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When an Oat Latte Is Illegal

A barista just had to smuggle oat drink into a coffee competition. It shouldn't be this way.

BY FRAN HOEPFNER · NOV 28, 2022

An act of protest can look like anything: pea soup on a painting,
 a hand superglued to a basketball court...or bottles of oat drink
 smuggled into a coffee competition.

The last one was Mikolaj Pociecha’s move at the German Barista Championships in Frankfurt earlier this fall. The head roaster and head of quality control at SUEDHANG Kaffee in Tübingen, Mikolaj (or Mik for short) took issue with a competition rule put in place by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the nonprofit trade association that presents a number of international coffee events. The rule is as follows: cow’s milk only.

Mik’s plot was simple and straightforward (and backed by Oatly). He slipped oat drink into his beverages, creating the ultimate caffeinated “Gotcha!” Did it work? Well, no and no and...maybe? SCA Germany--the chapter hosting the competition--got grumpy, and Mik got disqualified for going over time on his beverages. But the move made a stir in the corner of the social media universe reserved for coffee, plant-based drinks, and the intersection of the two.

“It was really important for us to treat the competition seriously. We wanted to put in a lot of effort to prepare for and respect it.”

For the competition, Mik had to make three drinks: an espresso, a signature concoction, and a milk-based drink. He used the coffea robusta bean with contraband oat drink to create a classic flat white and a Vietnamese iced latte, also known as cà phê sūa dá (or an “all-nighter” back in college). The judges didn’t learn the ingredients until they were face-to-steam with his drinks.

As any good activist or Instagram tap-througher knows, the action is not the end of the story. Nor is it the beginning. We had questions for Mik and his partner in crime, Martin Lai, co-founder of SUEDHANG, about how they pulled off the year’s most daring (and only) plant-based-drink reverse heist--that’s when you sneak something in.

Oatly:
Tell me where the idea to bring oat drink into the competition originated.

Mik:
Martin was already doing activism for the equal tax laws in Germany, [fighting for the equal treatment of sales tax on oat drink], and then competition season was coming up. Someone messaged us, suggesting, “Hey, it would be really fun if you guys went to a competition and used [oat drink] to be a bit cheeky.”

Oatly:
How did you work with SUEDHANG to prepare the protest? Did you collaborate on both what would be said and what kind of drink would be made?

Mik:
It was really important for us to treat the competition seriously. We wanted to put in a lot of effort to prepare for and respect it. Another aspect of preparation was figuring out how we wanted to approach the [oat-drink] protests without being too offensive or insulting--but still make waves. It needed to have value.

Martin:
We could have communicated in a friendlier way, but with all the history, I thought that would be a waste of time. When Mik was making his statement to the judges, we had a parallel post go up on Instagram, suggesting that these SCA rules might not even be in accordance with German law. So, it was a bit scary for the people organizing that we made a statement this loud.

Mik:
They’re in panic mode.

“They said that they had very specific instructions not to leave me for one second. They’re watching me the whole time.”

Oatly:
Is it kind of exciting to have them in panic mode?

Mik:
It’s useful to the cause because the organization was so insulted. They really felt personally attacked, to which we’ve made clear that we’re not criticizing anyone personally. We’re criticizing the organization. They gave us so much publicity on social media trying to move people against us. That was successful for a day or two, but that narrative failed in the long run. Because right now as we’re talking, they’re also talking about maybe making some changes.

Martin:
They are talking exactly this minute.

Oatly:
So can you tell me how you physically brought oat drink into the competition?

Mik:
That was actually super funny, because they put me in, like, a training room with two SCA volunteers. There were already rumors that maybe we would do some sort of protest. I asked the volunteers to leave because I wanted to practice my speech--and also pour some Oatly into glass bottles. But they said that they had very specific instructions not to leave me for one second. They’re watching me the whole time. So my colleague Raquel had to run into the parking lot with Oatly under her jacket and pour it into bottles. That’s how it ended up onstage. 

Oatly:
Was it more exciting that there were rumors about the protest? Or stressful?

Mik:
For me, it was totally fine. I think the SCA volunteers had a little bit of a harder time. For example, at one point I went to the toilet, and a volunteer didn’t follow me in. Their supervisor noticed that they didn’t follow me, and they got into a lot of trouble for that. It was a little stressful for them to keep an eye on me. 

Oatly:
It seemed like the judges were cordial in the moment, but upset about it after the fact.

Mik:
The judges themselves were totally fine, because they didn’t care. They’re neutral observers. The people that were upset were from SCA Germany. Their main criticism was, “Well, you could have just talked to us.” But my question is, What would have changed?

This is a conversation that they’ve been having with so many people for so many years. When Martin came to me with the idea of “Hey, let’s do an [oat-drink] protest,” there was no question. It’s important to always include your community in the conversations relevant to them. These talks should not be had behind closed doors. 

“My colleague Raquel had to run into the parking lot with Oatly under her jacket and pour it into bottles.”

Oatly:
Were there consequences for you in the competition? 

Mik:
My disqualification was officially due to going over time by a minute and a half. During the judges’ briefing, I said to them, “Look, I’m getting disqualified. So why don’t you change the numbers on the milk beverage and give me some points?” It wouldn’t change the results, but it would set a precedent for future competitors, because maybe they would score them as well. They found that idea very ridiculous.

Oatly:
What has the response been from other baristas and peers within the industry?

Mik:
The division here happens between baristas directly associated with the SCA and baristas who are more open-minded. That’s kind of like a 30-70 split. Thirty percent were a little unsure about what we did, and 70 percent were super, super enthusiastic. Not having plant-based [oat drink] is a choice; it’s not a debate. It’s a bold choice not to allow it. Overall, [the response] has been very supportive, especially internationally.

Martin:
There’s the SCA competitions and then there’s also the latte-art competitions. I spoke to a competitor who told me anonymously that they use 800 liters of cow’s milk just in preparation for the event. If 5 or 10 people are willing to change, think of the impact we can make.

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