First published in Issue 8, 2006, of Cafe Culture
The familiar scent of arabica beans hits me long before I've even reached the counter of the café. I walk through the cosy coffee house, letting the murmur of conversation and distant grumble of the espresso machine wash over me. Mentally scanning the menu boards, I think about what coffee to have today and consider the notion of accompanying it with a muffin of some kind.
The girl at the counter smiles as I approach. “Hi, what can I get for you today?”
“I think I'll have a cappuccino today thanks, and a choc-chip muffin.”
“Sure, and will you be having that cap with soy?”
“No, just full-cream, thanks.”
A horrified hush falls over the café. Staff and patrons alike stare at me with a mix of disgust and disdain. Somewhere in the distance an alarm sounds. Although I can’t hear it, I envisage the same thought running through the collective heads of those around me.
You want that with what?
* * * * *
Alright, so perhaps the above story is just a little exaggerated. But considering the apparent prevalence of soy milk in cafes these days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the western world has all but abandoned full-cream milk. Since its introduction into western culture some twenty years ago, soy milk has steadily increased in popularity, to the point where – much to the disdain of dairy farmers – even those without a medical reason for drinking soy milk have turned to the bean-based beverage. The question, of course, is why?
For those few who aren't familiar with this once-rare drink, soy milk technically is not a milk at all, as it is not a dairy product. Traditionally, soy milk is simply a drink made from the liquid extracted from soy beans. Its history and usage, interestingly, resembles that of Coke, in that it was first used in China as a medicinal product before gaining wider popularity as a food source.
Although soy has similar properties to traditional fully-cream milk, it has some characteristics that differentiate it from the latter. It is these chemical differences that have combined with other factors to make soy milk the popular alternative to traditional full-cream milk that it is today. Most notably amongst these is the fact that soy milk contains comparatively lower amounts of saturated fat than full-cream whilst having approximately the same amount of protein. Other benefits include the lack of lactose, making it safe for people with a lactose intolerance or milk allergy, the fact that it contains polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are good for the heart, and the ecological and agricultural benefits of soy bean cultivation versus those of raising cows.
Conversely, though, soy milk has been criticised for a number of reasons, including the use of genetic modification in some varieties of soy bean, and that it is unsuitable as a dairy alternative for babies and infants.
Australian cafes tend to always have a non-dairy alternative available, the obvious – and often most cost-effective – choice for owners being soy. The two main products on the market – So Good (produced by National Foods) and Vitasoy (produced by Sanitarium) – are by far the most widely available, with smaller, often speciality brands competing for whatever market share is left. For café owners, the main complaint of soy milk comes from the difficulty in getting it to ‘act’ like traditional full-cream. Specifically, this problem comes to a head when the barista, when asked for a soy espresso, goes to stretch the milk and finds that not only is it not stretching as usual milk does, but it also foams rather less effectively. The result, for example, is a rather ordinary-looking cappuccino. This issue, however, has been addressed by at least the two major soy brands, who now offer café owners the option of barista-specific soy milk, specifically designed to complement espresso coffee, such as Sanitarium’s Soyaccino and National Food’s Creamy Original.
Anthony Strachan, owner of the 3 Monkeys Café in Newcastle, has seen soy milk’s popularity grow in the four years since he took over the business in 2002. “The number of people that order soy that are lactose intolerant is actually a very small percentage,” he observes. “It’s all sorts of people who order it now: young mums, health-conscious people as well as the uni students we get around here.”
For Anthony, the popularity of soy is linked to the brand he stocks. Having had it recommended to him by a fellow restaurateur, he now uses Bonsoy, a brand distributed in Newcastle by Full Moon and one that has proved popular with his patrons. “People have come in and asked what brand we use, and when I tell them it’s Bonsoy, they say ‘oh really? Excellent,’ and they’re sold. People do seem to go out of their way to get the soy milk they prefer.”
He’s careful, though to not attribute the success of the product to branding alone, but says that people prefer the taste of it over other brands. “It comes down to personal taste. I mean, I don’t drink soy, but I think that Bonsoy does taste better than some of the others.”
