What Is Oat Milk?

Brands like Oatly are leading a takeover across the country

"Put simply, Oatly tastes amazing," Erica Indira Swanson, founder of Tea Bar, Portland's string of wellness-hinged tea cafés, gushes. Six months ago, Indira Swanson swapped out her shops' dairy-free soy milk for Oatly's non-GMO, nut-free, gluten-free oat milk. And she's not alone in her love for the substitute and Oatly—in general. Though the Swedish brand has been around for two and a half decades, it landed in the U.S. only two years ago. Now, in conjunction with America's burgeoning craft coffee culture and consumers' growing interest in more eco- and health-conscious food and beverage options, the company is igniting an oat milk obsession from New York to Los Angeles.

Order a dairy-free latte at a third-wave coffee shop today, and chances are your espresso will be  mixed with steamed oat milk. Chicago-based specialty coffee roaster Intelligentsia, which now counts outlets throughout the country, is partially to thank for that proliferation. In 2016, the coffee shop became the first American business to offer the dairy milk alternative in its cafés, with baristas especially keen on the product because of its "wonderful, milklike consistency" and the fact that it "steams and froths really well compared to other alternative milks," Intelligentsia CEO James McLaughlin explains.

What Is Oat Milk?

Made from water and oats, along with a small amount of canola oil and a bevy of vitamins and minerals, Oatly's Original Oatmilk—which, in the U.S., now also comes in chocolate, a Barista Edition and a low-fat formula­­—is processed through a pasteurization system that yields a full-bodied drink with a consistency similar to full-fat cow's milk.

Following Intelligentsia, operators are quickly jumping on the opportunity to offer the beverage. Early last year, brothers Graham and Max Fortgang started serving oat milk at the New York and Los Angeles locations of their green tea-focused café, MatchaBar. Per Max, it doesn't "sacrifice on taste, texture or aesthetics for a nondairy option."

Like MatchaBar, New York's Birch Coffee adopted Oatly early last year, while specialty Chicago roaster Metric Coffee joined in a couple months later. Over the summer and fall, Chicago's Lula Café and New York-based Maman added the drink to their roasters, too. And while Maman co-owner Elisa Marshall is indeed a fan of the drink's flavor, she notes that it's "also environmentally sensible, taking much less water and waste than almond milk."

Where to Buy Oat Milk

Presently, Oatly's U.S. retail distribution is quite limited, but the label sells select products online. And while Oatly has proven the oat milk of choice behind forward-thinking cafés and restaurants, other brands like Pacific Foods, which sells a slightly sweeter and lighter-bodied version, are more ubiquitous and widely distributed at grocery stores across the country.

The newest kid to enter the oat milk game is Elmhurst Milked, the plant-based rebrand of a 93-year-old dairy farm, Elmhurst Dairy, from New York. Last year, the company changed its tune from cows to plants, first launching a quartet of nut milks––almond, cashew, walnut and hazelnut––and this past January, expanded to oats. 

Kat Odell, a freelance food and travel writer, is the author of Day Drinking. Follow her on Instagram at @kat_odell.