Stumptown recently eliminated surcharges around plant-based milk, and it has us wondering why dairy-free coffee drinks cost more.
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Stumptown Coffee recently announced the elimination of their 75 cent surcharge for non-dairy milk at all 11 store locations. Jon Perry, vice president of retail for Stumptown, said the company was making this change so people wouldn’t have to be penalized for their milk choice. Perry also believes most coffee shops have the ability to make the same change, and should. So, why don’t they?

Whether you have dietary restrictions, or just simply enjoy alternative milk options, you’ve likely noticed some type of surcharge for alternative milks at your favorite coffee shop. You may have also noticed some variety in the price of surcharges for non-dairy milks—some shops charge as little as a quarter, while others charge over a dollar. Prices can even vary at different locations of the same coffee chain, as corporate often leaves the decision up to each individual store, which is the case with Starbucks and Dunkin’.

“Almond milk costs more than whole milk, skim milk and cream, so most locations charge guests to add it to their beverage,” said Haley Jones, a PR representative for Dunkin’.

Certain Dunkin’ locations have one of the highest non-dairy milk surcharges our staff has seen, with a $1.15 additional charge for almond milk at the location near our office in Birmingham, Alabama.

So, is it really just that milk alternatives are more expensive than traditional dairy milk?

“When it comes to alternative milks, prices have diverged majorly in the past few years,” said Eden Abramowicz, director of coffee at Revelator, a regional coffee chain. “Mass-produced soy products have dropped in price to come close to standard dairy options, while artisanal, experimental nut options have skyrocketed.”

Interested in learning more about which alt-milk is best for you?

Abramowicz noted that coffee bars are trying to find quality alt-milk products that match the quality of their coffee, have a price point within their range, and most importantly, have distributors who can sell and deliver to them.

“Distribution of alt milks is extremely limited compared to dairy, and when it comes to the higher-end alternative selections, the price point typically resembles a retail price versus a wholesale deal. What’s most important to us is finding something delicious for our customers to marry with, not hide, our coffees!”

So, the issue may be more about quality and distribution, rather than the price of alternative milks in general, which could be why Starbucks took matters into their own hands.

The company made big news after creating their own almond milk in 2016, which gave a third non-dairy option for consumers. Their almond milk was specifically crafted to properly foam in hot beverages and give a creamy texture to cold beverages, while maintaining a neutral, complementary flavor, according to an announcement. They still, however, charge extra for their almond milk, and the reason is pretty surprising.

A representative from Starbucks said substituting non-dairy milk is considered a customization, just like adding a shot of espresso or an extra pump of caramel syrup into your beverage. However, this surcharge is only for drinks containing four or more ounces of milk, such as a latte. So, in theory, a hot or iced coffee with a splash of soy milk shouldn’t cost extra.

While we would love to pocket the extra change, it seems safe to say unless your favorite coffee shop changes their source of non-dairy milk or higher-quality alt milks become more readily available, you’ll continue to be charged for that almond milk latte.