By Naomi Sternstein
We like our oats to talk to us, and humbleness is not required. This much holds true on the topic of oat milk. Our Oatly oats tell us all about their “oatsome deliciousness and what our products can do” and we drink it right up. Sometimes we like their too-cute dad-humor asides that discredit any notion of blank space in milk carton packaging design, or we like what they do to the froth and flavor of our cappuccinos, or we like the lesser environmental impact in an age of committing ourselves to plastic-free straws. It’s that “something new” that hasn’t gotten old, yet.
My first encounter with Oatly products mirrors that of other consumers. I went to grab a coffee in February or March, and I noticed “oat milk” printed neatly beneath “almond milk” as an option on the menu board. Take note that soy milk was definitively not offered at this coffee locale. Whether it had been there weeks or only days before I noticed, I wasn’t too sure, but I ordered an iced coffee with oat milk instead of the usual almond. This discovery was exciting and rare in its very approach; it was a real, serendipitous meeting, precursory to reading about oat milk virtually online or on social media and then actively seeking it out. In a time when every new discovery seems to stem from virtual media, with Oatly the media seemed to follow the discovery. When I decided the oat milk was not only new and interesting but also delicious, I proceeded to Google. That’s where I had my first conversation with an Oatly carton and I liked what it told me.
It is similarly hard to pinpoint the exact date when Oatly and oat milk first started taking up so much space in overheard conversations, (and media—re: recent New Yorker and New York Times articles on the Oatly milk shortage) but we do know this: It began with our coffee shops. Campaigning first to younger, trendy coffee shops in cities like Manhattan was central to the Oatly strategy. Anthony Lak, manager of Rebel Coffee on 8th avenue, brought Oatly to the shop around March through his usual milk distributor, who was already carrying the products. He said that “[Rebel] originally advertised carrying Oatly through social media and our A-frame sign.” On where that leaves other milk alternatives, Lak added, “I will probably say it rivals almond in terms of daily requests with soy coming in last. We also get a lot of curious dairy milk drinkers wanting to try oat because they’ve never heard or tried it until seeing it on our menu.”
Not too long after my initial coffee date with Oatly, I found myself in the home of the oats, Sweden, and neighboring Denmark. Here the brand was even more widespread. The hotels I stayed at offered Oatly alongside dairy and soy-based milks at the business breakfast buffet. From the billboard near the central train station in Copenhagen, to a presence in almost every grocery aisle, frozen to non-refrigerated, Oatly declared itself simultaneously desirable and commonplace. The bubbly writing and run on sentences appeared on oat-based ice creams, mango flavored yogurts, and portable matcha oat milk and mocha oat milk lattes, products that have still not crossed over to our markets.
Back in the U.S, Oatly had decided to bring their milk and chocolate milk to grocery stores. Julio Gonzalez, General Manager of Brooklyn Fare’s West Village location, said they began stocking Oatly about a month and a half ago after a representative reached out to their dairy manager. Gonzalez said that he himself chooses to drink their products over other non-dairy options, and attributes the brand’s gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, nut-free promises as reasons for universal popularity. The success is not without its drawbacks, and according to Gonzalez, Brooklyn Fare, like many other grocery stores, has been having trouble getting their supply. But what of other brands that produce oat milk, such as Elmhurst 1925 or Pacific Foods? Gonzalez said that while they do have an entire display of Elmurst 1925, whose products cover a wide range of less common alternative milks, including “Milked Oats,” he couldn’t comment on if their popularity has changed since the rise of Oatly. He did say that, unlike brands that bring in representatives to grocery stores and host tastings for customers, Oatly has remained distant. Perhaps this is due to their apparent try-it-in-your-latte-first model, or that their popularity grew faster than they planned for and they simply do not have the staff, but Oatly’s approach might have to change if they choose to bring their other products to American retail.
On the topic of Oatly as a fast trend or new standard, many baristas aren’t planning to remove ‘oat milk’ from the menu board any time soon. Lak says, “I do believe oat milk is here to stay and can possibly surpass the soy and almond markets, eventually.” Now, whether Oatly stakes its claim or more brands follow through with commercial oat milk success, only a New York minute will tell.