"We try to stay up on trends, but this is less of a trend for us and more of a lifestyle." That’s what Dan Evans, the co-owner of Dagger Mountain Roastery in Valparaiso, Indiana, has to say about oat milk. This past February, Dan and his wife Ashton, who co-own the coffee roastery together, switched to offering Oatly oat milk as the only milk option at Dagger Mountain. It was Ashton’s idea and, at first, Dan was skeptical. Yes, he wanted to save money and stop "exploiting cows," but he wasn't convinced until the baristas on staff had their say. "I told our employees, 'Ashton wants to go completely oat milk,' and they said, 'fuck yeah!' I got really excited once I knew everyone else was on board."
Over the past year, the dairy-averse and beyond have become obsessed with oat milk. You've probably heard about it: Chalkboard signs boasting, "We now offer oat milk" continue to pop up outside local coffee shops, and cartons filled with the plant-based beverage are taking up space in the dairy aisle. Likewise, baristas across the country are suggesting oat milk to their regular customers as well as to their friends and fellow coffee aficionados. Everyone — from foodies to vegans to environmentalists — is talking about it.
The buzz around this new dairy alternative has caused exponential growth in oat milk sales — 425% in the last year, according to data compiled for Refinery29 by Square, Inc. Other plant-based milks like cashew milk, coconut milk, and even peanut milk have also experienced booms in years past, but none of them have ever managed to join the ranks of almond milk or soy milk as more consistent dairy alternatives.
From baristas' perspectives, oat milk lends itself well to creating the best, tastiest beverages. Lauren Sorensen, founder of Stonefruit Espresso + Kitchen in Brooklyn, NY, tells Refinery29 in an email that oat milk’s neutral flavour makes it perfect for espresso and matcha drinks. Coffee drinkers, too, are drawn to its more subtle flavour. "It just tastes better! You can definitely taste the almond milk in a drink, and that's sometimes overpowering. Oat milk is more neutral," Natasha Gonzalez, 22, tells Refinery29.
Many drinkers say its consistency is more similar to cow's milk than that of almond milk or other dairy milk substitutes. "It's usually thicker and doesn't curdle or chunk up in iced drinks like almond milk can," explains Allison Crooks, 30. And Bridget Berry, 23, tells Refinery29, "I'm an aspiring vegan so I have been doing a lot of research and personal experimentation with different dairy alternatives, and I must say oat is my favourite milk replacement as it tastes just as creamy and milk-like as cow's."
Another barista, Brendon Clark of The Wooly in downtown Manhattan, attributes oat milk's creamy texture to its high fat content. Clark says the fat content, which is higher than that of almond milk, is also what makes oat milk steam "wonderfully," which is just another reason why baristas in particular love it. James McLaughlin, CEO and president of Intelligentsia Coffee, the first U.S. coffeeshop to offer Oatly, echoes that sentiment. "Intelligentsia baristas became really enthusiastic about using oat milk because it steams and froths really well compared to other alternative milks."
Back in April, we heard from local coffee shops that they were having trouble keeping Oatly stocked because demand was so high. We reached out to Mike Messersmith, general manager of Oatly US, to find out why he thought the product had become so popular so quickly. "The coffee community is so connected and wired. It’s not even just about trends...when they see a product that allows them to either elevate the coffee experience or that they think solves a challenge that they face in a better way, they're so vocal and enthusiastic and passionate about it that it really expands." Perhaps unsurprisingly, when baristas encourage customers to try something, it's directly reflected in a coffee shop's sales data. According to McLaughlin, Intelligentsia Coffee's CEO and president, "Intelligentsia serves oat, soy, and almond milk in their coffee bars; however, it is oat milk that customers and baristas alike continue to choose as their favoured alternative milk, as 13% of Intelligentsia’s beverages are made with oat milk." Since most of us tend to stick to our usual coffee orders, a product like this needs word of mouth to gain momentum.
