Having turned her hand to the plant-based milk du jour, oat aficionado Morgan Maw explains how one grain is doing its bit for New Zealand.
Morgan Maw lives oats, loves oats, and might even laugh oats. She’s been in the oat game since 2013, and is ready to push the noble grain to its rightful place atop New Zealand’s agricultural pyramid with the humblest of its products: milk.
It all began, as so many of life’s passions do, with an OE in Scotland. It was there she fell in love with border terriers and oats, the second of which is consumed by Scots relentlessly. Oatcakes, flapjacks, porridge, haggis – oats are appropriate for every meal. Maw saw an opportunity for her homeland to get on board. “I knew how good oats were for the environment, and they grow so well in New Zealand,” she remembers thinking. “Why aren’t we doing more products with oats? It’s just porridge and cereal.”
So she returned and founded Bonnie’s oatcakes, starting out at Auckland’s La Cigale market and moving up through the retail ranks into supermarkets. She thought plenty of New Zealanders would pick up on oatcakes with the vigour of their Scottish ancestors. Over there, on the moors, oatcakes are eaten with jam for breakfast, and with cheese as a snack. “I thought we would adopt it to be the same,” she says. But it wasn’t the same. “I realised it was always going to be the fancy cracker on the cheeseboard,” she says. “It was a beautiful product, but it was a bit pricey, and that wasn’t me.”
Now she’s done a 180 and created a new pantry staple: Boring Milk. “Milk shouldn’t be exciting,” she says. “Milk is the supporting actor, never the star.” Maw’s new oat milk is the Brian Huskey of the food world. Google him. He pairs well with any show, right?
“You need a coffee with this. You need cereal with this to make it exciting,” she says of Boring Milk, and possibly Brian Huskey. “You want it to be consistent, reliable, and an everyday thing. You’d never take a bottle of milk to a dinner party.”
Calling the milk Boring is also a classic piece of disruptive branding. It’s different, it’s unusual, and it calls up whiffs of Elon Musk and his Boring company. Maw could be the Musk of oats, setting her sights on a utopian future achieved through upsetting the status quo.
“I am – like so many people – very passionate about New Zealand and our landscape and what’s happening here, especially with farmland and our land use,” she says. Discovering the potential of oats flipped a switch in her; there was something she could do, large scale, to make a difference.
“Oats require no irrigation, they’re really gentle on the land, they’re good for our soils and soak up lots of nitrogen,” she says. “Somebody needs to do this, and no one else is doing it.” Boring uses oats from the Scotland of the south, Otago and Southland, grown by beloved New Zealand company Harraways.
Three years ago she set her sights on milk. “I saw what Oatly was doing in America,” she says. “I want to be the Oatly of the southern hemisphere.” The first part of that journey involved large numbers of trials and errors. First, she couldn’t find anyone in the country to manufacture oat milk; those in the business of milk manufacturing will only accept a base product that’s already a liquid. “I had to figure out how to get the oats into liquid form.”
And figure it out she did. Then she realised the oat liquid had a shelf life of three days, chilled. “It’s kind of a nightmare, from a food safety perspective and logistically.” Hawke’s Bay juice company The Apple Press came to the rescue. It took on the task of liquifying oats before they were run down to a processing plant just 1,500 metres down the road.
Of course, apples and oats don’t mill quite the same. “There were a lot of headaches and tears,” says Maw. Once a mishap resulted in apple-flavoured oat base. Clogs kept happening. “You warm up oats and it’s porridge,” she says. “It clogs up everything.”
But still, she persisted. “I kept going because we needed to,” she says. “Someone needed to.”
Persistence paid off, and this week Boring Milk launches – it’s available online at Coffee Supreme and Farro, as well as larger supermarkets Moore Wilson’s and New World.
Early this year, an oat milk shortage brought two things to light: that we rely on a global supply chain for our oat milk, and that New Zealanders absolutely froth the stuff.
Only a couple of months ago, Fonterra CFO Marc Rivers suggested New Zealand had hit “peak milk” – the volume we’re producing is no longer increasing. But as the dairy milk curve flattens, it appears oat milk is still on the rise. Otis, another New Zealand brand, recently announced its plan to build a large-scale oat milk plant in Dunedin.
Fonterra was one of the largest-emitting companies in the country last year. In 2019, dairy cattle were responsible for more than 22% of our total emissions. “The climate is changing, and its impacts are evident,” says Maw. “One of the most powerful drivers of things we can do is look at what we eat.
“We need to wean ourselves off dairy to reduce those emissions.”
Oat milk, she says, is an easier alternative milk (or “mylck”, as some might say) for the average New Zealander to wrap their head around. “I feel like it’s the gateway into plant-based foods,” she says. “In the New Zealand context, everybody knows oats. Oats aren’t an intimidating grain.”
Almonds, hemp and soy might not have been regular parts of many New Zealanders’ upbringings. “But a lot of people were filled up with porridge as kids.”
It’s also a creamier, more neutral-tasting option. “I feel like because of that, gone are the days of the 90s and early 2000s where everything plant-based was soy-based.”
With the move away from soy, we no longer need to fear our frogs becoming homosexual, or men growing breasts. On a personal note, I spent a week last month going “monk mode” – consuming only oats, doing push-ups, reading objectivist literature – and nothing interesting happened. It was unremarkable, because oats are unremarkable. They’re a normal part of any diet. They are boring, and I’ll never tire of them.
“I have a deep, deep love for oats,” says Maw. “And I’m very passionate about growing more.” While she’s a rabid ambassador for New Zealand oats, she recognises the hard mahi other companies, like Otis, have done in the space. “I think other oat milk companies have set the bar so high, and I’m stoked to be one of their contemporaries. I don’t think I’m a pioneer.
“I honestly think New Zealand is going to become as synonymous with oat milk as we are with dairy.”