When Chicago barista Dominic Rodriguez first heard about oat milk, he was skeptical. He had latte-making down to a fine art — at coffee competitions, he sculpts swan-necked turkeys and roses out of foam — and in his experience, plant-based milks didn’t foam correctly. “I’m a milk guy, I don’t need milk alternatives,” he said. But then Intelligentsia, a well-respected coffee shop he frequents, started serving oat milk, and Rodriguez thought there was no way they’d promote it if they didn’t think it was good.
He gave it a shot. It needed less steam than cow’s milk, but more heat, and frothed into a stable textured foam that was easy to pour. He examined his drink. It looked normal. He sipped it — it didn’t taste exactly like cow’s milk, but it was sweet and thick and rich, not watery like most almond milks. He liked it. But would his customers agree? Resoundingly, yes. Now, around 40% of all drinks ordered at his workplace, Metric Coffee, use oat milk; his matcha oat milk latte is a top seller.
It’s fair to say that the market for plant-based beverages has exploded; my local Safeway stocks milk made from peas, bananas, cashews, almonds, rice, quinoa, and oats. Sales of plant-based milks are up more than 61% since 2012, with around $1.6 billion made in 2018, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. Globally, the alt-milk market is expected reach $38 billion by 2024, or perhaps $19.67 billion by 2023, or even $41.06 billion by 2025, depending on the research company. The arrow’s pointing up. And, at least in terms of new entrants, oat milk’s king of the alt-milk aisle.
That’s thanks to Oatly, a Swedish brand that launched in the United States in late 2016. From 2017 to 2018, its revenue grew tenfold; up to $15 million. It’s delicious, true, but so are many of the alt-milks, and over 12 alt-milk products were launched this January alone. Just how did Oatly crack the complicated milk market? For starters, they took the Lululemon approach to adoption. When Lululemon launched, they plied yoga instructors with free leggings — here, Oatly courted boutique coffee shops.