A one-man coffee roasting operation in New York City aims to prove that every coffee has a story—even when they all come from the same producing country. Meet César Martin Vega of Café Integral, whose love of Nicaragua has inspired him to chase down a bean dream—both on and off his bike.
Despite his relative youth, 24-year-old Vega has a lifetime of coffee in him. His family has owned several small coffee farms in Nicaragua's Jinotega region for over a quarter century, and Vega has long been drawn to dark, delicious brews from his family's birthplace. Though he was born in Miami, Vega's always felt a kind of magnetic force pulling him toward "home": That force, it turns out, is coffee.
A photographer and cinematographer by trade and an avid cyclist in his free time, Vega launched himself impulsively into the world of specialty coffee feet first—literally, on pedals: After buying a used Ambex roasting machine on eBay and acquiring enough green coffee from home to fill up his apartment, Vega would roast into the wee hours after a day's work and deliver the beans to "subscribers" around town on his bike. Those subscribers became the first customers for his fledgling roastery/coffee bar, Café Integral, which opened a few weeks ago inside the SoHo boutique American Two Shot.
We recently caught up with Vega as he pulled shots of Integral's sweet-and-smooth house espresso blend, Dulcinea, for the fashionable types milling about the boutique.
You were born in Florida, but your family is from Nicaragua. What was your relationship with their home country when you were growing up: Did you feel connected to it, or far removed?
I feel very Nicaraguan. It may be a little unreasonable to say, but I really feel—even being raised in the States—as a Nicaraguan. We are a Nicaraguan family and we were living in our Nicaraguan ways. The [Nicaraguan] community in Miami is strong...perhaps even stronger than when Nicaraguans were entering the States as exiles. In many ways I feel connected to a Nicaragua I never knew, the one that preceded the revolution and that ceased to exist when the revolution took place. There are some of those aspects that are very foreign to me still, but otherwise I feel deeply connected.
Was your interest in Nicaragua what drew you to coffee?
My interest in coffee grew gradually, probably after too many overcaffeinated days at the mercy of preground, low, low quality coffees. Eventually, I began pursuing great espresso. I think any coffee lover—or perhaps anyone who loves food dearly—can attest to a moment when they began to notice taste, and focus on nuance.
How did you come to decide to learn all you could about coffee, and what have you done to gain the skills you've needed to start buying and roasting green coffee?
At a certain point my love for coffee merged with my love for Nicaragua, and I dedicated myself to learning all I could about Nicaragua's coffees. Learning how to cup is easy: One's learning as a cupper is a continuous one. Roasting is no different, and I think that as my interest grew, I learned more of coffee's pipeline. Before you know it, you're cupping daily, roasting, [and] evaluating green samples. It's difficult to pinpoint how I learned the skills, I think a combination of asking those who knew, practicing, and diligently dedicating myself to learn these skills, and well, the Internet.
You work exclusively with Nicaraguan coffees. While Nicaragua produces a pretty significant quantity of beans, it's not often an origin people shine a spotlight on. Do you think there are challenges that are particular to having that keen a focus?
My desire to be a coffee professional is entirely founded on Nicaragua's coffees. From the start I've been aware of the challenge in dedicating myself to a single origin, and it's been exciting in many ways. I've seen the success and growth of coffee from other Central American nations, and I found myself wondering why Nicaragua wasn't experiencing the same. When I began to plan my first buying trip I had the intention of bringing back 500 pounds of coffee. I figured if in a year's time I could introduce 500 coffee drinkers to the delight of Nicaraguan coffee then I was contributing somehow. I came back from that trip with over a ton of coffee, and I haven't looked back since.
What do you think Nicaragua has to offer coffee drinkers as an origin that hasn't been explored already?
In many ways I think specialty coffee is in a position where a company dedicated to a single origin can thrive. [T]here is a lot to be said about someone who knows a single origin inside and out. When I approach a roast for one of our coffees, I know the bean well: I know where it's been, how's it's been treated, and what it can give.
I am always working on finding variety within Nicaragua, and it's been so fascinating. If I am a missing a brighter, sprightly coffee, with a nice citric opening, I start in Jinotega and work around there; I know that coffees from Dipilto have a deeper, more fibrous bottom end to them, and that the makeup of the soil contributes to certain qualities. As coffee culture grows, I would like to see drinkers discerning and knowing what a coffee from Jinotega versus Madriz versus Nueva Segovia can offer. It's not at all uncommon to know a wine down to the village it originates from—coffee can get there as well.
What do you hope to accomplish by narrowing in on this one origin, and what do you want to teach people who might love coffee but not be terribly familiar with Nicaragua as a growing region?
I want people to realize that Nicaragua produces knockout coffee, [and] that it's done with care and consideration. I have come to understand how hard these growers are working to create exceptional coffee, and I'm focused to do that hard work justice. As an extension of their efforts I want customers to feel that I'm seeing the coffee the rest of the way through, carefully roasted, rigorously cupped and tasted for quality, and finally prepared to give them a wonderful experience. Ultimately, when I slide over an espresso, I am sliding over a portrait of Nicaraguan coffee, and it is essential that it be awesome and exciting for them as well.
Café Integral, at American Two Shot
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. She's also one of a incredibly rare breed of smiling runners.