Coffee drinks with steamed milk were among my favorite foods when I went vegan. The first vegan coffee drinks I tried were pretty terrible, and it bummed me out to think that I would never enjoy a cappuccino again.
It turns out that my fears were unfounded. A year later, I still enjoy cappuccinos just as much as I did before I went vegan.
This is the guide to vegan coffee that I wish I’d had when I went vegan.
The first vegan coffee drinks I tried used whatever non-dairy milks were available where I work (Soy Dream, or Silk, or something). They weren’t nearly as good as the dairy coffee drinks I was used to.
Here’s the thing — in general, you can’t just throw together any vegan milk with coffee. Some vegan milks will have a flavor that overpowers or clashes with coffee. Others disintegrate in coffee, making a mess. This doesn’t affect the taste, but it’s not very appetizing.
Another issue is sweetness. Many non-dairy milks are sweet, or have weird flavors (vanilla, etc.) that don’t really belong in coffee. While dairy milk has a similar amount of sugar as the sweeter vegan milks, the dairy sugar is mostly lactose, which doesn’t taste sweet, and doesn’t have a sticky texture.
Finally, for steamed milk drinks, the milk has to foam.
So the bad news: you have to be a bit more strategic with vegan milk. The good news is that there is truly excellent vegan coffee, and that many good coffee places understand this, and have good vegan coffee offerings.
Soy milk is the most widely available vegan milk, and is the category of milk I recommend for coffee. I find that the flavor of soy milks intended for coffee to be mild, letting the coffee stand out, and the flavor is compatible with coffee.
Best in class
There’s one vegan milk that I recommend above all others, especially for steamed milk drinks: Pacific Barista Series Soy Original (formerly known as Pacific Barista Series Soy Blenders Plain). Here it is in its new and old packaging:
This milk foams well, has a taste that is subtle, and more or less disappears behind the taste of coffee, at least once you make the adjustment to soy milk in coffee. It isn’t unsweetened, but I don’t perceive it as sweet at all. And in the hands of a good barista, it looks great!
You can tell a lot about a cafe from their choice of soy milk. Barista Series Soy is pretty much ubiquitous at quality cafes where I live in San Francisco — Ritual, Blue Bottle, Cafe Sophie, Reveille, etc. I’ve even found it while traveling internationally — Caffè Strada in Amman, Jordan.
I haven’t found this soy milk in grocery stores (even the very well stocked Rainbow Grocery Coop), but it is available in bulk from Amazon. I’ve made a few Amazon bulk orders for my workplace.
Other soy milks
You should definitely try other soy milks and find out what you like. (Especially if you like sweetened coffee — there’s a lot more selection in that case.)
That said, I haven’t found anything that comes close to Barista Series Soy. When a cafe has a weird vegan milk (especially a supermarket brand), it’s reasonable to suspect that they don’t know what they’re doing.
Making the adjustment
Give yourself time to adjust to soy milk, or any non-dairy milk. At first, you may think that soy milk in coffee is gross. That’s just fine. There’s a good chance it will change after an adjustment period. I was amazed at how completely I adjusted once I found a good soy milk.
I’d recommend starting out with less milk than you’re used to. If your favorite dairy drink was a latte, I’d recommend starting with a macchiatto, then work your way up to cappuccinos and lattes. Some cafes may offer a gibraltar or cortado, even if it’s not on the menu. These are cappuccino-like drinks using less milk.
After a month or two, I no longer noticed that soy cappuccinos tasted different from the dairy drinks I had been used to, and I had to double-check with the barista to make sure that my order hadn’t gotten mixed up with a dairy order. I never imagined that this would be possible when I started.
Almond milk has been gaining popularity as a vegan milk for coffee, and some cafes offer almond milk as their only vegan milk — eg. The Mill, Linea.
Almond milk is a great option for people who have soy allergies or who can’t tolerate soy for one reason or another. However I find the almond milk flavor to be overpowering and unpleasant in coffee, so I don’t recommend almond milk in coffee.
That said, some people seem to like it, so here are some almond milks that are worth mentioning —
Califia Farms almond milk seems to be the most popular almond milk for coffee. Califia Farms almond milk comes in funky shaped bottles, and must be kept refrigerated (unlike most vegan milks).
I think these milks are popular partly because they foam well. Beyond that, I don’t think they’re particularly well suited to coffee. (They do make a mean hot chocolate though!)
Barista Series Almond
This is brand new, and I haven’t had the chance to try it yet. This is an almond milk made by the company that makes Barista Series Soy (discussed above).
Timeless Coffee Roasters, a vegan cafe that knows what they’re doing, recently switched over to it for most of their almond-milk drinks (in addition to Barista Series Soy, and Califia Farms almond milk for a few drinks). I take that as high praise.
The most basic vegan coffee is black coffee. This may not sound like the most appealing option, but you’d be surprised how good a simple coffee can be if it’s made with good beans, and hasn’t been over sitting on a burner all morning.
So when your preferred options aren’t available, try black coffee. Sometimes it’s terrible, but it may surprise you, and you may develop a taste for it.
I usually get black coffee or tea whenever a soy milk that I like isn’t available.
And then there’s Starbucks. Starbucks gets a mention here because it’s ubiquitous, and because they do have a lot of vegan offerings, even though most of their drinks stretch the boundaries of what can be considered coffee.
On the upside, Starbucks uses my favorite brand of soy milk. However they use the vanilla flavor, which is very sweet. This means that vegan drinks are sweeter than the (already quite sweet) non-vegan drinks. I’d recommend ordering less sweet drinks, in the smallest size available. Otherwise it’s kind of a sweet kick in the face.
Where to get excellent vegan coffee
These are some cafes that I can attest to. If you’re new to vegan coffee, try one of these out if you have the option. These are just cafes that I have been to personally, so this list is hopelessly incomplete.
If you know of a cafe with excellent vegan coffee offerings, leave a comment, and I’ll try to get there next time I’m in town.
San Francisco area
- Timeless Coffee Roasters (oakland) – fully vegan cafe!
- Ritual (mission, hayes valley)
- Blue Bottle (east mission, hayes valley, downtown, embarcadero)
- Four Barrel (mission)
- Cafe Sophie (castro) – verve beans
- Reveille (castro) – apparently rebranded four barrel beans
- Millstead (fremont) – no decaf
- Cafe Vita (everywhere)
- 9th st (chelsea) – in the chelsea market (9th ave, confusingly)
- Blue Bottle (chelsea)
Vegan coffee from some of my favorite cafes.
So there you have it. A much longer post than I intended, and I may come back and try to condense all of this, but I hope the information is helpful.
Have other coffee tips, or quality vegan milks that I missed? Please let me know in the comments! Thanks!