On the shift to oat and the milk hysteresis curve

21.04, Thursday 20 Apr 2023

We appear to be at a tipping point to oat milk for coffee, and it’s an interesting case study in what change means and feels like.

I always specify “dairy” when I get my daily coffee, wherever I am. “Dairy flat white” is the usual order.

The reason being that several years, when alt milks were becoming a thing, I was asked what milk I wanted and I said “normal” – at which point I got scowled at because what is normal anyway.

And that made sense to me. And while I believe rationally that being vegan is probably the way of the future, personally I quite like meat and milk, so the minimum viable way for me to sit on the fence is to always specify dairy but refuse to normalise it. So that’s what I’ve done since. My bit for the cause.

(My life is littered with these absurd and invisible solitary commitments. Another one: I will always write the date as “3 April” instead of “April 3” because humanity may one day live on a planet with a really long year and we may want to have multiple Aprils, so better not be ambiguous.)

Anyway, I’m used to the conversation going either like this:

  • Dairy flat white please
  • Ok great


  • Dairy flat white please
  • What flat white?
  • Dairy
  • We have oat or soy
  • No like cow’s milk
  • Like just normal? Regular milk?
  • Yes
  • Ok right. Flat white then

Rarely - ok just once - I was told off by a shop for specifying “dairy” every day because nobody has oat and, well, they see me every day and they remember what I want.

But that was about 18 months ago.

Recently pushback had decreased, quite a lot and quite suddenly.

So I’ve been idly asking coffee places what their proportion of dairy milk vs oat milk is, when I get my daily coffee, wherever it is.

Near me, in south London, one of my local places is 60-70% oat over dairy (factoring out coffees without milk). Another is 50/50, probably with oat leading by a nose.

That’s the general picture round here.

I asked for a dairy flat white in north London and got the old familiar bafflement. Apparently east London is more alt milk again. There’s a neighbourhood thing going on.

I’ve asked why (at the majority oat places) and nobody really knows. Fashion (one placed suggested); all alt milks are now oat; general awareness. I’ve noticed that places rarely charge extra for alt milk now, that reduces friction.

And then there’s a shift that prevents backsliding:

My (previously) favourite coffee place now tastes too bitter for me. Now, oat milk is sweeter than dairy milk. To keep the flavour profile, you’ll need to make the base coffee itself less sweet. So I swear they’ve changed their blend.

This is interesting, right? We were in a perfectly fine status quo, and it took some energy to change majority milk, but now the underlying coffee has changed, we’re in a new status quo and it’ll take the same energy again to shift back. A hysteresis loop for milk.

So that’s the new normal, yet people still say “regular milk” to mean dairy milk.

“Regular” does not mean, from the perspective of the coffee shop, the majority of their milk-based coffees.

“Regular” means, from the perspective of the customer, the majority of their consumed milk from their lifetime drinking coffee. Which is obviously biased to the past.

So “regular” is a term of conservatism.

Not a right wing or libertarian or fundamentalist conservatism. But a kind of “the default is what we did in the past” conservative. (Which would be a fine position to have, by the way, because I don’t think we give enough respect to wisdom that takes many generations to arrive at, and our current - and sadly necessary - anti-conservatism - because of everything else with which it is currently allied - undermines that position somewhat.)

Anyway so this is how we get old and conservative, I guess, by taking as our yardstick our cumulative individual experience rather than a broader and changing society.

And I could switch to oat milk too, I suppose, given dairy is tasting worse now, but I’m trapped in my own habits, and I like the idea that, over the coming decades, I’ll ascend into a kind of relative savagery, the final person consuming “normal” milk while the world changes around me.

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