Haulin’ Oats for a Better Tomorrow

Dear Diary’s Amalia Litsa Wants to Make Local Oat Milk a Thing

Amalia Litsa is the head honcho of the Dear Diary vegan coffeeshop at 1212 Chicon. We’ve got a profile of her in the Chronicle’s print edition this week and, like this impassioned addendum, online forever.

photo + design by brenner

But a paper issue is a finite object, of course, and we can’t always fit as much into it as we’d like.

Thus do we take to the internets to include more of what the local shop owner – “I have so many different labels you can stick on me,” she says, “I’m this queer-woman-artist-cyclist-person” – to include more of what the seemingly indefatigable Litsa has to say about her ongoing oat milk crusade.

We’re including this extra bit also because being vegan, using non-animal food, is important for … oh, hell, for a lot of reasons. (Better personal health, a more gentle environmental impact, don’t get us started – maybe check with Graham Reynolds instead.) And because, personally – and according to the many people we’ve asked about it – and we keep asking more and more people and getting the same response – oat milk is the one so-called plant milk that tastes pretty much like, well, like actual milk, n’est-ce pas? The one that you can drink without feeling like you’re trying to fool yourself, right?

You know what we’re saying.

So, here’s that Amalia Litsa, who’s concocted a barista-ready formula of just-add-water oat milk ingredients and is marketing them under the name Bricco Blends

On the rocket-like rise of the oat milk market:

“One of the things that gets my goat is refrigerated oat milk at grocery stores,” says Litsa. “The sales of that boomed 350 percent between September of 2019 and September of 2020. It’s insane. And the shelf-stable milk in grocery stores went up like 130 percent, something like that. I mean, you can check my facts, but that’s what happened. So there’s this huuuuge demand for oat milk in the market. And all the coffee shops are finding themselves purchasing this $12 oat milk because they have to – to meet customer demand. And for some shops that’s fine, because they can upcharge and cover their costs, and maybe it’s even a good thing. But for coffeeshops like mine that are 100 percent plant milk – or maybe they’re in a market that’s predominantly plant milk – the shops are more getting dragged along. The vegan restaurants, too: They’re not benefiting from this huge surge in oat milk popularity, they’re just having to respond to it. And I kept seeing these new oat milk brands pop up out of nowhere. It was like, ‘Oh, there was Oatly – and now Chobani is doing oat milk – and now Planet Oat is in the game, too! Everybody’s an oat milk maker now!’ But there are no little-guy oat milk makers – and it’s a huge industry, a huge market! So I want to stay in the lane of ingredients supplier. I’m not interested in selling to consumers so much? I just want to enable other small food manufacturers and coffeeshops to make their own housemade oat milk. All I’m supplying is the basic ingredients. They can private-label it, they can do it however they want – I just want to make it happen. I want to make it be a thing.” She laughs. “I cannot be hit by a bus or something – I have a purpose in life now!”

On formulating a blend of oat milk specifically for baristas:

“I love latte art. I spent over a year just formulating an oat milk that would foam for lattes – because homemade oat milk doesn’t do that – and that would also be minimal effort for the baristas. If I’d gone to school for food science, maybe I could’ve gotten there faster. I’m a coffeeshop owner – not a food manufacturer, not a food scientist. So it took over a year, because I had to figure out how to procure ingredients at scale and all that. I don’t want to get into the details too much, because that is the labor I put into it. But, at first, it was like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. Now I feel I understand it so much more, and I wish I could go back in time and just tell myself.”

On what she had in lieu of a test kitchen:

“Another gift that I was given, having a coffeeshop has made it where I can test the oat milks that I’m making – I can test the lattes – on real equipment. If I didn’t own a coffeeshop, I'd have to get a consumer-grade machine – and it’s completely different, and I’d have no idea what the actual barista experience is. So this oat milk has been tested at Dear Diary and a bunch of other shops around town – which is another reason it took so long: I didn’t want to invest in an oat milk that baristas didn’t like.”

On why this city should embrace local oat milk:

“I would love to see Austin become the place that does this first," says Litsa. "I would love to see the Austin scene become the place where oat milk becomes hyperlocal. The coffeeshops are already 50 percent of the way there, because a lot of our coffeeshops roast their own beans; so there’s a sense of hyperlocality in that way. But, when it comes to milks, people aren’t milking their own cows or puréeing their own oats or whatever. But I’ve found a way to make that feasible for shops, and I’d love to see people hitting up their local coffeeshops for milk – instead of grocery stores.”

And, finally, there’s the whole sustainability aspect – especially where packaging is concerned:

“The sustainability of oat milk is what’s attracting other coffee shops and customers. People want to like it because it’s more eco-friendly. Originally, I wanted to have 100% compostable packaging, but I think my ability to do that kind of depends on how much I’m selling – because the compostable packaging doesn’t have that long of a shelf life. So the question is, can I reach volumes where the compostable packaging is feasible? Which is another reason to stay hyperlocal: If I were distributing to grocery stores, the product might sit in a warehouse for six months, so part of the sustainability story depends on being super-local.” [Litsa brandishes a pouch of Bricco Blends oat milk ingredients.] “This is a six-by-nine-inch pack of powder, and it makes a whole quart of oat milk. This pouch replaces a Tetra Pak carton, which isn't recyclable in Austin. And, just talking to different coffeeshop owners, I’ve learned it’s pretty common for an average coffee shop in Central Austin to go through ten cases of oat milk per week – which is 120 Tetra Pak cartons a week. And there are roughly 600 coffee bars in the Austin metro region – full coffeeshops, restaurants that serve espresso, anyone that serves coffee. So, if you do the math, that’s 120 a week times 52 weeks times 600. So, in Austin, we’re throwing away around four million Tetra Pak cartons in the landfill every year. So when I did that napkin math, I realized, oh, gosh, this is something – this has meaning. Even if I could convert only half of the coffee bars in Austin to using my oat milk, I’d still keep two million Tetra Paks out of the landfill every year. I’ve never before had the opportunity to do anything so meaningful!”

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