“I knew it was bad for the environment, but I loved the way it coated my tongue with a weird film!” shouted the anxious but lovable philosopher, Chidi, on NBC’s The Good Place, defending his decision to drink almond milk. Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the non-dairy darling to be the butt of a joke on primetime television, but when the water-guzzling beverage (one almond requires about a gallon of water to grow) got linked to the California drought, the seemingly untouchable successor of soy milk quickly fell from grace.
Though other non-dairy milks have tried to fill its shoes, none have caught on in the same way as almond and soy milk before it. They are either too thin, too bitter, or contain a long list of artificial thickeners and preservatives: xanthan gum, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was Oatly.
“It is the only kind of milk I drink right now,” my friend told me a few weeks ago as we were walking the halls of a trendy new hotel whose soon-to-open coffee shop will likely serve oat milk. A few days later, I was picking up a tea at Gimme! Coffee In SoHo, and I saw the rectangular grey carton with the big bubble letters: OATLY. “It’s our most popular non-dairy milk,” the barista told me, unprompted. “It tastes like whole milk, and it even foams!” And just a week ago: one of my editors posted an Instagram story of her groceries. Amidst her eggs, fruits, and veggies, she had purchased a carton of Oatly.
Oatly is a Swedish company that was founded in 1993 by a food science professor named Rickard Öste. Öste was doing academic research on the prevalence of lactose intolerance and the food system challenges of the dairy industry, and he wondered about starting from scratch: finding a source ingredient for milk other than cows that was nutritious, tasty, and good for the environment. In Sweden, oats are a particularly abundant crop (the country doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, meaning almonds are out of the question); so Öste pioneered his own food science technology, using enzymes to liquefy oats into a creamy, rich milk, in a way that still retained their healthy, digestion-boosting fibers. (In the same way that cream is added to milk to give it varying levels of fat, Oatly adds a plant-based canola oil to its milk to provide fat content.) In Sweden — a very dairy-obsessed country — Oatly developed a small but loyal following without much marketing. But in 2012, Oatly hired a new CEO, Tony Peterson, who gave the company its cheeky but environmentally conscious branding — packaging that reads, “It’s like milk, but made for humans” and an Instagram that hawks t-shirts that say “Post-cow generation.” As a result, the product exploded in popularity across Europe.
Oatly officially entered the U.S. market last March. Oat milk existed in the U.S. before Oatly, but common brands like Pacific Foods were produced by large companies that used the same method to make all kinds of alternative milks, from soy to cashew, adding those aforementioned thickeners and gums to streamline the texture. Oatly is the first brand to invest fully in oats.
The company also took a different route to get its product out there. Instead of reaching out to large supermarkets, Oatly chose coffee shops as its testing ground in the United States. Mike Messersmith, Oatly’s very jolly-sounding US General Manager, sent out samples of Oatly’s Barista Edition (the brand’s whole milk equivalent). “From there it just expanded way faster than we thought,” he says with an incredulous laugh. “The coffee community is so intertwined, and baristas are always sharing tips and tricks. It was like wildfire.”
James McLaughlin, the president and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee, the first company to sign on with Oatly, said that drinks made with its milk now comprise 13 percent of all beverages ordered across the shop’s 10 locations — far outpacing both almond and soy milk. “It’s the first time my baristas have gotten behind an alternative milk in an intense way,” he said. “We started stocking the liter cartons on our shelves because customers were like, ‘I want to take this home.’”
Caroline Bell, the co-owner of Café Grumpy in New York, told me “We had tried soy, almond, hemp, coconut, and nothing worked with coffee.” With some varieties, you couldn’t taste the coffee; with others, the milk would curdle. But oat milk, she says, “has an approachable taste and a clean finish,” and can be substituted for cow milk in trendy beverages like turmeric and matcha lattés without masking their subtle flavors. The oat fibers plus the added oil in the Barista Edition of Oatly also give the milk a thicker consistency, which produces a stable, undulating foam that will hold for a long time. The milk also contains an acidity regulator called dipotassium phosphate, which ensures that it doesn’t separate when mixed with an acidic drink like coffee. The effect is not exactly as creamy and foamy as whole milk, but it’s the best performing substitute these baristas had encountered.
At this time last year, Oatly was stocked in 10 coffee shops in the U.S. Now, the product is in more than 1,000. By the end of this quarter, it will be in a couple hundred grocery stores in the Northeast and Midatlantic regions, including Wegmans, Fairway, and ShopRite. The coffee shop Dagger Mountain in Valparaiso, Indiana just announced that it is dropping all dairy products and only offering Oatly.
According to Innova Market Insights, a food and beverage research firm, alternative milks are projected to be a $16 billion industry in 2018. Amidst all of the bad press that has dominated other plant-based milk varieties, oat milk has emerged as “the last one standing,” as Mark Bomford, the director of the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University, put it. And oats, which Oatly grows in the Pacific Northwest and central Canada for its U.S. product, are an efficient, cold-weather rotational crop that requires less water and herbicides than other alternative milk source ingredients. “You can’t say their use of irrigation is linked to the California drought, they don’t have any nutrient scares associated with them, they don’t have ‘scary’ words like gluten associated with them, so they have a lot going for them symbolically.”
To alternative-dairy skeptics, the burgeoning embrace of oat milk is emblematic of the modern American consumer’s belief that “you can shop your way out of injustice and unsustainability,” as Arielle Johnson, a flavor scientist at the MIT Media Lab, puts it. “It is way too easy — and a lot of branding wants it to feel easy — that buying something will fix sustainability and justice,” she told me in an email. “The ‘Right Plant Milk’ is a band-aid and an opiate.”
But oat milk’s strongest edge isn’t necessarily an environmental one, but an aesthetic one. Consumers’ current food obsessions include meatless burgers that bleed like beef, and pasta made with chickpeas that still gets unctuous and al dente. By the same token, Oatly is far and away the only alternative milk that behaves just like milk. It provides moisture and richness to my cakes, and smoothness and balance to my cup of chai. I’ve had straight glasses of it after a workout — the oatmeal-like aftertaste is as pleasant and nostalgic as cereal milk, the velvety texture reminiscent of what I imagine cow’s milk was like back when it arrived at your doorstep in glass bottles.
And no, I’m not even lactose intolerant.