The Humble Ascent of Oat Milk
When did finding something to put in your coffee get so complicated?
For the lactose-intolerant or merely dairy-averse, there are more alternatives to good ol’ American cow’s milk than ever. First there were powdered “creamers,” with their troublesome corn syrup solids. Then came soy, which may come closest to the real thing in nutrients and consistency. Grocery stores now stock an army of nut milks — almond, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, you name it — which can be too grainy, too thin or frankly too flavorful. Pea milk? Sounds like a kindergarten taunt. Coconut and rice milk are basically water. Hemp milk? For the birds … and the hippies.
The plant-based beverage industry is a $9.8 billion market projected to grow to over $16 billion in 2018, according to Innova Market Insights, and one of its most promising entrants is oat milk. Baristas are bullish on its creamy-yet-neutral taste, its foamability and its ecological cred.
Their brand of choice is Oatly, a 25-year-old food-and-beverage company founded in Malmo, Sweden, the onetime home of the author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Oatly’s image has been reworked over the last five years, with graphic packaging and sleek marketing materials, including a video of the company’s C.E.O. singing an ode to the oat amid a field of grains and avowals of its authenticity.
“We know how it sounds,” Oatly’s website acknowledges. “Tall, blond, beautiful, hard to get, extremely liberal with no sense of attachment or responsibility whatsoever. Sorry to disappoint you, that’s just not us.”
But as with other Scandinavian exports, like hygge, not everyone is “getting” the message yet. “I tell my friends and family what I’m doing, and they’re like, ‘oatmeal?’ or ‘goat milk?’ ‘What did you say?’” said Mike Messersmith, the general manager of Oatly’s United States business. “It’s a new thing over here.”