I first encountered oat milk a year ago, after I had left Cambridge for winter break. While home in Los Angeles last January, I stopped by a coffee shop in West Hollywood called Alfred in the Alley. The shop shares a foliage-covered alleyway with Cycle House, a spinning studio that had its own E! Channel reality TV show in 2015. At the register, I asked for a large coffee with soy milk. The barista, who wore a black baseball hat embroidered with “Alfred” — the A sprouting large, majestic deer horns — just looked at me.
“We don’t have soy milk. We haven’t had soy milk for, like, a while. We do almond and we do oat.”
As late as last fall, zero coffee shops in Cambridge served oat milk. I hadn’t been home for more than two or three days in over a year because I stayed on campus all summer. So, I assumed this was just another LA health fad that popped up while I was across the country, like that restaurant in Venice where you order food via affirmation (“I’m decadent” for a vegan milkshake) and weekly coffee enemas.
A week after visiting the first Alfred, I went to a second Alfred location, just two blocks away from the first one. I asked the barista why they started carrying oat milk and she shrugged. “I don’t know, it tastes good, and I’ve heard it’s probably better for the environment.”
This is Oatly’s schtick: They’re the environmentally-conscious milk company. Their Instagram bio reads, “Our goal is to deliver products that have maximum nutritional value and minimal environmental impact.” And their Instagram captions often include climate change facts. On Aug. 26, they posted a picture of a millennial-pink apartment complex in the middle of a tame but still lush forest with a caption announcing that “switching from cow‘s milk to oat drink saves the planet 80% greenhouse gas emissions.” On Sept. 5, Oatly posted a profile shot of a man standing in the middle of a field, the sky behind him gloomy, wearing a morose cow mascot head. The caption reads, “To fully experience the potential impact of climate change, continue to drink cow’s milk, eat meat, and live your life unchanged.”
The oat milk trend positions drinking oat milk as environmentally beneficial, as if consumption can be a type of conservation. The emphasis is not on consuming less, but rather consuming the same, if not more, of something different. It’s common to align a brand with a cause (see “nasty woman” shirts, “pussy hats,” or even Amanda Hess’ New York Times article about period-blood absorbing underwear that branded itself as, somehow, anti-Trump). But positioning a food product as environmentally friendly associates the health of an individual body with the health of the entire planet. It’s as if the body and the planet are linked by an umbilical cord: What is healthy for the planet must be healthy for the body too.
Unsurprisingly, this link between the planet and the individual body is positioned in relation to climate change. In October, the very bleak Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that climate change induced floods and famine could start seriously damaging countries as early as 2040. With the threat of something as abstract and foreboding as total environmental decay, what are you supposed to do? How do you tackle a global catastrophe?
The thing is, on a day to day basis, you can’t. Environmentalism as a trendy advertising technique doesn’t seem to be so much about solving climate change as it is about easing our existential dread the only way we know how, by buying things we can put on or in our bodies. Linking the health of the planet to the health of the body makes solving massive threats seem plausible, like you can just personally decide to switch milks and then feel confident that at least whatever is going through your digestive tract isn’t as bad for the environment as something else.
But, it turns out, oat milk isn’t just a brief LA-only trend. When I came back to school this fall, one of the three coffee shops in the Smith Center served oat milk (Pavement) as did the most expensive Harvard Square cafes (Blue Bottle, Tatte, and Clover). Several very Cambridge cafes (Darwin’s, Veggie Galaxy, the Biscuit and Simon’s) — small cafes that play Mitski and have lots of vegetarian and vegan options — offered oat milk, too. What’s popular in LA cafes, like Alfred in the Alley, where Instagram influencers post pictures of the ‘$10 latte’ (a latte made with Pressed Juice almond milk), is now equally popular in Cambridge, a city I associate more with college students hyper-focused on papers and p-sets than with trends.
Oatly oat milk containers look like grey or light blue brutalist apartment buildings: They are very long, skinny rectangles. On the side of Oatly cartons, the company flirtatiously tells customers that “we are not like real companies,” each word in a different font. It sounds like the corporate equivalent of an 18-year-old girl telling boys on Tinder “I’m just not like other girls,” after she asks them to smoke weed and play Fortnite.
Underneath the middle-school-collage-looking text, Oatly explains that “we don’t place much value on business plans, target group analysis and brand awareness studies… all we are interested in is if you are interested in drinking great products made of great oats with a great nutritional value that are great for the planet.” They’re so eager to land on the “good for the planet” that they stumble over prepositions and punctuation marks.
Oatly’s branding doesn’t just position oat milk as an environmentally friendly drink, it also makes environmental consciousness cool and trendy. Their Instagram is filled with Oatly cartons positioned as hip accessories, as if the cartons are cousins of those tiny-rectangular glasses or Fjallraven backpacks. On Nov. 21, they posted a photo of a Brooklyn type wearing a yield-sign yellow sweatshirt and overalls, a container of Oatly peeking out of the overall pocket. On Aug. 29, it was a skinny white guy rollerblading on the Santa Monica boardwalk, a walkman attached to his shorts and a carton of Oatly in his right hand, like a clutch or a boom box. On October 30th, they even posted an illustration of a woman dressed as Oatly chocolate milk for Halloween, a sign with the Oatly logo hanging on her chest, over a pale yellow Kardashian-esque spandex bodysuit, the whole outfit styled with cat-eye sunglasses. Their brand is specifically about how individuals use and style their own container, as if environmental concerns are not only necessary and dire but also, on a more superficial level of looks, trendy and desirable.
