“I’ve always felt a great passion for Nicaragua, and a lot of that was probably rooted in the fact that I just didn’t get to be there; I didn’t go back until I was eight,” says Café Integral founder César Vega, who grew up in Miami. Aside from this affection for his ancestral home, he noticed an opportunity: In the coffee world, Nicaraguan coffee always received great scores, but the good stuff wasn’t making its way to American shelves. Vega thought, “We’ve broken records at auction both in quality and price, and still Nicaragua is not considered a cool origin.” Knowing the quality was there, he began thinking about sourcing it himself and jokes that he ultimately wound up as “the coffee equivalent of a cellar rat,” learning “very quickly, very intensely” over the 2010-2011 harvest season. The following year, he brought in his first 12 bags of three different coffees, and Café Integral was born.
Since starting his company in 2012 with a stunning roastery in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Vega has focused on understanding the critical control points for quality coffee. A decade ago, he recalls, specialty coffee was celebrating quality, but hadn’t quite achieved consistency in delivering it. “We hadn’t realized we needed to start paying attention to how we could change our processes at origin, during export, during storage to maintain that quality,” he explains. Today, roasters, exporters, and people dealing with green coffee (another name for beans prior to roasting) are all attuned to ensuring consistent quality along the supply chain, and the growers themselves increasingly understand its importance.
Lately, he’s been dabbling in winemaking, and his brand Barbichette is preparing for its inaugural release from the 2020 vintage this spring — the Barbichette Riesling; Chette Baker, a skin-contact Gewürztraminer; and claro que si, an undisgorged Riesling pét-nat. He sees countless parallels between the coffee and wine industries, with coffee taking cues from the wine industry’s equipment, techniques, and focus on fruit quality. “All my producers have a refractometer now, a pH meter. We’re looking at temperature control — these are little things in wine, tools of the trade, but in coffee it’s innovative … and the quality we’re getting [as a result] is literally mind-blowing,” he says. Roasting technologies have evolved at a warp-speed pace over the course of the last decade, with producers moving from using a single thermometer and a hand-held calculator to the ability to conduct multiple probes, in order to observe real-time curves in temperature. This allows for so much more in terms of precision and consistency, and enables roasters like Vega to manipulate the profile of each lot and get the best expression of each coffee.
“All my producers have a refractometer now, a pH meter. We’re looking at temperature control — these are little things in wine, tools of the trade, but in coffee it’s innovative … and the quality we’re getting [as a result] is literally mind-blowing”
Like in wine, the cutting edge in coffee is fermentation, which means Vega thinks about what organisms are at play in developing distinctive flavors. The farm’s climate and ambient yeast might make a coffee taste a certain way, or it might simply be a question of variety and terroir. He relates the way a coffee is processed to winemaking, as this is the moment where growers inflict their own signature on the beans and create a house style. He’s especially excited by the range of options available these days, what he calls “a rainbow palette of processing techniques.”
Vega is also realistic about the financial realities of specialty coffee production for growers, something that sets his operation apart from much of the industry. For him, the sustainability of the farmer’s business is critical. In Nicaragua, coffee accounts for more than 200,000 jobs, and a shifting focus to specialty versus commodity-grade coffee beans has implications for the social welfare of the more than 40,000 families who are fed by this industry. Vega puts it bluntly: Specialty coffee is built on literal cherry picking. “Depending on the producer and the origin, only a certain percentage of their harvest would tip the scales on the quality we were looking for,”
he says. “But you realize that of a producer’s total production, only 10 to 20 percent clips at that level. You’re just showing up and saying, I’ll buy 10 percent of your production, and you still can’t afford any of your loans, and I didn’t solve any problems for you.”
As he has realized this, his own buying habits have changed. A committed buyer can help decouple production from a volatile market, he notes: “My idea is to take as much as I can and find a home for it. What we always wanted to do is put the producer first, pay them great prices, that’s how you create sustainability. … As much as we can, we try to buy every last bean that that producer makes.” He finds a home for the lesser-quality beans, which are cycled into blends, different roasts, or cold brew — the single-estate origins are kept separate. By committing to his growers in this way, Vega sees that his guidance toward improving quality in the field is more frequently implemented, which can give him a competitive edge with access to great beans. “It’s powerful to say I’ll take this risk with you. Worst case, the coffee is as good as it was last year, best case, we all gain.”
Specialty coffee production is still in a nascent phase, and in certain aspects wine has modeled the path for premiumizing an agricultural product. Vega observes that growers are only just beginning to attach their names to their beans rather than creating regional blends to sell and separating picks into different lots, demonstrating an increasing understanding of the importance of origin and the value of controlling for quality. Within coffee generally, there are now marquis farms, internationally known names in specialty coffee, echoing the prestige that the names of certain vineyards connote, and he notes, “Nicaragua is getting there.” Café Integral has been a major part of that change.