“You're the coconut in my coffee” doesn't quite have the same ring as “You’re the cream in my coffee,” but since various studies have shown that some nondairy milks are better than cow’s milk for the environment and, potentially, for our health, maybe it is more romantic? In any case, it's definitely becoming more common for people to eschew the moo and opt for plant-based beverages instead.
Swapping almond milk for whole or 2% in cereal or in pancake batter is one thing, but the question of whether any of these plant-based alternatives can hang with espresso is less clear. Will they steam decently? Will they taste weird? And what about that precious latte art?
It’ll come as no surprise that a survey of online forums, reviews, and general spouting-off will uncover a whole host of opinions about this or that brand and this or that plant base. Turns out, people who drink nondairy milk with their espresso are just as partial about it as they are about the coffee itself (and that's really saying something!).
In true Serious Eats fashion, we decided to put a selection of commonly available nondairy milks to the test in a side-by-side tasting session of lattes and cappuccinos, conducted by a panel of five coffee professionals who all have sensory-analysis training. In other words, we got serious about drinking what is essentially nut juice.
Designing a Nondairy Milk Taste Test
As a former front-lines barista, I’ve heard all kinds of complaints and concerns from milk lovers who are considering switching to plant-based beverages. These include:
- The foam is thin, breaks too easily, or has a weird and seemingly random bubble structure.
- The drink tastes too “plant-y” and not “milky” enough.
- There's almost always an up-charge for them at cafés—is it worth it?
Those concerns helped inform the criteria we used to judge our lineup of plant-based contenders. Each panelist was given a tasting scorecard and told to evaluate the milks based on the following qualities:
- Foam texture that's drink-appropriate. This is a slightly different metric from simple foaming ability. When you're using dairy milk, the foam of a latte and of a cappuccino are noticeably different. A good cappuccino should have a head of softly pliable foam, and ideally there should be a little foam with every sip throughout the drink. A latte, on the other hand, typically contains a much thinner layer of microfoamed milk, such that the foam is consumed off the top of the drink within the first few sips. It seemed useful to rank based on “appropriate” foamability here, as a nondairy milk that makes a nice latte but fails a cappuccino will still be acceptable to someone who couldn’t care less about cappuccino.
- Flavor. Scored from 1 (didn't like) to 5 (really liked), with sensory descriptions.
- Sweetness. Scored from less 1 (least sweet) to 5 (most sweet)
- Rank from favorite to least-favorite in category. This apple only if there were multiples (e.g., Pacific Soy versus Silk Soy)
- Rank from favorite to least-favorite overall. (i.e., Is Silk Almond preferable to Milkadamia?)
The author and taste-test coordinator (that's me, Meister) called upon her almost 20 years of barista experience and built 22 drinks for the panel to taste: one cappuccino and one latte for each of the 11 nondairy milks in the experiment. The espresso was consistent throughout, with a recipe of 19–20 grams of coffee in, 35–37 grams of espresso out, in about 26–28 seconds. Lattes were poured into 8-ounce cups, while cappuccinos were in 5-ounce cups.
The drinks were also poured with the intention of creating the classic latte art for each style: a rosetta for each latte, and a "monk's head"—a symmetrical circle or oval of white foam—on each cappuccino. The drinks were made on a two-group La Marzocco Linea Classic, a top-of-the-line commercial espresso machine with a dedicated boiler system that allows for consistent brew-water temperature, in addition to powerful and reliable steam pressure—which most likely means that the designs won't be replicable at home, unless you're some kind of foam whisperer.
In the interest of tasting each drink at its best, tasters were instructed to try them as soon as they were completed, rather than waiting until all 22 were ready to compare side-by-side. As most professional coffee cuppers will do, the panel shared the same drinks and went back to each one as it cooled to see how the flavor changed over time and at different temperatures.
The participants were all avid coffee-shop patrons who love a good whole-milk latte—in fact, none of them actually tend to order milk alternatives in their everyday lives, which meant they didn't have extensive previous experience with nondairy milks in general, let alone the specific selection of nondairy milks we were testing. Each of the participants has regularly participated in professional sensory analysis evaluations. During testing, they also followed the “rule of silent work,” meaning they refrained from sharing their thoughts until a discussion at the end.
The Nondairy Milks We Tested
First, a disclaimer: We weren't able to test every single nondairy milk on the market. Instead, we focused on the most popular and most readily available brands found in supermarkets, department-store groceries, and specialty markets, with just a little bit of online shopping thrown in. (Ordering nondairy milk online is a pricey endeavor, unless you're willing to buy a lot of it, apparently.) For the most part, this meant that “barista” versions didn't make the cut all that often, as they're often sold by distributors straight to cafés and restaurants and are harder to find in stores.
