• Almond milk coffee at Melbourne's paleo-inspired Patch Cafe. (Photograph Marina Oliphant) (SBS Food)
Watch out soy milk, there's a new coffee companion gaining cafe cred. Dairy-free, low in calories and paleo-friendly, almond milk is making a splash in Australia. But can it really make a decent coffee?
By
Leanne Tolra

18 Mar 2016 - 10:29 AM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2016 - 1:58 PM

Non-dairy, great-tasting, high in protein, low in calories, low-carb, gluten-free, vegan-friendly and easy on the steam wand? Almond milk ticks all the right coffee companion boxes.

If it’s not on the menu at your local cafe, it probably will be soon.

At two-year-old paleo-inspired Patch Cafe in Melbourne’s Richmond, almond milk makes up about a quarter of all milk-based coffee sales, says owner Tom Davidson.

“Some people prefer it because they are following a paleo-inspired way of eating, but for others who struggle with dairy intolerances and simply don’t want to put up with a sore gut, it’s a great-tasting alternative to soy milk,” he says. 

You know almond milk is going mainstream when big-name cafes are using it, too. Melbourne’s Toby’s Estate cafe manager Paul Schliewe is also watching the market grow.

“It’s still in its early stages but we are seeing more and more people order it every day. Some for dairy intolerances (or) health conscious customers – it has about one third of the calories of skim milk – and others because they prefer its nutty taste and the way it extends the flavour of coffee (compared) to cow’s milk or soy milk. 

Melbourne’s Toby’s Estate manager Paul Schliewe. (Photograph Marina Oliphant)

“We’ve been using it for about 12 months and it’s definitely increased in popularity. Our first order was for five bottles and we just managed to get through it, now we would easily go through 12 litres a week,” Paul says.

That’s compared to about 200 litres of cow’s milk and around 80 litres of soy. Almond milk is used in similar quantities in the company’s cafe in Chippendale in Sydney too, he says.

Sales of almond milk were reported to have jumped by 40 per cent last year and it’s now outselling other plant-based milks including those made from soy and rice. 

Cameron Earl of Victorian-based Almond Milk Co. saw the signs by watching almond milk sales skyrocket in the US about three years ago. He was setting up a cafe and struggling with his own dairy intolerance, so he began experimenting with almond milk.

“We tested it in the cafe, initially offering free trials to customers who drank soy milk, but we also discovered an unexpected market among skim-milk-coffee drinkers,” he said. 

Almond Milk Co. and Toby's Estate coffee. (Photograph Marina Oliphant)

Used in medieval times in the kitchens of the wealthy, and made by families in the Mediterranean to celebrate the almond harvest, almond milk is essentially almonds macerated in water then pulverised and strained to produce a silky liquid.

Cameron says many commercial varieties of almond milk use around 2-4 per cent of almonds to water and different sweetening agents. “I trialled raw sugar, honey, agave, stevia and coconut sugar to see what tasted best and found they all had a strong aftertaste. So I experimented with medjool dates and the flavour just stood out,” he says.

Whole almonds are soaked for 24-48 hours and blended with filtered water. Every litre of Almond Milk Co. almond milk is made up of a single medjool date, a pinch of salt (this brings out the natural sweetness of the almonds, Cameron says) and a 16 per cent almond content. 

“One of the key points of the brand was that we wanted to be selling a fresh product and using locally grown almonds. Each time we tried to extend the shelf life of the milk, its quality decreased,” he says. No preservatives are added, which is one reason why the product is only available in Victoria.

Is drinking almond milk bad for the planet?

There’s been some debate about whether eating almonds – and drinking almond milk – is a bad choice for the environment. It’s a complicated issue – as The Atlantic points out, there’s an avalanche of evidence about the health benefits of almonds and they are more popular than ever but in America, which produces about 80 per cent of the world’s almonds, concern surrounds the high use of water in almond production.

Maria Dolan at Slate, however, argues there’s more to it than that – and while almonds do require a lot of water, so does dairy milk production.

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There’s a milk revolution going on in supermarkets and it’s showing no sign of retreat. Where formerly we might have had a simple choice between cow milk and soy milk, with a few other niche products available in the bigger supermarkets, suddenly we’re facing a bewildering range: almond or macadamia milk? Cow, sheep, or goat? Coconut? Rice, oat or quinoa?

How to make an amazing almond milk coffee

Baristas say the secrets to successfully creating gossamer microfoam (that velvety froth that sits on top) with almond milk are not unlike those for cow’s milk. Some almond milks are higher in almond content than others and so perform, and taste, a little better.

At Straight Up Coffee and Food in Hobart, almond milk is made fresh daily. “We don’t mind sharing our recipe,” says barista Tori Burnie. “We soak one cup of raw almonds and two dates in about 1½ cups of filtered water overnight. Then we drain off the water, remove the dates and rinse the almonds. We add four cups of filtered water to the soaked almonds then blend until smooth and strain off the pulp (we use that in some of our cake recipes).”

Tori says the cafe experimented with commercial almond milk, but the high sugar content and added preservatives didn’t align with its wholefoods philosophy. The dates remove the bitterness of the almonds during the soaking process, but are not added as sugar content to the final product. 

If you want to try making your own almond milk, try our recipe here.

When steaming almond milk at home for coffee, it’s best to begin with cold, fresh milk.

“Gently plunge your steam wand into the milk, just below the surface and turn it on fully, until you hear a gentle hissing sound before you begin to stretch the milk.

“Allow the milk to create a whirlpool, just as you would with cow’s milk and use the heel of your hand to feel the temperature as it increases. You should be able to hold your hand against the jug for about three seconds,” says Tori.

Almond milk is at its best at 65ºC, just like cow’s milk, says Paul Schliewe. “Soy milk is a little more difficult to work with. It separates and can be difficult to stretch and can’t be heated over 55ºC.”

Tom Davidson says creating latte art is a little trickier with almond milk though. “Because of its higher water content it’s a little more difficult to create latte art, it doesn’t knit with the coffee quite as well as cow’s milk.”

It is possible to achieve nice-looking café lattes, it just takes practise. “It won’t be quite as pretty as traditional latte art as almond milk doesn’t create the same layers, but it’s still possible to get a traditional rosetta pattern,” says Tori

“Because of the chemical reaction and the different pH levels of the milk and the coffee, the almond milk will separate from the coffee if it’s been sitting for a while. You just need to stir the coffee again,” she says.

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Which almond milk?

In another sign that the popularity of almond milk coffee is rocketing ahead, alternative milk brand Vitasoy is launching an almond milk at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo, which is on in the Victorian capital now. It’s a trade-only product at the moment, but if you’re looking for more guidance on the brands you can buy to make coffee, or splash on your cereal, at home, you can find some thoughts from consumer advocate Choice here and Australian blogger Hippie Mumma’s guide to her pick of almond milks. Or make your own – our recipe for home-made almond milk, and a delicious almond milk panna cotta is here.

 

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