To Specialty Milk or Not to Specialty Milk

To Specialty Milk or Not to Specialty Milk

While the general consensus within the specialty coffee community typically says that specialty coffee tastes better without additives like sugar and milk, that’s not always going to be the case for every individual. For some, coffee is enhanced with dairy or dairy-like products, and rather than deny or shame customers for their caffeinated morning routine, we’d like to go over and break down milk, one of the most common additives to coffee, and perhaps make the case for specialty milks to be added to coffee to bring out unique characteristics.

Three Important Components of Milk with Coffee

There are three important components of milk when it comes to coffee that contribute to the end-product taste of what you’re experiencing. Whether it’s a tiny teaspoon or a full on cafe latte, milk’s interaction with coffee’s structure can lead to a pleasant and enhancing experience if done properly.

First off is the lactose, or the sugar compounds of the milk, which when heated sufficiently can develop your coffee's sweetness and lead to an overall sweeter beverage. If the milk is heated past 140°F(60°C), then the milk begins to scald and begins to take on bitter flavors that will begin to degrade the quality of both your milk and coffee. If added in cold, then milk’s lactose won’t necessarily activate like it would if steamed, but due to the inherent heat of the coffee, it will still release some sugars since it begins to heat up as it combines.

Second is the proteins within your milk. This is the main component of milk that leads to binding, with the higher the protein content of the milk the better the flavor, since as heat is added to the milk protein molecules are released and tapped into that give the milk and your coffee a different texture as they combine. Though it should be noted, not all coffees react to milk proteins the same. Oftentimes, the acidity and pH in lighter roasts can lead to milk curdling, while medium and darker roasts tend to not have as much acidity, which is typically why your average espresso at most coffee houses will be on the darker and bolder side.

And of course, while it sometimes doesn’t get the recognition it should, there is the fat content within milk that can give your coffee that silky mouthfeel that makes it easier on digestion and not as nearly as acidic. As fat heats up it begins to melt and leads to a richer, smoother milk experience that can balance out some of the more bitter aspects of coffee.

Dairy Alternatives for a Great Cup of Coffee

While traditional dairy might not be the preferred method of milk consumption for some, many dairy alternatives will have those three main components (sugar, protein, and fat), that can still lead to a great cup of coffee without as much acidity or bitterness and can be modified in amount for preference. But it’s always important to keep these three components in mind when choosing dairy alternatives.

No matter what sort of dairy or alternative dairy product you might enjoy in your coffee, it can be agreed that when adding it to coffee it will fundamentally change your cup of joe. And if specialty coffee is your thing because you enjoy quality ingredients, then perhaps it’s also time to think about specialty milk alternatives from the usual store-bought creamer brand that’s only quality is that it can overpower any and all types of coffee to make it taste exactly the same.

Next time you go to add milk or a milk alternative, we hope you consider the quality of the milk and how it can influence and enhance your coffee. Though other helpful things to keep in mind is to always make sure your milk is refrigerated, never re-heated, contains a good amount of fat and protein content to better complement the coffee, and perhaps try experimenting with different types of milk to see what best flavor profiles fit your likes and needs.

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