With its clean, minimalist feel, roster of pastel-hued nut milk drinks, and lavender-coconut shortbread, it would be easy to step into Nolita’s new Café Integral and gloss over owner César Martin Vega’s meticulous commitment to quality Nicaraguan coffees. At least until you’d tried one of his pour-overs.
For the last four years, Vega has been slowly growing his upstart Nicaraguan coffee brand, first with an outpost in hip Soho clothing store and art gallery American Two Shot, followed by a sophomore effort within Chicago’s Freehand hotel, which debuted last year. And as of this past August, just a stone’s throw from its initial stomping ground, Vega has opened his first standalone Café Integral outpost, turmeric tonic and all.
Born in Nicaragua, though having grown up in Miami, Vega’s family has owned coffee farms in the country’s Jinotega region for decades. Coffee is one of Nicaragua’s biggest exports, and believing in his country, he’s made a commitment to only import and roast Nicaraguan coffees and sell exclusively Nicaraguan brews. Through this commitment, Vega has taken his dedication to supporting that area’s producers a huge step further, partnering with farmers, providing infrastructure and tools to better their product—like teaching growers how to taste coffee for acidity and sweetness.
“We work with about 15 different producers in four of Nicaragua’s macro-regions,” explains Vega. “I work directly with them on specific processes, like the picking that takes place, the style of processing—and more specifically the variables that affect our outcomes—as well as the drying and milling for export.” But ultimately, Vega adds, “The important thing here that I want you to know is that we’re not saving lives… [the farmers] know exactly what they’re doing, they all know so much more than we do…we’re just there to provide feedback.” That feedback is then used to improve next year’s harvest.
Six years ago, Vega took his first buying trip to Nicaragua, returning home with 3,000 pounds of green beans. After buying an Ambex YM-15 on eBay, he began testing out roasts, delivering his results in glass jars to friends via bike. And so began the early days of Café Integral, inspired by Vega’s pure pursuit of proving that Nicaraguan coffee can be great.
And that’s exactly what he’s done. From location one to three, with more forthcoming, Vega—also a certified Q grader—is showing America the potential of Nicaraguan coffee when carefully grown, roasted, and finally brewed.
At the new Café Integral, there’s pour-over via Kalita Wave, Chemex for two, the usual roster of espresso-based drinks pulled on a La Marzocco Strada EP, cold brew and nitro on tap, grinders by Compak, and a daily FETCO batch brew. But looking beyond traditional coffee drinks, one will find a bevy of specialty nut milk-based beverages, like a killer espresso-spiked horchata and a matcha latte prepared with one’s choice of dairy-free milk. Those house-made options include coconut milk, cashew-pepita milk, and an almond milk which is actually a blend of almonds, cashews, and coconut, sweetened ever so slightly with dates.
“I originally wanted to do a lineup of seven milks, have a blue milk, have a pink milk…” says Vega. So far he’s got the green on lock: try the Matcha Fizz, with honey and rosemary, or the El Matcha Mas Matcha, which involves the green tea powder plus spirulina, that cashew-pepita milk, and the ayurvedic Indian herbal jam known as chyawanprash. For yellow, there’s Golden Milk, stained with fresh turmeric root and flecked with cardamom and black pepper.
Serious yet playful epitomizes Café Integral as a brand, with Vega’s unwavering commitment to quality found in every cup—be it brown or green.
Photos by Liz Clayton. Matcha Mas Matcha photo courtesy of Sara Norris.