmark in South Australia, and the oats are grown in Western Australia. It means the carbon footprint is in a healthy position too.

“There’s an undeniable sense of ‘origin’ and story to it as well. Customers are caring more about the ‘why’ behind their products and really giving a nod to people that care about their area, their craft, are kind to the earth, and want to give back to their community and industry.”

Matt says Vitasoy in particular has shown its support to not only the community of Albury-Wodonga where its plant-based milks are produced, but to him and the wider specialty coffee industry too.

“Sponsoring ASCA’s competitions and my 2019 World Barista Championship campaign in Boston is a testament to how they’re adding more value to the specialty coffee space,” he says.

“I’ve been doing research and development with Vitasoy recently, and I’m really looking forward to doing more work with them on how we can take plant-based milks even further.”

ONLY GOING UP
Like with coffee itself, Matt says the industry is now more than ever understanding the huge potential dairy alternatives have to offer.

“Coffee is a universe, a very unique beverage that seemingly has more variables, steps, and processes that must all align with successful completion to yield a good result. If just one thing goes wrong at any point of its preparation from the seed to cup, it ruins the whole thing,” Matt says.

“The goal is always for coffee identity to shine while still tasting the good qualities of the milk – a harmonious balance whereby milk is complementary to the coffee, not overpowering it.”

He says as the market for dairy alternatives continues to grow, there will be an even greater scope to dive much deeper into the finer details of plant-based milks.

“Plant-based milks pair wonderfully with traditional chocolatey, caramel profiles of coffees. Over time, fruity milk-based coffees have increased in popularity, which opens new fun milk coffee styles to explore, so we can understand more about how dairy alternatives work best with them. The same goes for dairy. If there’s too much fat or sugar in cow’s milk, it can also dominate these intense fruit qualities or chocolate notes – elemental balance is key,” Matt says.

“For me, someone who eats a predominantly vegetarian diet, a future with more plant-based milks is great. As they continue to be refined with the aim of enhancing and complementing coffee, I only see an even better future for the coffee industry and coffee drinkers.”

This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.