Here is the list of products we tested:
- Silk Soy - Original
- Pacific Soy - Barista Series
- Pacific Almond - Original
- Califia Farms Almondmilk - Original
- Silk Almond - Original
- Pacific Coconut - Original
- So Delicious Coconut - Original
- Tempt - Original (hemp)
- Milkadamia - Original (macadamia)
- Oatly - Original (oat)
- Ripple - Barista Style (pea protein) [note: discontinued after testing]
Second, before we lay out the top-rated nondairy beverages from our tests, I wanted to take a moment to point out why cow’s milk works so well in espresso-based drinks. It isn’t just that it’s a magical combination of fat, sugar, and protein that tastes great when blended with the bitterness of coffee. That combination also means it’s capable of producing and maintaining a perfectly silky and smooth microfoam texture. When a barista introduces heat and air into the milk via a steam wand, the protein chains are activated and create a surfactant that captures bubbles and holds them to create the frothy texture. The fat in the mixture helps to create a silky, creamy texture because it allows the milk to coat the bubbles, creating the viscosity that we all love in a cappuccino.
It stands to reason, just from the outset, that any nondairy milks that can serve as a good substitute in espresso drinks will likely have to mimic that ideal combination you find in cow’s milk.
Nondairy Milk Taste Test Results
The clear winner on foam texture for both lattes and cappuccinos was a product that was discontinued after our testing: a “barista series” offering by Ripple, a company whose pea protein beverage wasn't in our original testing plans but seemed interesting enough to try. (Ripple still produces a non-barista "Original" nondairy milk that is worth seeking out.)
Oatly scored second-highest marks on consistency for both drinks, and Silk's Soy came in hot at third. Hemp was a pleasant surprise on texture: Not only did it accept air in a way that allowed for microfoam creation, the foam also remained relatively resilient in the cup, so the drink held on to its latte art.
Coconut milks scored poorly in general: Neither version held microfoam at all, and the milk remained thin, so that tasters barely registered a difference between the foam in the latte and the cappuccino. This makes sense, since the lack of protein in coconut milk (as opposed to nut- and seed-based plant beverages) means it doesn't have sufficient surfactants to bond the base liquid with the air being introduced by the steam wand. In order to truly create that luxurious, velvety texture, your plant-based milk needs something closer to an optimal balance of fat and protein—sorry, coconut.
Flavor and Sweetness
Plant-based milks don’t naturally contain a lot of sugar, but many brands offer sweetened versions, usually with added cane sugar. In most cases we opted for the unsweetened version of the products we tested—or “original,” when available, which is typically sweetened somewhat.
In our testing, Milkadamia and Oatly tied for best overall flavor: The panel liked the “sweet” and “milky neutral” taste of Oatly as well as the “cereal milk” and “vanilla extract” flavor of Milkadamia. Interestingly, the tasters found Milkadamia to have the highest perceived sweetness, even though Oatly contains 10 more grams of sugar per serving. The pea protein-based Ripple came in a very close second.
Hemp milk didn't fare so well. The tasters thought it contributed a “seedy” or “leguminous” flavor, and more than one compared it to fish-oil supplements. Coconut milk's flavor generally fell short of expectations, too, in part hindered by its thin texture. A richer and creamier foam allows the liquid, and its flavor, to linger on the palate longer; the coconut milk foam matrix collapsed quickly, and neither the latte nor the cappuccino was able to coat the tasters’ tongues.
Silk's Soy, which also contains cane sugar, came in with silver marks. Califia's unsweetened Almond Milk was the caboose, just behind So Delicious Coconut Milk (original), which contains cane sugar but, again, seems to have been undermined by its texture.
Our panel generally agreed that the top three plant-based milks we tested were Ripple, Milkadamia, and Oatly. Coconut in general didn't do so hot: Both coconut brands were at the very bottom of the list, with no noticeable difference between the “barista” and the standard versions. Also riding on the caboose was the unsweetened Califia Almond Milk, which our tasters found off-tasting when mixed with the espresso.
Despite its “fishy” notes, Hemp landed smack-dab in the middle, saved in part by its decent texture. (Or maybe fish lattes can be more appealing than we originally thought?)
Most plants make liquid, but not all plant liquid belongs in an espresso drink. It comes down to your priorities: Are you in this for the foam, the flavor, or the total package?
As we noted above, Ripple's barista series came out on top, but has since been discontinued, though you can still find their "Original" label. Milkadamia ranked well and elicited praise from the panel, but might be somewhat difficult to source without ordering it online, depending on where you're located. Oat milk is the new hotness, much more widely available, and still earned good marks from the tasters. Silk was the soy milk of choice back when I was a professional barista in the early-to-mid 2000s, and, based on our testing, Silk Soy Milk is still a solid standby after all these years.
One note about the lower-scoring beverages is that our panel was specifically testing them steamed, in relation to espresso—your mileage may vary based on the espresso blend you use, your espresso machine—you can check out our review of the best machines right here—and…maybe your tolerance for fishy lattes? Just kidding about that last one, but seriously, these beverages might be perfectly tasty in multiple other applications, like poured over granola or stirred with chocolate. They may even taste great stirred into regular old filter coffee.