Alt-Milks Brew Up Interest At Coffee Retailers

Alternative milks have found a home away from home: your local coffee shop.

While soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk and other non-dairy alternatives have already established a presence on retail shelves, the category still has plenty of room to grow. And in retail coffee shops both big and small, brands have found a valuable opportunity to get more of their product into consumers hands, or cups.

Califia Farms has long held an interest in both coffee and almond milk products; its Barista Blend Almondmilk and Better Half creamers, a combination of coconut cream and almond milk, seek to bridge that gap. But in an interview with BevNET, Califia Farms’ coffee general manager Brian Lovejoy said that the demand for special nut-based milks from coffee professionals was initially slow to build.

“Nobody was knocking on our door saying ‘please do this for us,’” he said. “We noticed that more and more consumers were asking for non-dairy alternatives. For a long time, it was soy. In some coffee shops, they refused to even do a specialty milk. But the consumers really spoke up and some of these coffee shops, even the big ones, said we’ve got to keep up with what the consumer wants, which is non-dairy alternatives.”

Outside of consumers, baristas have also played an important role in bringing nut-based alt-milks into coffee shops around the country. As such, Lovejoy said that Califia’s sales team is focused on pitching to coffee professionals at independent stores directly.

“It’s very different than selling to Kroger or Whole Foods,” he said. “The baristas are very influential in the better coffee shops; in many cases, it’s the barista that is going to the buyer. We started off being old-school, going up and down the street and talking to baristas and giving them samples so they can see how much better it performs and how the coffee is able to shine through the almondmilk.”

Lovejoy said Califia was also looking to strengthen its relationship with baristas by including them in the product development process.

“We’ve collaborated informally with some of the top coffee shops in the Bay Area to give us feedback on what’s working and what’s not working,” he said. “We have a growing partnership with [restaurant] Tartine Manufactory and Tartine Bakery and Cafe in the Bay Area. One of their top baristas and I are working together on a number of informal projects, but I’m looking to make that more formalized.”

Healdsburg, Calif.-based New Barn has also been eager to answer the call. The brand’s latest innovation, unsweetened organic Barista Almondmilk, was developed specifically for and with the help of coffee professionals to be a versatile tool behind the bar, ideal for creating latte art and for complementing different roasts without overpowering them.

Last September, New Barn signed on as the exclusively supplier of almond milk for Allegro Coffee bars, a national chain owned and operated by Whole Foods Market inside its stores. In an interview with BevNET, CEO Billie Thien said that the strong positive response to Barista Almondmilk has expanded beyond use in lattes and other espresso-based drinks.

“It’s also using it to blend signature drinks [at Allegro], such as with their cold brew during the Summer season because it blends beautifully hot and cold, introducing thousands of coffee lovers who choose non-dairy to best-in-class quality,” he wrote. In addition to partnering with Allegro, New Barn also recently collaborated with Brooklyn-based Matchabar at this year’s Coachella Music Festival in April, at which Barista Almondmilk was used in over 6,000 Iced Matcha Lattes served inside the show’s VIP area.

Last year high pressure processed nut milk brand MALK partnered with Blue Bottle Coffee to develop a barista blend for use in its cafes. The company described it as a “stripped down” version of its unsweetened almond milk variety that is served exclusively in Blue Bottle locations along the coasts. MALK is also planning to launch a barista blend as part of its everyday lineup.

Retail coffee shops, however, present a tricky prospect in terms of communicating to consumers about the actual products used behind the counter by baristas to prepare their drinks. While some are able to integrate a degree of in-store branding, it’s left mostly up to consumers to inquire which company’s alt-milks are ending up in their coffee.

“Messaging—such as menu boards and countertop signage—is used but varies widely,” wrote Thien. He noted that the company recently launched its Barista Almondmilk in the Whole Foods dairy set nationwide, so there’s a complimentary availability for consumers between the take-home and on-premise occasions. “What is more interesting is the consistent consumer remarks that something is different [and] better about their coffee. That speaks louder than any signage.”

Lovejoy agreed. “Unfortunately, similar to any milk product in a cafe, [the store] is highlighting the coffee so they will tell you all about the coffee, but unless you ask, they won’t tell you what milk they are using,” he said, noting that some stores do use Califia-branded signage in-store. “It would be awesome if we could change that because that would certainly help our brand and if they are using the super premium product, it would be great if they let people know.”

Additionally, entering an exclusive partnership with a retail coffee chain as New Barn did with Allegro may not make sense for brands depending on their situation.

“I think that we’re big enough and widely enough known that exclusivity is not in our best interest,” said Lovejoy. “We’ve got great partnerships with Intelligentsia and other well-known coffee shops, but I think offering a major coffee chain and exclusive is really to the detriment of what we are trying to do which is provide easy access to the product everywhere consumers get coffee.”

For brands like Califia and New Barn, the ultimate value in coffee shops is the opportunity to connect with consumers and baristas that are open and encouraging of new innovations in coffee.

“We make sure that we have an ear to what the young people are asking for at coffee shops,” said Lovejoy. “There’s increased interest in coconut milks and more specialty milks, so we are paying close attention to that and we have a number of things in R&D now to make sure that we keep up with what these consumers are demanding.”