The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
Update (September 29, 2021): Untitled Oats is no longer operating. With that said, this interview does contain some great insights into the oat milk industry and is worth a read.
What makes a milk good for Barista use? How do you produce oat milk? These are two of the many questions I've had on my mind lately regarding milk. To answer these questions, I thought I would ask Callum and Alex from Untitled Oats, a new Scottish oat milk company. In this interview, we chat oat milk, plant-based milks, milk for Barista use, and more. Enjoy the interview!
For my readers, could you tell me a bit about your business Untitled Oats? Why did you decide to start an oat milk company?
Our business is Untitled Oats. We make oat milk and like to keep it simple. We want to provide the most sustainable dairy to UK consumers. To do so we intend to use oats, not cows, not soy, nor almonds.
I've heard that not all milks are suitable for Barista use. Could you tell me what qualities make for a good Barista milk?
Getting a good barista milk is a lot harder than putting ‘Barista’ on the bottle - this is very dependent on the fat and protein content of the milk, which react when steamed to create and hold a silky microfoam of tiny bubbles. It is also important for the milk not to curdle under high temperature or when mixed with acidic coffees. Finally the milk has to complement the natural flavour and aroma of the coffee without overpowering it.
Once you have achieved all this you have to contend with the fact that all baristas are different. There is an ongoing debate about which type and even brand of plant milk is best for coffee. Our goal with our milk is to create a universal fit, which is a very difficult challenge and one that we are still working on.
What are the main issues with traditional plant-based milks?
Due to existing markets and innovation, soy and almond milk have shot to popularity in the United Kingdom. The principle issue with this is environmental, as the base ingredients for these milks cannot be grown in the UK.
Oat milk is however quickly catching up, due its superior taste (personal opinion) and milk-like texture. It has the lowest combined environmental impact of any milk, period. As such its continued popularity will be elemental in fighting the climate crisis, and we see Untitled Oats playing a crucial role in that.
What is involved in the production of oat milk? What steps must be followed to produce oat milk?
Whilst we can’t say too much about our personal process, we can say that the original patents to make oat milk are freely available. The basic steps are blending water with oats, adding oil and emulsifying, adding enzymes to naturally break down the starch in oats (giving plant milks a subtly sweet taste without adding sugar), before filtering, pasteurising and bottling. Our oat milk is ‘fresh’ like dairy milk and unlike other plant milks found in cartons. These oat milks have been subject to UHT before being packaged aseptically, in Tetrapak cartons which are lined with plastic and problematic to recycle.
You mentioned that curdling is an issue that baristas need to avoid. Why do some milks curdle when they are used in coffee?
Curdling is rather hard to describe, but is when the acidic nature of coffee causes the proteins in the plant milk to unfold and coagulate. It looks like clumps of white solids forming in the drink, imparting a very weird taste and texture. Black coffee has a pH of 5.0, and soy milk has a curdle point of 5.5, meaning it will curdle when mixed with black coffee.
By contrast, black tea has a pH of ~6.3 so soy milk is fine to use here. The curdle point of dairy milk is ~4.6 so it is fine for even the strongest of coffees, but would curdle in lemon tea (which has a pH of 3). I’m unsure exactly what the curdle point of oat milk is, however experiments have confirmed it would curdle in coffee. However, this is mitigated completely by using an acidity regulator (dipotassium phosphate), which holds the pH of the drink above the curdle point when used in coffee. This is one of the reasons why coffee with milk tastes very different than just the sum of it’s parts!
I did not learn about UHT until I started reading about milk for use in coffee. Could you explain to my audience what UHT means and why it is used for some milk?
UHT stands for ultra heat treatment, which is when a liquid is subject to intense heat and pressure to kill 100% of the bacteria and mould in the product. This is generally around 130 degrees C - above the boiling temperature of water. Intense pressure is therefore required to prevent the liquid from evaporating. The product then flows through a completely aseptic line to be packaged in a manner preventing any kind of bacteria from entering. This is in contrast to pasteurising, where liquids are heated to around 73 degrees C to kill 99.9% of bacteria.
As far as I know almost all dairy milk is pasteurised in the UK. Pasteurising extends the shelf life from days to weeks, requiring refrigeration, whilst UHT extends the shelf to months and years without the need for refrigeration. UHT changes the flavour quite considerably, and the intense heat may change the nutritional profile. Under 10% of milk sold in the UK is UHT, but it’s over 90% in countries such as Spain and Belgium.
It looks like sustainability is an important part of your business, especially given how you are delivering milk via eCargo in Edinburgh at the moment. Could you talk more about what sustainability means for your business?
Sustainability is the core concept of our business, its why we exist and it is our mission as an organisation. It means that all of our business decisions are fraught with analysis (and a lot of debate!!) over the best course. We are proud to call sustainability our first thought, and not an afterthought. It is hoped that by starting in this manner we can remain an environmentally conscious producer as we scale.
Going forward we have many tough decisions to make so input is always appreciated. To expand our distribution we will need to go beyond the eCargo bike as it is at maximum capacity every day. If we see a lower return rate for our glass bottles in the future, we may find that glass actually has a higher environmental impact than other types of packaging. Glass is much heavier than aluminium, for example, meaning glass may have higher transport emissions. As we work at larger scales we’ll have to weigh up the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a refrigerated supply chain, versus the environmental impact of plastic in tetrapaks (non-refrigerated). There’s no easy "correct" answer to these decisions, and any solution is likely to involve a trade-off.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in developing your milk?
Interestingly our biggest challenge to date has been scaling to meet our demand! We certainly underestimated how well received our product and idea would be, and since launching at the end of October we’ve been scrambling to produce and distribute larger volumes! Scaling brings a large number of challenges; small problems, washing bottles for example, quickly become incredibly time consuming!
On your website, you say "We are proud to display our suppliers on the product page." What does this transparency mean to you as an oat milk business?
To grow sustainably will entail tough decisions, from which we don’t want to hide. We think that taking on criticism will be good for the business in the long term, and allow us to develop an organisation people want to support. We know that disagreements or criticism are forces for positive change, and so by running our business in a more transparent manner we’re hoping customers will get in touch if they see something they don’t like!
For example, as we grow our suppliers are going to change to meet our changing needs, particularly for our smaller ingredients such as Calcium Carbonate. Basically we want to keep our customers in the loop as much as possible about what we are doing and why. We also want to separate ourselves from the wider plant-milk industry, which is controlled by a few large companies with questionable practices.
Where did the name Untitled Oats come from?
Initially Alex and myself were throwing ideas over Messenger, he had a folder on his computer called ‘Untitled Oat Company’. The name stuck and here we are!
Do you drink coffee at home? If so, how do you like to prepare your coffee?
I’m afraid I am mostly intolerant to caffeine. Ironic I know. However when oats call in the early hours of the morning it’ll be a latte or a flat white for me. Callum
Pretty much the same for me, I made a resolution to give up caffeine last year. Do love to treat myself to an (oat) latte on the weekends though. - Alex
What is your favourite snack to have with a brew?
People can eat after having caffeine? Callum
Big fat doughnut from Considerit. Alex
Untitled Oats milk is available in cafes around Edinburgh. You can find out more about Untitled Oats on their website at untitledoats.co.uk (archived) or on their Instagram page @untitled.oats.