The taste test: non-dairy milks

Non-dairy milks

In Britain we have a dairy-based food culture. We put milk in our tea and coffee, butter on our baked potatoes and cheese on our toast. It was once important to ensure that dairy products were high in fat, denoting authenticity. One hundred years ago anyone selling skimmed milk would have been prosecuted for criminal dilution. How fashions change – today we pay good money for watery milk and bathe in the approbation of our cardiologists. Dairy avoiders, the lactose-intolerant and vegans have gone a step further and taken to using vegetable-derived “milks”. Taste Test decided to try them, with some intriguing results.

We took something of a risk with the panel. Alongside the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP) were two ideologically opposed palates – that of the Carnivorous Undergraduate (CU) and a newcomer, the Unremitting Vegan (UV). Good to get the opinions of someone obliged to use alternative milks, but could these two be in the same room together? Well, for the period of the blind tasting at least, a spirit of mutual tolerance prevailed and neither taunted the other with jibes about lentil bakes or mad cow disease.

If you’re a dairy addict, bear with me – one or two of these products are definitely worth trying. Eight milks were lined up, cunningly derived from hemp, quinoa, oats, coconut, soya, hazelnut, almond and rice respectively. All were relatively low in calories. You can tell which constituency they’re aimed at, with claims about “natural” health benefits, sustainable origins, organic husbandry, recyclable packaging and low carbon footprints. We’ll leave you to judge the merits of all that as we stick to taste alone.

Try as we might we could not love Braham & Murray’s GOOD Hemp, made from the plant’s seed. This was disappointing – as a member of the cannabis family, we had high hopes for it. (Foolishly, since it’s a benign branch, as the makers point out.) The drink has added vitamins and calcium, is sweetened by grape juice and flavoured with vanilla: “fragrant cardboard” (GP); “oily cereal taste” (DL). Our advice would be to let the hemp seeds germinate and revert to making rope. Two other flavours were also found to be rather overpowering. Quinoa is of Peruvian origin and preceded maize in the Inca culture. EcoMil’s Quinoa drink is sweetened with trendy agave syrup, flavoured with almond and has a very strong, nutty flavour: “okay taste but slightly sour with a strange smell” (CU); “more peanut bitter than peanut butter” (UV). The other heavy hitter was EcoMil’s Hazelnut: “a little too rich – good in coffee?” (UV); “too sweet but could give a cocktail a thwack” (GP).

We found three that we enjoyed and would recommend. EcoMil’s Almond was another concoction sweetened with agave and fortified with calcium, but this time the aroma of marzipan won us over: “creamy, nutty – I’d happily drink this on its own” (UV); “perfumed, indulgent” (DL). Rice Dream, from the Hain Celestial Group, blended in sunflower oil, achieves a miraculous similarity to dairy milk: “lovely, fresh milk taste” (CU); “dairy mouth feel” (GP); “perfect if you like but avoid cow’s milk” (UV).

If you’d asked us (bar the Unremitting Vegan) we’d have said we didn’t like soya milk. But with our winner, Alpro Soya, we found that we did: “creamy, caramelly seduction” (GP); “deliciously desserty and moreish – good for a latte” (UV); “almondy – sweet but pleasant” (DL); “a boldly asserted alternative to dairy milk” (CU). The Unremitting Vegan cautioned that soya milk was good for cappuccinos but not always agreeable in filter coffee. I had another idea altogether: buy a plastic tray for home-made ice lollies and fill it with Alpro Soya. Yes!

A brief postscript: I had also arranged to taste sheep’s, goat’s, buffalo’s and camel’s milk. These were, by comparison, unremarkable. But you have to hand it to the FT Weekend Magazine politburo. When I asked for camel’s milk they sourced it in Dubai and flew it in. Now … I wonder if they can get me Olympic tickets.

The Winner

Alpro Soya

from around £1.15/litre, widely available

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