The Humble Ascent of Oat Milk

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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.”

The company decided to introduce its product not on grocery shelves but at specialty coffee shops, where baristas could act as oat-milk ambassadors to customers and other professionals within the brewing and roasting communities. In just a year, Oatly has spread from 10 locations in New York to more than 1,000 locations nationwide.

Over oat-milk hot chocolates at La Colombe on Vandam Street, a shop regularly flooded by workers from nearby tech companies and art galleries, Josey Markiewicz, who manages training and quality assurance at the cafe, described the Oatly onslaught.

“Their ground team was composed of former coffee folks, and the coffee scene is a scene,” he said. “We’re all buds, we throw down against each other in milk competitions and brewing competitions, and the industry’s pretty tightknit.” Oatly’s barista-grade product, which steams better than most nondairy milks and performs just as well cold, he said, stirred up excitement at trade events and among friends in the business.

Because almonds require over six times as much water to grow as oats do, according to the Water Footprint Network, the choice to switch from almond milk to oat milk also seemed environmentally sensible to Mr. Markiewicz.

To those participating in today’s restrictive food culture, Oatly’s lack of dairy, nuts, gluten, soy or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a plus. It’s rich in soluble fiber (recalling an oat-bran madness of 30 years ago) and is comparable to other milk alternatives in terms of sugar content, but relatively high in carbohydrates and calories, with about double those that a serving of almond milk contains.

Not everyone has been convinced that the milk-alternative boom is a health boon.

“From a nutritional standpoint, they have some value,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote in an email, “but as is the case with most processed foods, eating the original — almonds, oatmeal or whatever — is always better.”

Sara Haas, a culinary dietitian in Chicago, sees oat milk not as a dairy substitute but as part of a trend, referring to its popularity in Britain.

“If you’re using it just to enjoy in your coffee, and you’re not really looking at it as an equal replacement for dairy, in a nutritional sense, it’s fine,” she said. But as with any dietary alternative, “you have to learn to be a label reader, because they’re not all equal.”

Oatly has become a favorite of baristas across the country, who are taken with its taste and how well it steams.

Nor so in price.

At Onyx Coffee Lab, whose three cafes and roastery are in northwest Arkansas, Oatly is a recent addition to the shop’s ever-changing menu, which has included barrel-aged cold brew and drinks made from cascara, the husk of the fruit from a coffee plant. Most of the shop’s plant-based milks — almond, coconut and macadamia — cost an additional 75 cents per cup.

Because of a higher wholesale price, Oatly comes with a surcharge of $1. But Andrea Allen, who owns Onyx with her husband, Jon, and was impressed by Oatly’s flavor when she sampled it at a trade show, says this hasn’t discouraged customers, many of whom were converted by an oat-milk-focused seasonal menu last fall.

“We’re always on the lookout for something new and tasty that’s in the alternative realm,” Ms. Allen said.

Those trying to get their fix at home can buy six-packs of unrefrigerated Oatly on the company’s website and from Amazon, if you’re comfortable schlepping a 14-pound box inside and have ample storage. You can also order chilled quarts of Oatly from FreshDirect for day-of delivery. But you won’t find it in your local grocery store — yet.

“We’ve heard stories, particularly here in New York, of some of our coffee partners selling Oatly over the counter, almost like black-market oat milk, to their regulars,” Mr. Messersmith said.

Starting next week, however, Oatly will be available at Wegmans. It will arrive on shelves at Fairway, ShopRite and the California grocery chain Bristol Farms in February. After grocery stores, the next logical step may be Big Coffee: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and the death knell of Swedish oat milk’s exclusionary allure.

Mr. Markiewicz of La Colombe would be just fine with that.

“I would prefer that oat milk become as commonplace as nonfat or whole milk, where people think of it as a third option,” he said. “Because that’s what sustainability is about: eventually making it a part of the fabric of our lives. I don’t care much about the cool factor. Even saying ‘oat milk’ doesn’t sound cool.”