2017 New York City Rising Star Roaster César Vega of Café Integral

2017 New York City Rising Star Roaster César Vega of Café Integral
January 2017

Café Integral
149 Elizabeth Street
New York, NY 10012


Born in Nicaragua, César Vega has been in tune with coffee since childhood. He grew up Miami’s Little Managua and made his way up the coast to study photography at New York University. As Vega studied and worked as a photographer, his passion for coff ee grew from a side hobby to a full-fl edged career calling. In 2012, Vega stepped away from his studio job to pursue coffee (made solely from Nicaraguan beans) full time. In a short span, he went from delivering roasted coffee from Washington Heights on his bike to running a counter-space inside a Soho boutique, and then earning a notice from The New York Times, who cited his Café Integral as a premier coffee destination. In 2014, he was profiled in Nicaragua’s most-read dailies, La Prensa de Nicaragua and La Estrella. In 2015, he was named to Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list of the most promising young culinary professionals.

A licensed Q Grader by the Coffee Quality Institute, Vega has served on the jury for the Cup of Excellence competition. Also in 2015, Vega partnered with Freehand Hotels to bring Café Integral to Chicago and Miami Beach (and soon to their Los Angeles location). Café Integral opened its first full-scale spot in New York’s Nolita in 2016, cementing Vega’s role as the chief authority on Nicaraguan coffee in the United States and ushering small, quality-driven Nicaraguan growers toward greater quality and a more sustainable future.

Interview with New York City Rising Star Roaster Cesar Vega of Cafe Integral

DJ Costantino: How did you get into coffee?
Cesar Vega:
I grew up in Miami, not far from FIU, in a town that used to be called Little Managua, but it's more diverse now. I moved here in 2006 to go to NYU for photography, but fell deep into coffee. My great uncle owned two farms, so I was in tune with Nicarauguan coffee. But as I became more and more interested in coffee and developed a general passion for it, I breached the wall into in coffee from Nicaragua, what was available, and what was already being done. In 2008, Nicaraguan coffee reached such high auction prices, it was newsworthy, and it was the poster child for fair trade. I really knocked it out of the park in terms of quality: I have this idea of quality coffee, and that auction told me something. I scratched the coffee itch, in conjunction with learning where the best Nicaraguan coffee is. 

I began studying independently, going back to Nicaragua to apprentice in the dry mills and moonlighting as a coffee fanatic. In 2011, I thought, why not find 500 pounds of the best Nicaraguan coffee anyone's ever had? We ended up buying 3,200 pounds of green coffee from Nicaragua, exported it, and paid high market prices. I started peddling green coffee, sold it around, roasting it on my sample roaster at home, and delivered it pound by pound. I was working full time, matting and shooting, racing bikes, and coaching the NYU cycling team. On my way back from practice one day, I bought a roaster. I was in the middle of the street, went on eBay, and bought an Ambex YN15. Around that same time, I got a call from my friend Natalie, who was working on opening American Two Shot, and joked about us opening a coffee shop. But then we got serious, hatched the plan, and I quit my job on Jan 1, 2014 to set up our roastery in the Cloisters.

DC: What's your roasting process?
We’re roasting on a Loring now to get the best expression of the beans. It took all of our time to figure out the initial process. We do a total feedback loop: it's brewed in a lab setting using refractometers, then roasted to the point where it performs well for baristas. The Loring is informative, but it's not the most repeatable, because you can't see or hear the coffee. We've been roasting on the Loring for 18 months, and the coffee has never tasted better, only now we're roasting with intention.

DC: Do you do custom blends, or single-origin only?
We are a single-origin company, but we do produce our “Dulcinea” blend, which is a seasonal blend of three to four beans. The idea with the Dulcinea is to create a shifting but still familiar profile that our customers can rely on. It’s our best seller. The other coffees we offer are single-estate lots, often narrowed down by variety or process. 

DC: Is there a varietal you’re most excited about right now?
I’m really excited about a particular strain of Ethiosar that we’ve been working with. It’s a permutation that wasn’t perpetuated much, but it performs incredibly well and the cup quality is unbelievable. You have to wonder why anyone passed on it, but I’m glad that we have this plot—we’ll be cloning these plants and working to set up a nursery for future plantings. 

DC: What’s your biggest challenge?
Sticking to our guns. As a single-origin roasting company, it's easy to feel like an outsider in the industry. Dealing with Nicaragua has definitely been difficult at times, as is competing with multi-national companies to source green coffee.