Coffee culture is thriving not only in the largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne but in smaller towns and homes across the nation, as it is elsewhere in the world. The latest statistics the International Coffee Organization released showed total consumption of 90 million kilos a year and per capita consumption of almost 4 kilos annually. With a large proportion of espresso-based coffee sold in cafés prepared with milk, Australian health food company Freedom Foods Group launched Milklab in 2015 to develop dairy and plant-based milks specifically for the coffee industry. Its range includes Dairy, Lactose-Free, Soy and Coconut Milks, all of which are designed to hold their form under the steam wand. Freedom Foods Group Marketing Manager Emily Houlahan says Australians buy more than four billion cups of coffee a year and are generally well-educated on different brands, blends and origins. However, prior to the launch of Milklab, not much thought had been given to the milk base that she says makes up 90 per cent of all coffees sold. “An issue that has plagued baristas the world over is how to make a latte without having the milk split and curdle due to the high acidity of black coffee and temperature,” she tells Global Coffee Report. That was the impetus behind Milklab, which worked with some of Australia's top baristas to develop the world's first specialty milk, spanning dairy and plant-based alternatives, designed to texture and stretch with espresso coffee. The brand is the official provider of milk products for this year's Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) at the Melbourne Showgrounds from March 22 to 24. Milklab not only designed its range in collaboration with baristas, but considers them its primary customers. Houlahan says baristas are always first in mind when developing Milklab products. “We need them to believe in our products – our milks need to perform with the intensity of espresso and complement the flavour of their preferred bean and roast,” she says. “Our end customers are coffee lovers and for them it's all about taste.” Taste, texture, and functionality are the brand's focus in differentiating itself from other milk and milk alternative providers, first for the specialty coffee segment, but also on supermarket shelves for dairy-free consumers looking to reduce or replace dairy in their diet. “We've been especially well-received by plant-based milk consumers who love the taste and smooth texture of our coconut and soy varieties and the health benefits that go with them,” Houlahan says. Milklab has enjoyed significant success in its home market, gathering a swag of awards since launched. This includes Winner Best New Product at the Fine Foods Australia Show, Finalist for Product Innovation Award at MICE, and Gold – Lactose-Free Dairy, and Silver – Dairy at the Australian Dairy Awards. Houlahan says the team listens to feedback from users, both baristas and consumers, to inform its product development. It has more than 6500 followers on its Instagram account @milklabco, which allows the company to hear directly from the people who use and drink the products. It also has a crew of professional baristas who speak with café owners and other baristas every day, collecting feedback and suggestions to share with the wider team. “In addition to this, we keep an eye on emerging trends in other markets and categories to anticipate what might work well for Milklab.” Just as collaboration was integral to Milklab's launch, it is the “heart and soul” of the company's continuing development. Before any new product is launched, a rigorous evaluation process brings in baristas and roasters to give tasting notes. Other collaborators include wholesale and distributor partners, and coffee equipment providers, but the final consumers are always uppermost in the team's focus. Milklab has expanded from its initial Australian market and its products have been available in parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia since 2016, and in New Zealand since late last year. There are plans to go even further afield and Houlahan says they continue to explore markets that have an appreciation for espresso-based coffee. In its home country, Milklab continues to focus outward through its role in MICE, where it hosted a chill-out zone where baristas could practice before the many competitions, and simply relax between them. Milklab also held its own Barista Battle Series during and in the lead up to MICE, to showcase baristas' skills with alternative milk and coffee. Daily pop-up smackdown competitions took place in local cafes during Melbourne Coffee Week, with the eight winners invited to compete for the title of Milklab Barista Battle Champion during MICE. The prize was a trip to origin for the highest scoring barista, giving back to the sector that has been essential to Milklab's evolution. As more cafés encourage their baristas to create limited edition ideas, Milklab intends to continue to cooperate to help them make the perfect beverage, with a range of products that complements their creativity.