Oatly oat milk investigation man repeller
Where Were You During the Great Oat Milk Crisis of 2018?
12.10.18

A few weeks ago, I walked into Cha Cha Matcha on Broome Street and ordered an oat milk matcha latte.

“I’m sorry, but we’re out of oat milk,” the woman behind the counter told me.

“Oh, um,” I stuttered. “In that case, actually, I’ll try and find it somewhere else then. I’m really sorry. Thank you so much. Sorry!”

“Okay?” she said, her surprise morphing into an unfiltered mixture of ambivalence and mild contempt as if I was an absurd breed of human that should probably go extinct.

And maybe I should. But in the split second during which I was deciding whether I wanted my morning dose of liquid caffeine to taste like a creamy milkshake as planned, or whether I would accept a lesser alternative that day for the sake of being polite, I realized I already knew the answer.

Such is the power of Oatly, a non-dairy milk produced by a Swedish company of the same name that was founded in the 1990s. Oatly’s patented enzyme technology (which turns oats into liquid without sacrificing the protein or fiber, thus effectively mimicking how the human body digests food) has set it apart in the field of non-dairy milks internationally for years, but it didn’t enter the U.S. market until 2016. I started drinking it in my lattes that summer, when a Cafe Grumpy outpost near the Man Repeller office introduced it to its menu of milk options.

“Just try it,” a barista coaxed me one morning, so I did. It was weird (“like I spilled oatmeal in my coffee,” acclaimed chef Missy Robbins told The New Yorker when describing the taste), but as I unceremoniously ran my tongue around the cup to collect every last trace of foam, I realized it was only weird because I wasn’t used to coffee being this delicious.

I’ve been hooked ever since — so hooked, in fact, that all other varieties of milk (non-dairy or otherwise) taste like a watery, bland, subpar alternative. Oatly, in comparison, is perfectly creamy with just the right amount of sweetness. I’m now familiar with which coffee shops in the neighborhood where I work and live carry it. When I find myself in unexplored territory, I’ll willingly walk multiple blocks out of my way to locate a source, which I can track like a millennial Henry Hudson using Oatly’s handy-dandy “Oatfinder” GPS.

Even then, I can’t always get my hands on it. As reported by The New Yorker (“Hey, Where’s My Oat Milk?), Taste (“Inside the Great Oat Milk Shortage”), Well+Good (“Breaking News: Oatly Says There’s an Oat-Milk Shortage But Plans to Restock ASAP”), The Guardian (“Holy Cow! Can Brooklyn Survive Its Oat Milk Shortage?”) and Barstool (“An Oat Milk Shortage Has Made My Life Miserable of Late”), among other outlets, the recent surge in American Oatly consumption has resulted in a nationwide shortage.

The company has increased production by 1,250 percent from 2017 to 2018, but it still can’t keep up with the demand. The Cafe Grumpy I frequent on Mott Street uses Pacific Foods oat milk when they can’t get ahold of Oatly, and even when I don’t watch them make my beverage, I can always tell when the oat milk I’m sipping isn’t my brand of choice. It just doesn’t taste as good. According to Callie Eberdt, Oatly’s Market Development Manager Lead, that distinguishable difference is the result of their unique manufacturing process:

“Because of how Oatly’s enzyme process breaks down the oats, the liquid ends up being thicker and naturally sweet with seven grams of sugar. We don’t have to add a lot of extra things to it like thickeners or gums or sweetener, so the oat itself is what you’re tasting. There’s 10% oat content in the final beverage. Most other non-dairy milks only end up with about 1% actual product, so they’re mixed with gums and fillers to give them a bit more texture and flavor. Since we don’t add those to Oatly, it’s more like a real food.”

As for the shortage, I wondered whether Oatly was secretly grateful to be the beneficiary of the particular kind of mystique — intentional or otherwise — that percolates around anything lots of people want but can’t have. You know, like a Supreme T-shirt or Hermes Birkin bag.

“No, we want it to be accessible for everyone,” Oatly Communications & Public Affairs Lead Sara Fletcher assured me. “We weren’t trying to create that kind of hype, we were trying to create the dorky sustainability kind of hype, so now we’re really trying to solve the problem.”

