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A Cup Of Ambition: Coffee Products Pour Into the Plant-Based Sector As dairy gives way to other, plant-based milk alternatives, coffee and coffee-related brands innovate and adapt.

By Brian Kateman Edited by Frances Dodds

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Svante Berg | EyeEm | Getty Images

So many of our eating and drinking rituals are rooted in habit, such that we rarely give them much thought and they become all but invisible in our lives. In light of this, one of the issues that often stumps people looking to end or reduce their consumption of animal products is what they'll put in their morning coffee.

Of course, it's 2020, and all manner of plant-based milks are available at virtually every grocery store, thanks in part to established brands like Silk, DREAM, Califia Farms, and Blue Diamond, and up and coming ones like Patch Organics, Sproud, milkadamia, and Lavva. In fact, dairy alternatives have been the leading sector of the vegan food market in recent years, likely due at least in part to that fact that 65 percent of the human population, globally, is lactose intolerant to some degree – making dairy alternatives appealing to even those outside of the more-ethical consumption and special diet niches. But it's true that almond, soy, coconut and other non-dairy milks taste and behave differently than dairy, which takes some getting used to and can be a turn-off for would-be vegans and others looking to cut the dairy cord.

So it's no surprise that brands are stepping in to offer new innovations in the way of pre-made lattes, coffee creamers, and other vegan-friendly caffeine vehicles. In fact, Oatly's rapid rise to prominence was due in large part to its popularity with baristas and their customers, since oat milk behaves similarly to dairy, resulting in creamy, rich lattes that impress even dairy devotees.

Related: Plant-Based in a Pinch: The Frozen Food Aisle Is Turning Vegan, Organic, and Nutritious

Milking the market

Laird Superfoods, the brand founded by big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, makes a shelf-stable powdered creamer that puts the old can of non-dairy creamer in the back of the office kitchen to shame. For one thing, it's actually non-dairy (no milk proteins or derivatives, unlike standard powdered creamers) and vegan, made only from plant products. It's also soy-free and uses organic, non-GMO ingredients. Their original creamer is made from a base of coconut milk powder and coconut sugar, and they also make fun flavors like pumpkin spice and chocolate mint, sans artificial flavorings and additives. For health food junkies, they also sell a creamer that includes functional mushrooms, a trending ingredient.

While some popular coffee shop chains have offered soy milk for decades and some others have only recently begun to offer dairy-free options, the offerings continue to expand. Starbucks and Peet's Coffee, for instance, now offer specialty coffee beverages that utilize oat milk – in Starbucks' case, a cinnamon oat milk foam cold brew, and at Peet's, an oat milk horchata latte. Not only can coffee drinkers get their standard drinks dairy-free now, but vegans and the lactose intolerant are no longer left out when it comes to fun, specialty drinks. And for Blue Bottle Coffee, non-dairy milk is serious business. In all their southern California locations, Blue Bottle offers Goodmylk, an almond milk that's made from six times as many almonds as other brands, and so, steams and foams more similarly to dairy. It's such a hot commodity, customers have been known to walk out if their local Blue Bottle runs out of it.

Dairy-free RTD

For those who don't even have time for the drive-through, however, canned or bottled ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee beverages can be a lifesaver. Globally, the RTD coffee drink market is valued at over $22 billion, expected to exceed $42 billion by 2027. Those drinks include straight cold brew, premade lattes, and other coffee-based combinations. Of course, big brands are cashing in on this market, including its expansion into non-dairy treats. Starbucks' bottled Frappuccinos, for instance, now come made with almond milk – but they're not the only ones. Modern Times, a San Diego-based brewery primarily known for beer, also has a line of canned cold brew sold in grocery stores and more. Coffee shop chain and retailer La Colombe sells its famous canned draft lattes, including options made with coconut or oat milk. RISE Brewing, too, sells canned oat milk lattes in a variety of flavors, as does Austin brand Chameleon Cold Brew.

Related: Plant-Based Eating Isn't Just Salads And Beans. The Vegan Dessert Market Continues To Grow.

International innovation

The RTD category isn't limited to coffee-and-milk drinks, however. Omni Bev is one young brand experimenting with flavor combinations inspired by global foodways. Their core product is Vietnamese cold brew (from beans harvested from the company's family farm in Dalat), including black coffee and the non-vegan traditional Vietnamese combo of coffee and sweetened condensed milk. But their lineup also includes coconut milk-based drinks, like the Coconut Matcha Cold Brew – a new option that's vegan friendly, as well as in touch with contemporary tastes.

And even your grandparents' old favorite is getting a modern makeover. Australian brand THINKNOO sells instant coffee like none you've ever seen before – single-origin Colombian beans, fortified with L-theanine, the amino acid that gives green tea its calming effect, in order to take the jittery edge off of the caffeine boost. It also includes MCTs to add a creamy consistency and support a keto diet. They even have a Zen Keto blend which also includes CBD hemp extract, for extra relaxation and anxiety relief.

Consumers today are looking for more than just a morning boost from their coffee – it needs to be convenient, delicious, ethically sourced, and congruent with different dietary needs and lifestyles. Leading coffee companies and scrappy startups alike have just begun to offer a plethora of innovative new spins on the humble cup of joe. And given the market's projected growth, they're unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Brian Kateman

Co-Founder and President of the Reducetarian Foundation

Brian Kateman is a co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the consumption of animal products. He is the author of Meat Me Halfway — inspired by a documentary of the same name — and the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook and The Reducetarian Solution.

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