Move over, almond milk. There's a new plant-based milk in town — and it's popping up at coffee shops all around Philadelphia.

Oat milk, predominantly popularized by the Swedish brand Oatly, is emerging strong across the coffee industry nationwide, and is in at least 13 cafes across Philadelphia and a handful in the suburbs.

Some spots, including Elixr, La Colombe, and Menagerie Cafe, have ousted other dairy-free milks, like soy and almond, in favor of the oat-based alternative, which is quickly creating a fan base for the product.

"We really only go to coffee shops with oat milk now," Carli Rouh said while sipping on an oat milk cortado at Menagerie Coffee on South Third Street.

Though she's not vegan, Rouh steers clear of cow's milk for health reasons. She became acquainted with oat milk at La Colombe and now seeks it out for multiple reasons.

"It tastes better. It has a vanillalike flavor that's naturally sweet," she said. "It's also has less preservatives than soy milk and is far more sustainable than almond milk."

Oat milk gets high reviews from baristas, who report that it froths better than other dairy-free alternatives in drinks such as the cortado from Menagerie Coffee.
GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF
Oat milk gets high reviews from baristas, who report that it froths better than other dairy-free alternatives in drinks such as the cortado from Menagerie Coffee.

The sustainability factor is one that many coffee shop owners point to as a significant selling point, particularly when comparing oat milk to almond milk.

"It was an opportunity to offer our customers another dairy-free option, give them something that tasted better than soy, and also use something that had less of a carbon footprint," said Rival Bros. cofounder Jonathan Adams.

Rival Bros. began using oat milk in the last few weeks after customers requested it.

It takes slightly more than a gallon of water to grow a single almond, or nearly 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of almonds. (By comparison, just under 300 gallons of water is needed to produce a pound of oats.) With drought-stricken California growing the vast majority of the country's almond supply, this presents a problem — and has made almonds into a pricey commodity.

Many almond milk manufacturers won't answer questions about how many almonds are used to make  their products. However, the price of the golden almond has led to the watering down of milks, with manufacturers relying instead on thickening agents like carrageenan and emulsifiers like lecithin.

Oat milk is derived primarily from a combination of oats and water. The  brand Oatly also adds non-GMO rapeseed oil to enhance texture  in coffee drinks.
COURTESY OATLY
Oat milk is derived primarily from a combination of oats and water. The  brand Oatly also adds non-GMO rapeseed oil to enhance texture  in coffee drinks.

Oat milk, on the other hand, is derived from a humble and cheap ingredient — the oat.

Though  there are several brands of oat milk (and recipes to make your own), Philly coffee shops across the board report using Oatly, which has patented the process it uses to derive its creamy, latte-conducive liquid.

It starts with milling together oats and water. Natural enzymes are added to the mixture  to break down the oat starch. This is where the naturally sweet flavor is derived, allowing the product to remain free of added sugars.

The bran is then separated out from the product before other ingredients are added, like salt and rapeseed oil. Finally, the product is pasteurized, placed in a sterilizing tank, and then packaged for shipping.

The  addition of rapeseed oil helps oat milk stand out among other dairy-free milks for its frothing capabilities, a continuous challenge when comparing alternatives to cow's milk.

"It texturizes beautifully without needing the introduction of gums or fillers, which I believe is a result of the addition of rapeseed oil to balance its viscosity," said Josey Markiewicz, national manager of training and quality assurance at La Colombe.

Markiewicz said La Colombe was on the search for a grain-based alternative and found oat milk to be more flavor-neutral than other options, allowing the espresso to act as the main focus of a beverage, rather than the milk.

"It steams notably better than almond milk, so it's easier to get a tight micro foam," said barista Jack Sharples, who watched Menagerie Coffee ditch almond milk at the end of last year. "It's definitely more comparable to real milk  — although still nothing compares to whole milk."

Other coffee experts are still on the fence.

"We've considered it, but we've been waiting to see if it's something that people really want," said ReAnimator Coffee cofounder Mark Corpus. "We have soy and almond milk, and adding a third alternative milk is something we aren't sure we need."

Even coffee shop owners who are using oat milk say that to enjoy the full flavors of coffee, you should drink it black. Adams of Rival Bros. points out that this is the best way to taste the distinction of the bean's country of origin and the nuances in flavor derived from how the bean is processed.

"If you're going to add milk, I think whole milk tastes the best, but one kind of milk isn't 'better' than the other," Adams said. "I'm just really stoked that people want to drink our coffee, so if they want to put a little oat milk in it, we support that."