And it has worked: In the last year oat milk has become very popular. Last week, Forbes reported that oat milk is slated to outsell other non-dairy milks, including long-beloved almond milk. It’s so popular that Quaker Oats is now trying to develop their own oat milk.
While oat milk existed before Oatly, Oatly helped launch the oat to the ranks of the almond and the soybean, the two most popular udder-less milk producers in America.Swedish scientist Richard Oste started Oatly, which has been producing and supplying Sweden with oat milk since the early 90s; their barista blend has only been available in the United States since the fall of 2016.
There’s a “barista blend” because oat milk specifically started as a niche milk for coffee. As Mike Messersmith, the general manager of Oatly US, explained to me in the Oatly offices (a WeWork in the center of Soho) oat milk was largely unknown in America. So, the company decided to introduce the drink into Americans’ palates through an already beloved beverage: coffee. In 2016, Oatly started serving their barista-blend oat milk at Intelligentsia coffee shops, a super sleek Chicago-based coffee chain. The company hoped that drinking an Oatly latte would introduce customers to oat milk with a “really great first experience.” Instead of selling cartons at the market and “asking someone to take five dollars of their hard-earned money out of their wallet to buy this thing called oat milk that they never heard of before,” customers could try Oatly at their favorite coffee shop for just an additional fifty cents or dollar.
Oat milk quickly became the new darling of the coffee community. Within two years, other equally popular coffee chains started to adopt Oatly because the milk was quickly becoming a best-seller at Intelligentsia. Chains like La Colombe and Blue Bottle started offering it alongside almond and soy.
I met up with Josey P. Dear, the director of training and quality assurance at La Colombe Coffee Roasters, to discuss oat milk. Dear explained to me that La Colombe, which has 30 different locations around America, started stocking New York City cafes with Oatly in June 2017. After the drink proved popular in New York and Los Angeles cafes they start offering it in other locations, like the Downtown Boston La Colombe.
Although Dear constantly researches and tastes new non-dairy milks, he was first introduced to Oatly by other baristas, specifically at an alternative-milk latte art throwdown. These throwdowns, which are sponsored by various alternative milk companies to introduce new products to baristas, are an almost-monthly event for New York City baristas. Dear confessed that out of all the alternative milks he has worked with, including soy, hemp, and almond, oat milk tastes creamiest in coffee. His fellow baristas usually agree, and, because they were so excited about a new milk perfectly foamable for lattes, they gushed about the creamy new product to customers. According to Dear, during La Colombe’s busiest hours, this means baristas might tell around 150 people per hour about oat milk.
This isn’t to say oat milk’s increasing popularity is necessarily terrible for the environment. Oat milk definitely is, at the very least, a bit better for the environment than dairy milk. Dairy milk’s production process is notoriously bad for the ozone layer: In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization detailed the extent to which greenhouse gases produced by livestock (methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, which comes from the ever-increasing frequency of cows’ bowel movements and the pasture up-keep needed to nourish the cows who nourish us) contribute to climate change and air pollution. As the Oatly website explains, oats, compared to cows, require less land, water, and energy.
But even though oat milk is not as bad for the environment as dairy, the process of shipping and distributing oat milk is similar to the process for regular milk. Oatly even sits next to low-fat and half-and-half in the Whole Foods dairy aisle (even though oat milk doesn’t require refrigeration before the seal is punctured). So, drinking oat milk doesn’t actually help the environment. It’s just slightly less bad for it than a glass of skim (or almond and soy, milk alternatives that have their own environmental consequences).
And this doesn’t circumvent the problem that people are, in general, consuming and wasting too much stuff. As Wolf B. Marnell, the director of coffee at Pavement, explained, there’s an Oatly drought. The milk is so popular that the company has temporarily run out of the barista blend. Marnell’s backup for now is Pacific oat milk, but even that is running low. So, Pavement has been keeping soy milk around as a back-up for the back-up. Customers’ desire for oat milk has surpassed companies’ ability to produce. Now, as Oatly mentioned on Instagram, they will expand to keep up with the demand.
Don’t get me wrong, oat milk tastes very good. And I’m glad the Cambridge coffee community adopted the drink. I wrote this article at Darwin’s while drinking a cup of coffee with oat milk. Soy milk dissolves into little clumps, and I’ve never liked the taste of almond milk. But oat milk doesn’t have its own flavor; it just makes coffee very silky.
But maybe it tastes a little bit creamier because I’m told it’s better for the environment, so I feel like my individual body is somehow metabolizing a cure for impending climate disaster. And, of course the oat milk craze has spread to Cambridge, a college town where students solve abstract problems with abstracted solutions. Maybe it tastes so luxurious because it feels like environmental consciousness is not only necessary but also enjoyable and something I can concretely, physically, do.
—Magazine writer Jensen E. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jensendavis12. This is the fourth installment of her column, What Are You Lifting?, which explores different ideas and approaches to health in and around campus.