As I squeezed the remaining liquid out of my cheesecloth filled with blended oats and water into a glass and poured my freshly made vegan oat milk into my coffee, my colleagues avoided making eye contact with me in the kitchen. I was embarrassed to be eschewing the office creamer for a nondairy, oat alternative.
But I'm not the only one doing it. The trend of using liquefied oats in lattes has quickly become more vogue than using almond milk, which already outshone soy milk as the hip, health-conscious way to drink creamy espresso.
Oat milk is hot right now, led by the U.S. arrival of Swedish company Oatly. The company, which was formed in the early ’90s, brought its oat drink to the states starting at Intelligentsia coffee shops last year. Now the gluten-free and sugar-free product is available in upwards of 2,200 coffee shops and 1,000 grocery stores across the country from Seattle to Northwest Arkansas and Brooklyn, says Oatly's general manager Mike Messersmith.
Starbucks started offering oat milk in Europe this year but has yet to bring it to America. Meanwhile, Oatly is looking to expand to more shops in the Southeast U.S.
“(Customers) get angry and won’t come in if we don’t have oat milk,” says Andrew Robbins, the assistant manager at West Hollywood spot Coffee for Sasquatch, which opened last October with a menu that includes Oatly's oat drink. “Most times if I’m getting a phone call, it’s over whether we have Wi-Fi, making a to-go order or asking about oat milk.”
Messersmith knows that his “really small company” is not meeting demand. “We’ve been doing this for about a year and a half in the U.S., and the growth has been phenomenal," he says. "Candidly, faster and more significant than we could even hope for. The rate of adoption exceeded our expectations.”
Oatly didn’t come to America with a major marketing plan; it was presented to baristas looking for an alternative to cow’s milk that is creamy, latte-art-capable, healthy and sustainable. Almond milk and soy milk were no longer fitting the bill.
The soy milk controversy
As for soy, the high-protein nondairy milk has been available at coffee chains from Dunkin’ Donuts to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for more than a decade, but in the past few years it’s been taken off many baristas’ healthy list.
Blue Bottle Coffee manager Selina Viguera, whose coffee shops have also ditched soy milk in favor of oat, says, “I remember reading articles about women switching to soy products and had issues with fibrous tissues.” But she can’t cite a specific study that presented this information, just that there was a “negative conversation around soy milk” that included talk about the presence of genetically modified organisms and phytoestrogens, compounds that look like estrogen to the body. However, dietitian and nutrition writer Carrie Gabriel says that the protein-rich drink has several positive qualities, but, like anything, "If you consume soy in excess, it's going to eventually be an issue."
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb mentioned an extreme soy case in a statement last month, when he was addressing how the FDA is considering dropping the word "milk" as a way to identify nondairy liquids.
“There has ... been a case report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk,” Gottlieb said, without getting into specifics.
Soy milk has quickly waned in popular opinion compared with Oatly's oat drink – a vegan alternative that promises no GMOs and, as the website announces, a sustainable manufacturing process.
Almond milk's challenges
It’s that last factor that likely has helped oat milk eclipse almond milk, a drink that requires much more water to make and is largely produced in California. Although almond milk rose in popularity in 2013 with chains like Peet’s Coffee introducing the option, in 2015, almonds became something of a scapegoat for the California drought.
So despite researchers saying in the Journal of Food Science and Technology last year that “in a few cases, (almond milk) was found to be even better than the generally followed alternatives like soy-based meals and protein hydrolysate formula,” almond milk is no longer the hot nondairy coffee creamer.
How to get, or make, oat milk
Oat milk is in, and it’s mostly supplied by Oatly – though brands including Pacific Foods and Elmhurst offer versions, too. Most coffee shops charge an extra dollar for the specialty option, which Oatly sells online for $25 per six-pack of 32 oz. cartons, when it's in stock.
Don’t have access to a specialty coffee shop or grocery store that sells oat milk yet? You can make it at home by combining water and oats in a blender, then squeezing the liquid mixture through a cheesecloth. Add sweetener if you desire.
My homemade oat milk tasted like liquid cardboard before I poured it into coffee and added vanilla and cinnamon. But as part of a hot drink, it was shockingly tasty and smooth. I’ve already convinced friends to adopt my wholesome new habit.