The First Drop

004_bevnetmagazineOkay, I joke. They do, too. It’s a parody site. But there’s nothing to parody when it comes to the growth of almond, hemp, flax, rice, soy and other grain- or nut-based milk substitutes.

You can call the category milk alternatives or alt-milks,but it’s growing at an unprecedented rate, and potential toddler allergies or adult lactose intolerance aren’t the only factor. There’s an increasing number of people questioning the whole premise for dairy milk, either because they’ve embraced non-dairy paleo lifestyles (yes, there are also dairy paleo lifestyles – those paleos, always evolving!), have environmental concerns associated with a dairy-centric agricultural system, or just plain don’t like the taste as much.

Now, the move to alt-milks has created an opportunity for hipster-style stridency: I have a cousin who has sworn that cow’s milk will never pass his daughter’s lips. (As of this writing, we are still a little apprehensive about the holidays, and what will happen if the toddler makes a break for the fridge.) And yes, I do find it slightly ironic that we are in the middle of a nut-milk boom when we are also in the middle of a nut allergy boom.

But here we are, with a business that’s expected to grow to $1.7 billion in two years, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. We are at a juncture where major acquisitions are taking place in the alt-milk category (note White Wave paying nearly $200 million for So Delicious earlier this year), major brains are launching new enterprises around them (we’re looking at you, Mr. Steltenpohl) and major companies are adapting alt-milks for surprisingly non-mainstream purposes (most notably, Rockstar’s use of almond milk in all three of its coffee flavored “Roasted” varieties).

Soy is, of course, fairly common – it’s what birthed the category – but almond is coming up fast, as are the other varieties. One big issue? Soy allergies are apparently a problem that’s on part with lactose intolerance, and even worse, soy consumption has been associated with some forms of cancer in women. Soy is in a tailspin, if you look at our year-in-review numbers.

So that dairy diaspora leaves us with a panoply of white drinks to consider, and all kinds of arguments about why you should or shouldn’t do it.

Now, there are reasons why it might not make sense to drink almond milk – there’s a lower concentration of the nutrients that are naturally occurring in milk floating around in almond milk; it’s more expensive; the amount of water it takes to grow almonds would seem to make it a poor substitute from a conservation standpoint.

But there are counter-arguments as well: dairy milk takes even more water to produce, and as we know (well, those of us who aren’t involved in the morally offensive rationalizations that result in climate change denial) cow farts and destroying forests for pasture aren’t helping things. Even worse, the cold-channel requirements for dairy are even more of a burden on the environment, while alt-milks can be shipped in much less resource-intensive ways.

I think one lens to use when considering this is that we’ve just plain hit the point where people want a different set of choices than they have asked for in the past. Look at the rivulets of nutritional demands that are out there and you’ll see such variety that it’s hard to find depth of anything but choice. In one story in this issue you’ll see a cold-brew manufacturer explain that part of the reason his coffees don’t have much flavoring is because consumers are planning to customize much of what he makes anyway.

We’ve just gone through a period where Suja, a two-year-old company, has introduced more than 40 skus, and is now cycling through short-term LTOs. Even Red Bull, we see, has added more varieties, while Monster and Rockstar continue to juggle both mainstream and whimsical innovations.

Things happen fast. Gluten free foods are growing at a ridiculous rate, one that far outpaces gluten allergies in the U.S. Unlike my publisher, who gets very worked up over such things, I’m cool with it – many of the gluten-free products are made with ancient grains and other tasty wheat substitutes that elevate the palate. This is no attempt at a low-fat cookie or a carbohydrate-free bread – it’s an enhancement.

And it’s in this kind of move to variety that we can start to think about alternative milks: as an enhancement, one that has value not just because of nutritional or environmental merits — although those are definitely higher validity arguments than questions of style or trendier-than-thou movements. From a supplier perspective, it’s harder to deal with pickier consumers, but the beverage industry, the food industry, has forced them into so many little boxes for so long that it’s understandable that they’d want to break out and explore their choices. Yes, it is in the nomenclature, as our opening tweet implies, that things seem to get a little ridiculous. But scoff only so long, lest you be buried in an almond avalanche.