“The overwhelming energy behind it has been so fun, though,” Eberdt said. “We were sent like 15 photos of people who dressed up as Oatly cartons for Halloween this year.”

Noa Azulai, a barista and manager at a Wesleyan University cafe, told me the hype continues to surpass all her expectations: “We started buying Oatly last year. I don’t remember if it was a barista or a customer who recommended we get it, but the second we did, there was no going back. Regular dairy-drinkers converted to Oatly because it is ‘just as creamy’; avid almond milk drinkers weighed the environmental impacts and decided Oatly was a better contender; customers commented on the cool grey labeling, how it’s ‘just so different from all the other oat milks.’ I’ve never seen a cafe community become so overwhelmingly obsessed with a milk alternative. It’s been truly remarkable — maybe even comparable to a modern social movement.”

On the shortage, she said: “It’s been chaos. And pretty exhausting, telling dozens of people every day that we were out. A few brought their own oat milk from home and asked if we could make a latte with that. It was like once people tasted the warm creaminess of an oat milk cappuccino, their reality had shifted and nothing could compare. It was interesting, too, because usually I assume people who drink non-dairy milks do so because they don’t want to, or can’t, drink dairy. But people would ask for oat milk, and when I said we didn’t have it, they would order whole milk. They had no reason not to have dairy — they just had every reason to drink oat.”

Caroline Albers, a barista who works in Minneapolis, told me the cafe where she works prohibits staff from drinking their limited Oatly stock so there’s more for the customers (“It’s like liquid gold… Mandy Moore was in town for the super bowl last February and came back to our cafe twice just for an oat milk latte.”) They tried to make the switch from buying Oatly from a local distributor to wholesaling directly from Oatly and were in the process of setting up an account, but Oatly eventually stopped responding: “We feel pretty certain that it was because they were so inundated with orders, and we probably weren’t a big enough business for them to sell directly to.”

Cece Hurtado, a barista at a Lower East Side coffee shop, confessed that customer outrage over the shortage has started getting out of hand: “The responses slowly started becoming more and more aggressive, ranging from people saying, ‘YOU’RE STILL OUT?’ or ‘WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG?’ or ‘Why don’t you go out and buy some?’ to simply peeking their head in the door and asking, ‘oat milk?'”

As for the intermittent restocks (which have played with my emotions far too many times), Hurtado said: When we finally get ahold of a box of Oatly oat milk, man are the masses pleased! It’s like someone is celebrating a new job, with customers shouting ‘YAY’ when they see the little gray box on the counter. And just like that, we run out again.”

Callie Eberdt acknowledged how challenging it’s been for Oatly to manage expectations: “We realize this affects peoples’ businesses, and you know, that’s really hard for us, because it’s very important that we’re standing by our values and being good partners with people, so we are doing our best to ramp up production as quickly as humanly possible. In the meantime, we’re just trying to make sure that everyone feels they’re kind of at least ‘in the know’ about what’s going on.”

Oatly recently started construction on its first major production facility in the United States — a 19,000-square-foot factory in New Jersey that is set to increase supplies eightfold. In the meantime, I’ve heard some people are purchasing the barista edition via Amazon Prime for the inflated price of $55 for a pack of two (on Oatly’s website, a six-pack retails for $25, but it’s currently out of stock), not unlike how Supreme T-shirts get marked up on resale websites for many times their original cost. But whereas Supreme’s T-shirts are no different from regular graphic T-shirts save for really, really good marketing, the cult of Oatly stems from the fact that it is genuinely a superior product.

In that sense, Oatly’s success is more than just a run-of-the-mill wellness trend — it’s the driver of a fundamental change in how we choose to nourish ourselves. The company has effectively done what hundreds of others have tried and failed to accomplish: created the perfect food. A food that not only tastes delicious but also caters to modern health ideals and sustainability initiatives. A food that pairs beautifully with America’s favorite addictive substance (caffeine). A food that doesn’t contain gluten or dairy but still tastes like the bottom of a cereal bowl. A food manufactured by science. Who can blame us for wanting more?

Photos by Heidi’s Bridge.

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