Part of the reason that the global market for dairy alternatives is expected to reach $16.3 billion in 2018 is that consumers have become more concerned with environmental impact. "I switched to oat milk because it takes three gallons of water to grow ONE almond, and my conscience couldn’t handle that," Julie Rogers, 23, tells Refinery29. Baristas, too, recognise oat milk's appeal for their environmentally conscious customers. "It's a much more ecologically friendly choice than milk or even almond milk (almonds require a LOT of water to grow, and a lot of the almonds are from California, which has been experiencing droughts!)," Stonefruit's Sorensen explains. For the record, it takes around 383% more water to produce one pound of almonds than it does to produce one pound of rolled or flaked oats, according to statistics from the Huffington Post.
Aside from requiring less water, oats also require less herbicide than other crops because they compete well with weeds. In fact, Oatly guarantees that it does not use glyphosate, a common weed killer. Glyphosate has recently been suspected of being linked to bee deaths and in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as a Category 2A herbicide meaning it is "probably carcinogenic to humans" so cutting back on the weed killer's usage could be better for the environment and our bodies.
One potential negative environmental impact from oat milk could stem from the fact that some commercial brands use sunflower oil or rapeseed oil in their products. Though the environmental impacts of these oils are less than that of palm oil and soybean oil, there is a general impact — herbicide usage, pesticide usage, carbon dioxide production — that comes with growing the plants to make these oils and processing these oils. Overall, however, there has yet to be much research on the topic of how these oils and other oat milk ingredients impact the environment. As the dairy alternative becomes more popular, if drawbacks exist, they will likely come to light just like what happened with soy and almond milk.
When it comes to nutritional value, the difference between oat milk and almond milk isn’t all that significant. Oatly oat milk contains 2 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat, while many almond milk brands contain 1 gram of protein and 2.5 grams of fat. Since oat milk is made from a carbohydrate, it also contains more sugar than other milks. Like almond milk and cow's milk, commercial oat milk brands are typically enriched with vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and vitamin D.
The fact that oat milk is only marginally more nutritious than almond milk hasn't stopped it from dominating the independent coffee shop market. Still, the one factor that could hold it back from finding a permanent place in the hearts of Americans is price. While it can feel like no big thing to pay a little extra for oat milk when you're already dropping money on a latte or cappuccino at your local coffee shop, the price difference between almond milk and oat milk may be enough to deter people from purchasing the milk alternative when they spot it in the dairy aisle right next to the other options. Chiara Diona, 19, explains to Refinery29 that oat milk is hands down her favourite dairy-free milk option, but that isn't enough to make her buy it at the store. "The oat milk options to buy for at-home coffee are never as good as the really expensive coffee shop ones, so I only buy it when I’m out and still use almond milk at home. Oat milk is a splurge."
Oat milk is more expensive. According to The New York Times, that's because it has a higher wholesale price than other milk alternatives. A 32-ounce carton of Elmhurst Milked Oats cost $5.99, which is a dollar more than a 32-ounce carton of the brand's Milked Almonds. That amount of almond milk is even cheaper coming from other brands like Blue Diamond and Silk. For oat milk to reign supreme among all other milks, it needs to find its way into the daily routines of at-home coffee brewers, cereal lovers, and more. However, since oat milk has only recently come on the plant-based milk scene, there isn't much competition. As demand grows, other brands could begin producing their own versions, thus driving down the price.
The oat milk obsession hasn't made it to every part of the country just yet. For example, while oat milk sales skyrocketed in the U.S. generally in the past year, not a single oat milk transaction was made through Square in Nashville, Tennessee during that time. On the other hand, Nashville was the country's ninth biggest consumer of almond milk during the same period. However, word of mouth from baristas and fans still has time to reach those smaller cities and towns, which could eventually spread the trend across the entire country.
In some areas well-outside major cities, that's already happening. Dan Evans says that in Valparaiso, Indiana, people are excited about oat milk even though they're located more than an hour outside Chicago. "There are people talking about it all the time. It's sold at Target now."