Milk used as an additive to drinks is a historic tradition that can be traced back to tea drinks from the early Qing Dynasty of China in the 17th century. That same century Europeans made coffee more palatable to their tastes by adding milk and honey (later substituted with sugar) to minimise bitterness and increase its sweetness. Soon Europeans realised that heating the milk would sweeten it enough, leading to the rise of latte drinks. Adding milk to coffee has not gone out of style since the 1600s, and has evolved into a cultural staple in coffee consumption across the world.
But why does milk pair so well with coffee?
Milk balances acidity and bitterness. The pH of milk leans acidic at around 6.5-6.7 pH due to lactic acid, but can be almost 100 times less acidic than coffee, which is around 5 on the pH scale. Adding milk to a coffee brings the drink’s overall pH down dramatically, and makes it easier to stomach if you are sensitive to acid. Balancing the flavours of a coffee’s acidity and bitterness with milk (in particular steamed milk, which sweetens as it’s cooked) increases the overall perceived sweetness through harmonising flavours and adding texture.
Increased texture. The satisfaction of microfoam in latte drinks plays a part in enhancing mouthfeel. It’s composed of aerated milk: a layer of tiny bubbles that stimulate taste buds, achieving a creamy and airy mouthfeel.
Finally, milk coffees fill you up. Caffeine is a natural appetite suppressant, and dairy naturally takes a while to digest because of its high fat and sugar content. Paired together, a milk coffee may be enough to tide you over until your next meal. You won’t feel sluggish after a well-balanced milk coffee drink too, as the caffeine in the coffee is a natural psychoactive stimulant.
All of these reasons suggest enjoying milk in coffee, but there are immense problems with the consumption of dairy milk, both personal and ecological. Three reasons why you should consider not drinking dairy milk are: lactose intolerance (one of the most common allergies), the ecological effects of dairy farming and industrial agriculture, which pollutes air, water, and soil health, and finally the ethical reasons for not consuming animal products.
Thanks to dairy alternatives, the rise of plant-based milks is well and truly here.
We’re talking: Soy, Almond, Rice, Oat, Coconut, Hemp, Cashew, Pea, Flax, Macadamia, Walnut, Pistachio, Hazelnut, Pecan, Banana.... and the list goes on!
What do alternative milks have to replicate?
First and foremost, one of the main reasons why alternative milks are popular is because of their minimal environmental impact in comparison to cow’s milk. Dairy farming contributes 3 times more greenhouse gas, uses 9 times more land, and 3.5 times more water than plant-based milks. So yes, it is more sustainable to drink plant-based milk over cow milk, yet definitely not limited to only these reasons: it’s part of a complex system unsustainably amplified by industrialised agriculture.
Some plant-based milks are more sustainable than others too: almond milk uses 371L of water for every litre of almond milk, whereas soy milk only uses 28L of water per litre of soy milk. This means 12L of water is required to grow an individual almond kernel. Water usage doesn’t even include the drastic impact almond farming has on bee populations due to the impact of a monocrop to an ecosystem. But these problems apply to any crop/animal that is farmed on a large scale.
Flavour comes next. When you order a milk coffee you want your milk to compliment the coffee by making the drink taste balanced. Some alternative milks are specifically concocted to pair well with coffee (think “barista” marketed alternative milks), and some coffees profiled to pair perfectly with milk (think espresso blends with hefty bodies composed to stand up to milk drinks). The overall flavour in a successful coffee milk is neutral, and compliments the coffee as opposed to overpowering or masking it. Along with minimal environmental impacts, this is a reason why oat milk, a more creamy and neutral-tasting milk, is the fastest-growing plant-based milk.
Texture is also important in a milk coffee, as milk usually has a remarkably high solid content for its apparent liquid state at around 12.5% (for comparison, raw vegetables are around 6% solid). Milk is composed of: Water, fat, protein, sugars (e.g. lactose), and vitamins/minerals. To live up to the culturally-significant latte drink, alternative milks must also texture well when steamed, and create a microfoam, aided by a high fat content.
Last but not least, nutrients are essential. This is the reason a food product exists in the first place: it’s good for you. Using plant-based milks actually has an advantage over dairy milk here, as there can be a more diverse selection of alternative ingredients to dairy, which come from healthy origins. Two great examples are how high nuts are in protein and healthy fats, and the high alkaline levels of legumes, which balance acidic in digestion. Plant-based milks are also less likely to cause allergic reactions that dairy milk may cause.
Even if you don’t drink milk with your coffee, we can all agree milk is the most popular additive to coffee drinks. If you’re a steadfast dairy drinker, I hope you’re now more inclined to try an alternative milk in your next coffee— it could be just as delicious or even better with a plant-based alternative milk. It helps adjusting to a plant-based milk knowing your choice benefits the environment, and isn’t a compromise, but rather its own drink with a different flavour.