Baristas I spoke to for this column recently passed summary judgment on soy milk – "Like making tofu," said one – and one specialty coffeehouse in Melbourne doesn't even serve it. That doesn't stop people drinking it with their coffee.
But according to a report in Bloomberg BusinessWeek last year, soybeans just aren't hip, and sales of almond milk now outstrip soy in the US. Almonds, unlike cows, don't secrete milk; it has to be wrung out of them by soaking them, whizzing them with water in some kind of food processor, and then straining out the chunky meal. The result is a milky-white suspension; various sweeteners are added, or not.
Baristas say almond milk is as easy to work with as cow's milk, but you have to get the coffee to the customer pretty quickly, as the solids precipitate rapidly (though you can stir them back in). Brother Baba Budan's Cale Sexton has said that due to its alkaline nature, ''It's less likely to curdle in the way that soy often does''.
How does it taste in a caffe latte? We put three brands to the test at local cafes: Nuts Over Milk and the Almond Milk Company, from Melbourne and Inside Out, from Sydney. All are fresh and sort of hand-made – not the UHT tetra-pack variety.
Inside Out (sampled at St Edmonds, Prahran): Dark cafe-au-lait colour with a big creamy head; a little watery in texture, with a kind of artificial sweetness (it contains Natvia, a plant-based sweetener) and some bitter almond notes. As it cools the bitter almond notes turn to almond juice flavours. After a couple of minutes solids precipitate in pale clumps in the glass.
Nuts Over Milk (Yardmill, South Yarra): This one had slightly blurry latte art in the microfoam right after pouring; underneath the colour was dark – like instant coffee with a splash of milk. Nuts Over Milk is unsweetened, so there was no "sweetener" flavour. Strong, bittersweet nutty flavour: there's no getting away from it – this stuff is made from almonds. It also left a slight powdery residue in my mouth.
Almond Milk Co (Phat Milk, Travancore): A pale creamy colour in the glass that rapidly changes to dark caramel as the solids precipitate and globs of almond milk solids settle in the glass. A bit creamier in the mouth at first, then less so, with a less pronounced almond-juice flavour. It's sweetened with dates, which gives it a pleasant natural-tasting sweetness.
The verdict? Er, make mine a no-lactose, gluten-free long black, thanks.