I first became aware of oat milk about five years ago. This, I realize now, was comparatively late: Oat milk dates back to the early 1990s, when it was invented by a Swedish scientist named Rickard Öste, who went on to found Oatly, the first commercial oat milk company. But even five years ago, it was still something of a fringe product, at least in the U.S. At the time, I was working on a story about a pair of Chicago bakers who had started to mill their own flour. The story was primarily about their experiments with wheat, but they were working with oats, too, and one morning while we were hanging out at their cafe, one of them offered me a taste of oat milk that he had made himself.
I was dubious. Soy milk does not taste good to me, neither as a substitute for dairy nor as a thing unto itself. The texture is thin and grainy. The flavor is... well, it doesn’t really taste like anything at all, let alone cow milk. Oats are, of course, a completely different plant, but the concept of oat milk still seemed improbable. Or maybe it was just that oats were neglected in general; it was hard to think of them in any context besides oatmeal and granola.
But I sipped it like the baker told me to, and I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste like cow milk, either, but it was definitely more pleasant than soy milk. It reminded me of the milk that collects at the edges of a bowl of oatmeal, both slightly sweet and nutty.
And then I forgot about it for a while. Sometimes I’d see it at bakeries and cafes as a nondairy alternative to cream, and I’d pour some in my coffee. And I saw the news about how there was a shortage in Brooklyn and how this was a genuine crisis, and I laughed, because Brooklyn. But then I heard about Caroline Calloway, the Instagram influencer who, along with flower crowns, made the production of oat milk part of her personal brand. I had never heard so much chatter about oat milk before. (Or flower crowns, but they’re not as relevant to my interests.) And then at a staff meeting, it was observed that there were several commercial oat milks available at grocery stores, even here in the Midwest.
And so I went to several grocery stores to assemble a range of samples, poured them out on my kitchen counter, and drank up. Here they are, listed here in ascending order of quality.
The name should have been a clue. “Beverage” is a vague and wishy-washy term, and this is a vague and wishy-washy oat milk. In texture, it’s thin and watery. Poured into a glass, it’s clear around the edges. It has a mild sweetness and a definite oat flavor, but no body whatsoever. This is the skim of oat milks.
They were not kidding about the unsweetened part. This oat milk definitely tastes like it’s good for you. Or, if you want to be fancy about it, you can describe the taste as “earthy.” It’s thicker and creamier than the Trader Joe’s beverage, more like actual milk.
This one is quite similar to the Califia Farms in texture. The difference is that the oat flavor is less earthy and more toasted. So yes, it tastes like there was human intervention. These two are for the people who drink 2% milk.
The original, the great-grandaddy of the oat milks. I will agree that the name is not great, and the packaging is obnoxiously, self-consciously self-referential, and about as twee as you might expect oat milk to be. The slogan is “Wow no cow!” The nutrition facts panel has the header “The boring (but very important) side.” Its origin story is retold in the smuggest way possible: “Dairy companies are starting to... make their own oatmilk. What do we think about this? Can you see our hands clapping? Finally, milk dudes, what took you so long?”
The product, however, is the very best oat milk at the grocery store. It’s thick and full-bodied and, like full-fat dairy, leaves that pleasant milky residue behind in your mouth. It has a definite no-nonsense oat flavor with a touch of sweetness at the end. It mellows out a cup of coffee. It makes some respectable pancakes. It’s even pleasant to drink on its own. It’s truly the winner among store-bought oat milks.