With plant-based milk alternatives becoming almost as commonplace as dairy in the modern coffee scene, adding a little soy or almond milk to your drink might seem like a pretty non-controversial decision.
Whether motivated by health, ethics or flavour, consumers are increasingly turning to non-dairy milk options. Retail data from Statistics Canada shows that dairy milk consumption per capita has fallen 18 per cent since 1995.
And theres an ever-increasing lineup of plant-based products to choose from. Oat milk has recently become the gold standard with baristas in particular, thanks to a creamy flavour thats similar to full-fat dairy.
But a dialogue has been brewing in the coffee community about the role plant-based milks can play. Despite the wide spectrum of consumer options, until this year, there were no plant-based milks at the annual Canadian National Barista Championship. The rules laid out by the World Barista Championship stipulate that in competition, a milk beverage is a combination of one single shot of espresso… and steamed cows milk.
At this years event, held in Toronto earlier this month, a Kitchener-based barista who identifies as vegan decided to make a statement by using a plant-based milk during the competition.
Chris Tellez, the co-owner of Show & Tell Coffee, had 15 minutes to present his routine to the judges, preparing an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink. He surprised the judges by letting them know their milk beverages were made with oat milk, and used his time to speak out on the use of milk alternatives in competition.
As a former Central Canadian Barista Champion in 2009, 2014 and 2015, Tellez said he had grown tired of compromising his own ethics as a vegan in order to compete. During his presentation, Tellez referenced the unsustainable practices that surround dairy farming and using cows milk.
Its a problem, and to have an option, like alternative plant-based milk its a valid thing to use in competition, he says.
Tellez ended up bringing three different types of oat milk to competition, wanting to find the perfect milk to let his coffee shine through, and eventually opted to use UK brand Minor Figures for its consistency and flavour.
In past competitions, there were a lot of people manipulating their milk, Tellez says. Baristas would often use techniques like freezing milk to separate out the fat for extra richness and sweetness. If this is totally acceptable, and were allowing all these manipulations to dairy milk, why cant we use plant-based milks?
Tellez said he knew that by taking the risk of disqualification, he jeopardized his chance of moving forward, but he wanted to spark a dialogue on the ethics and inclusiveness of the competition as a whole.
Mike Strumpf, who acts as education coordinator for the Canadian chapter of the Specialty Coffee Association and co-officiated the competition, said that based on the rules, Tellez would earn zero points for the milk drink portion of his routine. While this wasnt technically a disqualification, Tellez says the dramatic loss of points made it essentially impossible for him to compete.
Immediately following Tellezs presentation, a petition was launched to have the World Barista Championship rules and regulations amended to allow plant-based milks.
Strumpf acknowledges that the rules evolve constantly. There has always been a group of volunteers working on the rules. So every year they evolve and change. I dont know where this will end up.
In fact, Strumpf admits he has never seen another case where there was a petition brought to the committee: This is great! Evolution is wonderful and this competition has represented, over the years, an evolution in pushing coffee forward.
Theres undeniable consumer demand to back up Tellezs push for plant milk: A shop owner himself, Tellez says that Show & Tell Coffee goes through 60 per cent alternative milk and only 40 per cent dairy milk on a given day.
More locally, Torontos Pilot Coffee Roaster has carried Oatly milk since September 2018, and demand has been overwhelming: Sales of Oatly at Pilot shops comprise up to 30 per cent of its total drink sales, with almond milk close behind at 20 per cent.
According to Emily Corbeil, Pilots retail general manager, many customers who want to try oat-based beverages arent necessarily vegan or vegetarian. Instead, theyre motivated by flavour, as oat milk has earned a rep for being particularly complementary to coffee-based beverages.
Pilot does not charge extra for alternative milk in drinks, though others do and some, like Aussie-style Bloordale cafe Baddies, even go so far as to make its own in-house.
I think its important for people to be able to make informed decisions with their purchases, says Corbeil. Its great as a business to be able to offer variety to customers so they can make those decisions in your store.
Choice is also at the heart of the issue for Tellez, who says hes going to keep competing and fighting for change within the coffee community to have plant-based milks added to the World Barista Championship Official Rules and Regulations.
Its a competitors choice to use whatever they want in their signature drink. This is coming from a place of love, and a lot of positivity toward the coffee community.