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This Minneapolis company could be the secret reason we have one of the country’s best coffee cultures

There's 8 million pounds of coffee in here.

There's 8 million pounds of coffee in here.

One morning, when you’re coherent enough to think about it as you dump a pile of grounds into the percolator, take a look at the addresses on the coffee bean bags in your pantry.

Cameron’s Coffee: Shakopee, Minnesota.

Caribou: Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Dunn Brothers: ditto.

It’s no accident that Starbucks got its start in Seattle, Peet’s is headquartered in San Francisco, or that Dunkin’s based out of Boston. It’s a simple matter of logistics: It’s easier to ship beans to the coasts, so many of the country’s most established coffee companies are on them.

But the Twin Cities has a pretty powerful coffee community itself. Minneapolis often nears the top of “best cities for coffee lovers” roundups, and places like Spyhouse and Dogwood regularly appear on “best roasters in America” lists.

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

Then, there’s Cafe Imports, which turns 25 this year.

What’s that? You’ve... never heard of Cafe Imports?

It makes sense if you’re as yet unaware of the quarter-century-old Twin Cities coffee company. This isn’t a coffee shop or a roaster, and you wouldn’t have seen their logo on bags at Cub.

Cafe Imports is an importer and wholesaler of specialty green coffee. The beans they bring in eventually become the caffeine in your cup at dozens of places around town (Spyhouse, Dunn Brothers, True Stone, and Cameron’s are all customers), and they distribute globally, too.

“We’re really well-known around the whole world,” says Cafe Imports creative director Andy Reiland. “But being business-to-business, people don’t know that we’re here, or that we’re really well-known for doing what we do in the global coffee market.”

“It’s so Midwestern of us,” their managing editor, Meister, chimes in.

Cafe Imports got its start in 1993, when a friend of founder Andrew Miller was looking for help bringing beans from his family farm in Brazil to the United States. Miller saw a bigger opportunity. Thanks to his career in fine dining and wine, he realized this was better than average coffee—and he was willing to bet there’d be a market for it up here.

“There was really good coffee available, but it was hard to buy because the industry was relatively young in general, and it hadn’t yet really made its way to the Twin Cities at all,” Meister explains. “There was, really, nothing in the Midwest.” So Miller borrowed money from his mother-in-law, and he brought a semi-truck container’s worth of beans back from his friend’s farm. Then, he got in his car and started driving—Chicago, Eau Claire, Fargo—sampling and selling it, bag by single bag. “Which, at that time, was really unheard of.”

Today, the company sells to roasters around the globe. They have an office in Berlin and another in Australia. They still do business all over Minnesota—it’s one of their biggest markets, and they distribute to more than 700 different roasters in the Midwest and more than 40 in the Twin Cities metro.

But their offices are as unassuming as the business inside—a signless brick building on an out-of-the-way, industrial stretch of East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. If you weren’t buying beans from them, you’d have little reason to drop by, or even end up on their website. And so, Cafe Imports remains a relative unknown, even to many for whom a daily trip to Dunn Brothers is a given.

On November 3, that’ll change. Because a few minutes away from the offices, there’s the massive Cafe Imports warehouse, where more than 8 million pounds of coffee is stored in 150-pound bags from almost 30 different countries: Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Rwanda, Ethiopia. And after 25 years quietly contributing to one of the best coffee cultures anywhere, they’re opening the doors for the Great Coffee Get Together, a day-long, very caffeinated party.

Doomtree’s Sims is DJing. There will be live screen-printing, food trucks, and coffee education classes. They’ll lead demonstrations and tastings, and they’ve reached out to more than 55 local roasters for a coffee showcase. There’ll be non-coffee drinks too (that is: beer), so you can balance your uppers and downers.

And there will be conversations about sustainability and sourcing, two things that are of supreme importance to this group. The Cafe Imports website is full of information about the farms they work with, with maps, photos, and producer profiles of the growers behind the beans. “We’re on the ground; we have relationships with these farmers all over the world,” Meister explains. They want that relationship to extend to you, the coffee drinker, which is why there are videos and interviews with farmers, reports on exactly where the coffee comes from—things you’ll learn about first-hand if you check out the party.

“We want to open our warehouse and invite coffee lovers of the Twin Cities in to celebrate our anniversary,” Miller said in a statement, “to show people about specialty coffee and the work that we do at coffee’s origin to support our values, and to simply be a good neighbor with genuine hospitality.”

That neighborly part is important, too. Meister notes that they’re still pretty small for an international company, which is by design. It lets them keep the focus on producers, so they can take regular trips to places like Colombia and Brazil, and make a point to connect roasters with the people performing the labor that leads to your morning latte. If you call the office, you talk to a person.

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When I note that Cafe Imports could be one of the reasons there’s so much high-quality coffee to be had from so many great roasters in the Twin Cities, Meister is again characteristically Midwestern: “It’s certainly not by us alone; no one company can do that in a vacuum.”

But that response shouldn’t come as a surprise from a company that’s been so humble these last 25 years. It’s not about them, anyway—it’s about the people planting and nurturing your coffee, and the ones roasting and brewing it for you. And it’s exactly aligned with what Meister thinks Cafe Imports’ goal should be: “Helping people invest in one another to improve the quality of life for coffee producers everywhere.”

The Great Coffee Get Together
Saturday, November 3, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., Free
Cafe Imports Warehouse
2280 Walnut St. Suite 200, Roseville
651-209-6102; cafeimports.com