At first glance, the growth in popularity of soy milk since its introduction seems to be linked to it being recommended as an alternative to dairy to those with lactose intolerance or similar milk allergies. Far from it being preferred to full-cream, soy milk was offered as an alternative when full-cream was no longer an option. Nell, 48 years old and a regular drinker of So Good since her discovery of having a milk intolerance five years ago, describes the change as being one of necessity, rather than choice:
“I’d already had an experience with rice milk that I didn't like. At the same time, I didn't like the soy milk much either, but when I did the elimination diet, it was soy milk or no milk, and I like milk.”
Her sentiment is echoed by Kim, 21 years old, who started drinking soy milk during her early teens since the diagnosis of her lactose intolerance. Although she can tolerate full-cream milk irregularly – in the occasional coffee, for instance – she also prefers to drink soy when visiting cafes.
Since its introduction some two decades ago, soy’s popularity has grown as producers found that it appealed to not only those with a milk intolerance, but also to vegetarians who are concerned about the use of animal products in cows-milk, as a pareve product for kosher Jews, and to those who are generally health-conscious and perceive soy milk to be a healthier option than traditional full-cream. Where this perception comes from is likely to be as much from the marketing efforts of soy milk’s producers as from the word of mouth from its advocates. Indeed, it seems a reasonable guess that the marketing efforts of the past decade or so have had no small effect on the public acceptance of the soy vogue.
Like any marketing-driven trend (at least, the successful ones), there comes a point where the momentum carries itself. And, with the availability of almost innumerable soy milk varieties, each catering for different consumer’s tastes – one could be forgiven for thinking that the prevailing wind is now pointing due soy. Contemporary consumers, painfully aware of the various perceived health risks of once popular foods, not to mention the sometimes cruel conditions under which livestock are raised, appear to be turning to soy milk in an attempt to get back to their organic roots. To quote from one such consumer, Julie, who is a soy milk convert as a result of her son’s dairy intolerances, “cows milk is for cows.”
Or are they? Despite appearances, circumstantial evidence suggests that the actual incidence of soy consumption seems to be somewhat less than first thought. At the 3 Monkeys, for instance, Anthony says that soy coffees only make up around five percent of his sales. Moreover, he claims that despite soy’s increase in popularity in the recent past, demand for it has actually decreased over the last year, supporting his theory that soy’s popularity may be just a passing trend.
“I think the popularity of soy may be just a fad,” he says. “We get a lot of younger, ‘alternate’ people in here who like it, but I think soy sales have actually decreased over the last year. It’s possible that people are going back to normal milk from soy.”
This may bring a sigh of relief to the collective lips of café owners and baristas, who have found themselves at the mercy of an increasingly finicky public and companies who provide seemingly endless variants of milk products. If it could be confirmed that the demand for soy is dropping off, it stands to reason that they might be able to all but remove it from their shelves and still maintain a solid customer base.
Ultimately, though, the preference for soy milk comes down to personal taste. There is a variety of products on the market from both the cow and soy milk side of the fence, so it’s not unreasonable for a consumer to be able to find a product that suits their particular tastes. And consumers, of course, will always vote with their feet, choosing those cafes that can cater for their needs.
“I’ve tried one brand, and I can’t think what it was,” recalls Nell, “that was really quite brown in colour, like a caramel colour, just revolting, and there is one café that uses that particular soy milk and I just wouldn't go there.”
While café owners would be wise to observe the prevailing winds of consumer preference, they would be wiser still to pay close attention to the demographic appeal of their café; baristas need not concern themselves with soy milk if they know they’re in a position where their patrons don’t drink it. Conversely, should their primary consumer base come from an area where soy milk is popular, then they should cater accordingly. Therefore, the decision to stock soy milk should come not from popular culture, but from the business sense of café owners.
* * * * *
But back to my predicament. As I sip appreciatively at the cappuccino successfully wrangled from the barista, it occurs to me that I simply enjoy the taste of full-cream milk too much to want to dilute it with beans. You can argue the health factors back and forth until the cows come home – if you’ll excuse the analogy – but I don’t drink coffee because it’s healthy, I drink it because it’s an indulgence I like to afford myself. And how could I deny myself such an enjoyable indulgence?