Was the WBC right to change its rules on plant-based milks?
Jenna Gottlieb chats with UCC Switzerland’s managing director, Andre Eiermann, to discuss how consumer attitudes towards dairy are putting pressure on coffee competition organisers.
Coffee’s most prestigious competition, the World Barista Championship (WBC), is never far away from controversy. But recently, all the noise has been in regard to milk.
If you didn’t already know, up until December 2022, the WBC required baristas to compete with dairy milk. In its 2022 rules, it stipulated that when preparing a milk-based beverage, competitors must use “a combination of a single shot of espresso and steamed cow’s milk”.
However, shortly before last year’s competition, Sweden-based Oatly recently issued a press release arguing that the WBC’s rules should be updated to allow baristas to compete with plant-based milk.
Toby Weedon, head of Oatly’s Barista Development team in EMEA, stated in the press release: “The SCA are meant to represent us as coffee professionals, yet we are seeing an increasing number of disenfranchised baristas who no longer want to compete because they don’t consume animal products…It’s time for the SCA to catch up with the current landscape in coffee shops.”
Andre Eiermann, the managing director at UCC Switzerland, tells New Ground that since 2015 he has seen dairy milk alternatives booming because of sustainability, health reasons, or flexitarian diets.
“In Australia, my current home, almond drinks are most popular before soy and then oat drinks,” says Andre. “From that perspective, it might look intuitive to add a dairy milk alternative course or to allow dairy milk alternatives to the “milk course” and rename the course accordingly.”
In the UK, one in three people drink plant-based milk, with usage up to 32% in 2021 from 25% in 2020, and nearly 44% of Brits aged 25-44 consume plant-based milk.
Likely as a result of the widespread calls for change, the rules have since been updated to remove the specific reference to “cow’s” milk.
The challenge, however, will now be how to calibrate the judges and how to score the different ingredients within the same course in a fair and fact-based manner.
“When it comes to the ‘milk course’, I believe we have to keep two more things in mind: first, the World Barista Championship Sensory Score Sheet is, for example, not anymore in line with the café business reality in Australia,” Andre says.
“While the milk beverage accounts for 25% of the points of the total WBC Sensory Score Sheet, 72% of the coffees served in cafés and restaurants in Australia are milk beverages (27% lattes, 25% flat whites, and 20% cappuccinos).”
Second, the top baristas not only use “common” milk during competitions but also process the milk in a specific way to create a perfect harmony between the coffee and the milk.
The argument for incorporating plant-based milks
Plant-based milk has been growing in popularity, and some argue that as WBC is intended to showcase innovations and trends, plant-based milk deserves inclusion.
According to Mintel data, oak milk sales almost doubled between 2019-20. In the UK, oak milk sales amounted to £146 million in 2020, up from £74 million in 2019.
According to Andre, the change to the rules will go a long way in reigniting innovation at WBC.
“From my personal point of view, the World Barista Championship used to be an innovation platform where curious and skilful baristas got rewarded for their out-of-the-box thinking,” Andre says. “Recently, the WBC became more competitive but also more exclusive, and rare and/or expensive varieties/species in combination with innovative post-harvesting processing methods started to dominate the stage.”
Sustainability is another issue to consider, as training with dairy milk is wasteful.
“Preparing for the regional, national or the World Barista Championship is a very wasteful process,” Andre says. “In my own case, I extracted 23,000 coffees during my training.
“In the first of my five months’ training programme, each morning I extracted 400 espresso shots, followed by another 150 milk beverages to improve my basic barista skills – just to be on the same level as the world’s top baristas. Obviously, that is not a sustainable approach, regardless of the coffee or the milk type you use.”
Is anyone resisting the change?
2023 will be the first year that plant-based milks can be used in front of the WBC judges.
But while it has been met with a degree of excitement, not everyone is keen.
One issue is that plant-based milk is popular in Europe and the US but not necessarily in other countries. This could put some competitors at an unfair disadvantage.
“During the last World Barista Championships, we saw between 40 to 60 competitors from all over the world,” says Andre. “To have beverage definitions that make sense in all these countries is already very challenging!”
Furthermore, the calibration of the sensory judges is also a big challenge: dairy milk, soy, almond, and oat drinks taste very differently. “In addition, they also behave differently in terms of foamability, texture stability and how you can pour latte art patterns for the visual score,” Andre adds.
The big challenge will be to make it fair for all competitors. “In other coffee and non-coffee competition formats, we can see an ingredient sponsor, like the official WBC machines or grinder sponsors,” he says.
“Whether oat drink is then the best choice is not up to me to say. I personally enjoy oat milk with my espresso, yet others might go for soy, almond or even coconut.”