February 21, 2017

Milk for everyone

“I like lattes too”

The best thing about café culture today is everyone can be included and accepted in the mix as a customer, because of the huge range of products that can now be purchased for a complete café experience.

People who were lactose intolerant were always pushed into a corner with their beverage choice, because the range of dairy free alternatives was extremely poor. Many of the soy milks and other milk alternatives did not perform well with coffee and split when heated on the coffee machine steam wand.

Now we can say there are many great milk alternatives in the marketplace that are not only changing people’s minds with dairy intolerances, but also for those who have chosen a type of milk for many other personal reasons. It is now the era of choice, if you have not already noticed!

I have been studying this space closely for a number of years and have been heavily involved in helping alternative plant milk manufacturers market their products to the coffee industry around the globe. The space now is worth over 21 billion dollars globally and growing quickly, as people change their café beverage habits. The café sector in the last two years has doubled in plant based milk usage, according to market analyst Euromonitor. There is big growth in coconut, hemp, hazelnut, macadamia, but the biggest growth has been almond milk, simply because it tastes the best out of the rest in coffee. Soy drinkers are making changes to these milks as another new offering in taste preference.

I recently visited the largest almond growing area in the world near Sacramento, California, where I was hosted by the Almond Growers Association of America at the Blue Diamond branded farms and processing plants. It was a real buzz to see this one-hundred-year-old Californian crop with of over 3,600 farmers producing on 1.6 million acres. This one area of the world produces 80% of the world’s almonds.

Almond milk is basically a secondary crop, as most almonds in the world end up as an ingredient or a whole almond snack on the supermarket shelf. Almond milk is produced from a paste or a base made from the milled raw almonds and does not have too many other ingredients apart from water, and in barista designed milks they have some natural stabilisers.

I was very lucky to be shown around the Blue Diamond production facility in the town of Salida by Mel Machado, who has been with the Almond Growers Cooperative for over 20 years. Mel is not only the mentor to all the farmers in the cooperative, but he is also a nut farmer himself. It was nice to see the background of the almond industry first hand, especially since the California industry has copped a lot of flak over the heavy water usage of almond farms during the current drought, and to hear the real story behind the scene is always refreshing and the most truthful. Most of the noise is being generated by city officials in larger cities who waste water on public land spaces and who have no real water conservation strategy.

The almond industry, after 100 years of growing almonds, totally understand the importance of land and water management and have developed watering systems like micro spraying, that only puts water to the main root ball of the tree in crucial growing times. This new type of watering system has replaced the inefficient flood irrigation that was the old practice in almond growing. Personally I have never met a wasteful farmer; most I know understand the true hardship of the land and want to keep their properties in their families for generations, so water management is all part of the big future picture. So when I heard all the bad mouthing of the almond industry, I was sceptical, hence making the farm visits in person.

Why has dairy free milk become such a big trend, is a question I think everyone is asking? I think it’s a lifestyle choice more so than a health decision of being dairy intolerant. People are generally looking more at what goes in their mouths and can now get the real facts quickly off the net, so everyone is cautious of a marketing spiel. Dairy has great nutritional value but also has many issues with lactose and fat. Plant based milks all have different nutritional qualities, but the low fat and low sugar is a big drawcard for the café customers looking after their wellbeing.

Why milks like almond are doing well in the café market is because the barista designed milk blends actually work just like real cow’s milk when steamed. I know from my experience, companies like Blue Diamond have spent years working on their Barista Almond Breeze milk, getting it useable in the café coffee system. Many generic supermarket non dairy milks will split when subjected to heat from the steam wand. Famous Australian latte artist Luke Shilling explained to me that when you are making twenty milk based coffees in a row perfectly and you get an alternate milk drink order and the drink curdles and splits, it makes you look bad as a barista – and you won’t recommend that brand.

UK Almond Breeze consultant Fi Mason has found the biggest selling point for the Almond Breeze Barista milk is useability. On her café sales visits she often gets challenged by baristas, because they have had bad experiences and when they try her product, they often take it on because it works. Fi has seen a massive lifestyle swing in London, where younger people are drinking less alcohol, not smoking and eating balanced diets. Almond milk is a big category in cafés, and there are many brands competing for the space.

One of the largest plant based milk manufacturers, Danone, has invested heavily in their products, like Silk in the USA and Alpro in Europe, and dominate the retail space. Other manufacturers are targeting the health food industry, but the largest piece of the pie is the trendy café sector, where the product is getting easy acceptance in the market.

As a café owner you need to stay ahead of trends, no matter what opinion you may have of a product. If a trendy item brings customers into your business with limited effort and it makes them happy enough to return, it’s a good investment.

Plant based milks are definitely worth taking notice of, as the crest of this popularity wave has not yet peaked if you look at growth cycles worldwide. I have personally seen a large growth in plant based drinks around the world, with Australia being one of the best testing grounds for international café trends … and plant based milks are here to stay in our country.

Story by Sean Edwards

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