Best Nut Milks For Vegan Lattes

These are the nut milks taking vegan lattes to the next level

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"When was the last time you smelled a cashew and really got the true aroma of it?"

That's César Vega, founder of roasting company and New York hot spot Café Integral, where the Nicaraguan native is not only shining the spotlight on the coffee beans of his home country, he's also rewriting the script on nondairy milk options.

Extracts and artificial flavorings pervade so much of today's food and drink that when Vega began making nut milks for the first time, he had a revelation: "I'd lost the notion of what an almond could and should taste like," he says.

His house-made nut milks, one of which is a cashew-pepita blend that makes for a vegan latte unlike any other (see the recipe), were born from a practical stance. "If 95 percent of your customers are having milk drinks, you should think about the milk." With the number of dairy-free coffee drinkers on the rise—especially as the dairy industry is coming under fire—coffee shop owners are spending more time considering their milk selection. For Vega, who oversees the coffee program at all-day coffee shop Feathertop in Charleston, that means having house-made almond tahini, cashew pepita and coconut cream available for customers to add to their cortados or iced lattes.

Yet not even 10 years ago, ordering a vegan latte basically meant asking a barista to open a Tetra Pak of supermarket-bought soy milk in all its shelf-stabilized glory. But with growing health concerns about soybeans, soy milk is now a controversial option in itself, and rather than wait around to find out if it's actually killing us or not, consumers are seeking alternatives.

Charles Babinski of L.A. coffee fame was among the first to put nut-based alt milks on the map. His almond-macadamia milk latte at Go Get Em Tiger and Grand Central Market's G&B Coffee was called "almost certainly the best latte" in the country by the New York Times when it first launched in 2013. And in the years since, it's still buzzing around the Internet.

"Lattes are the economic background of any coffee shop," Babinski told the Times. He recognized the need to cater to the nondairy crowd while branching out from soy milk. Enter the dual-nut solution, which contains only nuts, dates and water.

Nowadays, coffee often takes a back seat to its creamy counterpart. Those looking for an anti-inflammatory boost can go for a soothing tonic at G&B, which combines milk with turmeric, fresh ginger, honey and black pepper. There's also an Okinawan sweet potato-macadamia milk, which is featured in the seasonal chestnut praline latte. Back on the East Coast, Café Integral offers both matcha-spirulina and turmeric espresso-less lattes.

Jonathan Buckley, cofounder of Charleston restaurant conglomerate Scarecrow & Co., points out the health benefits of the nut milk trend. Why now? Simple: "Health is on trend," he says. "You're actually getting nutrients with your coffee," Buckley adds—who remembers when coconut milk was considered groundbreaking just four years ago. Beyond that, the new wave of milk simply tastes good. Feathertop's version of cashew-pepita milk is blended with coconut water, which Buckley points out adds a slightly sweet note and additional nutrients purified water lacks.

Vega and others are approaching the nut milk movement with the same mind-set as those who work to bring farm-fresh, organic dairy products back onto the scene. "Local farmstead-style milks became increasingly popular as people started caring again. So why not take that same approach to nut milk?" That's why Vega is putting so much TLC into his nut milks and their balance of healthy fats and organic agave syrup for sweetness, which he says is essential for proper steaming and emulsification. "They taste delicious, serve their purpose in terms of a dairy alternative and are something to offer customers that we're proud of."

It was only a matter of time considering the way people have started to think about coffee: With terms like single-origin beans, small-batch roasting and hyper-specific tasting notes, coffee has quickly become one of the most important meals of the day. Even conglomerates like Starbucks are introducing more nut milk options (both coconut and almond over the past two years) and creating storefronts that mimic third-wave coffee shops.

Dairy debates aside, Vega takes a "to each their own" attitude. "If it makes people feel great, that's awesome."