Non-Dairy Alternatives

In our July/August 2013 issue, we explore the resurgence of the independent dairy farmer, and with a new wave of milk-makers collaborating both directly and indirectly with the coffee world, lattes are getting more delicious than ever. But what if you’re not down with dairy? Does that mean a velvet-capped cappuccino will forever be out of reach? To find out, we joined coffee man Devin Chapman behind the coffee counter at Coava in Portland, Ore., to put four non-dairy milk alternatives to the test. We steamed up “original” flavors of soy, almond, hemp and rice milks, tasting each one solo and in cappuccino form.


Arguably the most popular of milk alternatives, soy is often the sole option available at coffee shops for those who don’t drink dairy. Under the steam wand it creates the most microfoam of all the alternatives tested, though when poured into a cappuccino, it doesn’t integrate, instead creating a dense soy pillow that floats atop the espresso rather than mingling within it. The taste is slightly nutty and unmistakably soy, and each sip of the cappuccino offers two distinct experiences—first the taste of warm soy milk; the second, the espresso.

The verdict: Decent microfoam makes for a visually appealing cappuccino, and creates a pillowy cap. A viable alternative, just be sure to drink fast, as it quickly separates once steamed.

We love almond milk cold with cereal and smoothies (and even straight up), but steamed is a different story. For us, the natural sweetness when tasted straight-from-the-fridge became thin, watery and bitter when steamed, creating no visable microfoam and seeming to curdle almost instantly when heated to 135 degrees F. Poured into a cappuccino it made the espresso taste burned and bitter, and after just a minute, it completely separated.

The verdict: Drink it cold.

Hemp is becoming ever-more viable as a food source. Its “milk” (made from soaking and grinding hemp seeds) steams up smooth and pillowy with a sweetness that asserts itself from the get-go. It’s perhaps the easiest non-dairy alternative to work with thanks to its velvety microfoam, though when we introduced it to espresso, its sweetness turned toward sour.
The verdict: Delicious solo in a steamer, and though it creates the desired texture for a cappuccino, we soured a tad on the taste.

With no real fat or protein content, steaming rice milk is akin to steaming a pitcher of water. Still, a sip of it solo is pleasant, with a subtle sweetness upfront that quickly fades without aftertaste. No microfoam means it doesn’t create that pillowy pouf of a milk-made cappuccino, yet for us, it integrated well with the espresso, lending its subtle sweetness to the brew.
The verdict: What it lacks in texture it makes up for in taste. Still, it’s more like sipping a slightly sweetened americano than a traditional cappuccino.