Milk in Coffee: When Does it Help and When Does it Hurt?

Milk in Coffee: When Does it Help and When Does it Hurt?

Everyone has a preference when it comes to how they take their coffee. In the world of specialty coffee, there can be a negative stigma about adding milk to your brew, but in truth, there are coffees that are enhanced by milk and coffees that are at odds with it. How you prefer to take your brew will determine which types of coffee you’ll ultimately enjoy. Ultimately, we 100% support how you like to take your coffee here at Clive Coffee. We firmly believe that your coffee order is sacrosanct and that your palate is all that matters when it comes to taste. 

The stigma of adding milk to coffee

Maybe you’ve had an experience at a specialty coffee shop where milk products weren’t readily available, or you might have been flat-out refused milk. For some coffee professionals, adding milk to coffee can cause frustration because not every coffee is intended to taste good with milk. In fact, most good Specialty Coffees should taste naturally sweet and delectable without adding milk or sugar. Much effort, work, and time were put into that cup, from its harvest to the roasting to make it taste delicious on its own. This is where some of the frustration and milk aversion can stem from. When you take a great (and expensive) specialty coffee that isn’t enhanced by milk and add a creamer product to it, it can be like taking a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne and using it to make mimosas. You can if you want to, but you don’t need the OJ. For those who know what it takes for a coffee to taste naturally sweet and palatable, altering that flavor with milk, cream, or sugar can be a little painful.

Luckily, Specialty Coffee has been moving away from this kind of gatekeeping and elitism that was rife in the salad days of third-wave coffee (the early 2000s-2010s). Cafès in most major cities around the world, at least worth their salt, are non-judgemental and inclusive spaces that will not trivialize or be flippant about how one likes to doctor up their drink, nor should they! 

Why people add milk to coffee 

Sean pouring perfect latte art lifestyle photo by clive coffee

Many coffee drinkers have been adding milk to coffee for their entire lives. They are comforted by it and enjoy the taste. Remember that most coffee sold and consumed worldwide requires something to help make it more palatable or drinkable. Inexpensive commodity coffee usually lacks sweetness and is often extremely bitter or intense. Adding milk is a fantastic way to reduce bitterness and enhance texture. Many people become accustomed to taking coffee a certain way, then do the same for a high-quality cup of coffee that was carefully processed, roasted, and intended to be consumed as is simply out of habit. It’s all about knowing what coffees will be enhanced by milk and which won’t. If you take milk with your coffee and are open to trying new specialty coffees, you might want to gradually reduce the amount of milk and sugar products you use when appropriate. On the other hand, if you are a coffee drinker who never adds milk to your brew, you might be surprised to find specific roasts that are enhanced by milk. It’s always about your preferences but also about trying something new to take the coffee to the next level.

What’s in milk and how can it enhance coffee?

milk pouring into coffee lifestyle photo by clive coffee

Sugar, protein, and fat are three of the most essential components in milk that impact flavor and texture. We like to use milk to optimize sweetness and reduce bitterness in coffee.

  1. When properly heated, sugar or lactose (milk sugar) breaks down into sweeter-tasting compounds. If you’ve ever had a scalding milk drink without added sugar, you’ve experienced milk that tastes scorched and bitter. Finding the sweet spot below 140 °F (60 °C) will enhance the coffee's sweetness. Heating milk past this temperature will scald and degrade sweetness, altering the entire beverage's taste.
  2. Protein in milk is essential for bonding. Milk with a higher protein content is better for flavor and will produce better foam in lattes or cappuccinos. To create milk foam, you must add air, which is made possible by heating protein molecules. When you heat these protein molecules, air binds to parts of the milk and helps give it shape and texture.
  3. Fat gives milk its thick and silky texture. An experienced barista usually reaches for whole milk, knowing it will produce the most decadent flavor and texture.

When to add milk to coffee

Generally, the more delicate, lighter roasts with more acidity and complexity can taste funky or sour with the addition of milk. So, if you are trying a coffee with that taste profile, lighten up on your milk products and try the coffee black to start. Knowing which coffees are enhanced with milk and which are not can help alleviate some irritation. If you love the way milk compliments the body, texture, and sweetness of a coffee, here are some qualities to look for:

Roast level: Medium to Dark
Acidity: Low (soft, muted, round)
Type: Blends and Espresso
Flavor Profile: Chocolate, Earthy, Roasty
Tasting Notes: roasted spices, nuts, sweet caramels

wheel of various coffee tasting notes that go well with milk graph by clive coffee

 In general, coffees that don’t have high acidity, citrus, or fruit-like flavors agree with milk better. These coffees fit into our chocolate or earthy flavor profiles. Milk makes the perfect companion if you enjoy the intensity of a dark roast but want to cut some of the bitterness. A medium to medium-dark roast coffee with low acidity is an excellent choice if you enjoy a milder cup of creaminess and natural sweetness. Coffees that are roasted specifically for espresso are also great options to brew with drip and filter coffee brewing methods. Most espresso blends are the ideal option for those who take their coffee with milk, cream, or sugar. This is because most espresso blends are intended for milk espresso drinks.

Alternative milks

various alternative nut milks lifestyle image by clive coffee

There is a range of alternative milks for those who do not like the taste of dairy, have allergies, are vegan, or are lactose intolerant. Unfortunately, curdling is a common issue with most non-dairy milks. How the acidity in hot coffee reacts to non-dairy milks can cause coagulation. Alternative milk contains different proteins and sugars. Remember that protein will determine how milk will react and foam with heat. The temperature changes can also affect how quickly curdling occurs.

If you are steaming or frothing milk, try taking the milk to a slightly lower temperature than you would with dairy milk. There are also many products out there made specifically for baristas. In these “barista series” non-dairy milk products, stabilizers are added to help with bonding and provide texture to the drink. If you are simply adding non-dairy creamer to hot coffee, try heating the alternative milk a bit before mixing it with the coffee. This should help reduce some of the curdling. 

Alternative milks and taste

This may be obvious, but adding milk, dairy, or non-dairy ingredients will alter the taste of coffee. If you like your coffee to have a slight nutty characteristic, try nut milks such as cashew, almond, or coconut milk. Soy milk has a slightly mild and creamy flavor that is typically sweeter than other milk alternatives. Oat milk, made from a mixture of oats and water, has a naturally sweet, mild, and creamy characteristic. It has a relatively neutral flavor that mixes nicely with espresso. Whatever your preference may be, there is a milk and coffee combination that will meet your expectations.

Staff tips for alternative milks:

  • Keep milk fresh and refrigerated
  • Never reheat 
  • Higher fat and protein content for more texture
  • Do not heat milk past 140 °F
  • Try slightly heating alternative milks before mixing in with hot coffee
  • Choose a milk and coffee that is right for you