A kind of ‘relationship coffee’

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Samuel Ngwa’s Minneapolis-based coffee company is tied to his African homeland

Brooklyn Park resident Samuel Ngwa took a business trip this summer to his hometown of Bamenda, a picturesque city in Cameroon characterized by plenty of hills and fair weather. While there, Ngwa, who has lived in the U.S. since college days, arranged for boatloads of the region’s high quality Arabica beans to be shipped to a secluded warehouse in North Minneapolis. That is where he single-handedly runs a small business called Safari Pride. At his factory, Ngwa roasts and sells coffee beans from all over the world, including those harvested by farmers he has known his whole life. Premium beans thrive in Bamenda’s shade and altitude.

Coffee has long been a mainstay for Ngwa, whose father grew coffee plants on the compound they lived on. Profits eventually paid his way through school. Still, it wasn’t until years later that Ngwa, having achieved a master’s degree in business administration, got involved in the coffee business himself. When he attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout in the 1970s, the transplanted Ngwa guzzled large amounts of coffee like a typical college student, to stay up late and study, or just to hang out.

Today in Minneapolis, propped at a messy desk in an office filled with the aroma of coffee beans, he recalls a dawning realization that there was more to coffee than caffeine. The college student remembered his home and the coffee plants dotting Bamenda’s fields. “I realized, ‘this is where the coffee ends up,’” he says. “I wanted to know more. I wanted to be part of the process of coffee.”

Ngwa founded Safari Pride in 1999. A solo venture, Ngwa’s business doesn’t have any employees, although his sons occasionally pitch in. Numerous independent coffeehouses and restaurants in the metro area carry his distinctive blend, and some customers special-order it. Ngwa has built up his business gradually, relying purely on word-of-mouth, without any advertising.

Lee Hall, who carries exclusively Safari Pride blends at Passport Coffee, located in the downtown Minneapolis skyway system,. “It’s a good deal for us,” said Hall, explaining what makes Safari Pride so unique. “We get the first pick, the best coffee, While the American coffee market is characterized largely by darkly roasted coffee, we have lighter roasts. We try to put together the flavor of individual beans that’s more interesting. In the American market you’re mostly tasting the roasting process, not the bean itself.”

Occasionally, Hall helps distribute Safari Pride, because he also supports Ngwa’s business model, describing it as a kind of “relationship coffee.” Similar to “fair trade” coffee, Ngwa’s business is based on the principle that the farmers he works with get paid better than they would otherwise, above and beyond what is considered the “commodity” or “C” rate.

Fair trade marketing encompasses many products, including cocoa, tea, fruits and herbs, among others. Fair trade businesses have introduced new jobs, schools, health and dental clinics, and additional perks for those living in impoverished countries. As part of the deal, the European-based Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) pays close attention to international farming practices. Companies that live up to its standards for fairness and sustainability can become “fair trade” certified by paying a fee per pound of coffee to Transfair USA, which administers the label. Safari Pride isn’t currently registered with the organization, but it is based on the same premise and it has carried the certification in the past.

A relationship with coffee

Inside Ngwa’s factory, a giant Italian-made roaster stands near the door. Sacks of “green” coffee beans line the walls, along with shelves of smaller bags of coffee for sale. There’s no air-conditioning, just a small fan blowing on a window ledge near two desks.

Poised at the roaster, Ngwa sets the temperature for an oversized metal drum (as in a dryer), where the beans first get dumped, to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. He is getting ready to roast a mix of “green beans.” The ripe coffee beans/berries (also called cherries) appear in greenish colors. He scoops out a handful of cherries from burlap sacks that are labeled by country of origin, pointing to beans from Cameroon, which he said are bold tasting, with a medium body. “It’s good in the mouth,” he says. “They’re unique. The shuck is highly acidic.”

Beans from Sumatra, which he describes as “the dirtiest in the world,” are full-bodied. In contrast, beans from Kenya are spicy and light, with a lot of flavor, while Mexican Altura beans are medium-bodied with fruity overtones. Ngwa says that soil, wind, sunlight and rainfall influence the growth of a bean and, ultimately, its flavor.

The beans in a Tanzania Peaberry blend change colors from green to yellow to brown in a roasting period of about 15 minutes, Ngwa says, pointing to a little display window in the machine, where the transformation is apparent. As the beans absorb heat, they crack, making a popping sound like the crackling of popcorn in the microwave. There’s a pop in the beginning, when the beans are a light to medium color. If allowed to crack a second time, the beans have reached a dark roast. “You have to know how each bean works when blending the oils that come out as you heat them,” he explains.

Ngwa describes Guatemalan beans as “very hard,” which means they take longer to roast than a soft Ethiopian Harrar blend. In his opinion, Guatemala beans are “best when roasted to a medium level…when the first crack dies down, that’s when you take it out.”

The beans eventually flow into a metal tub, with a fan beneath to suck out the heat, so the beans don’t continue to roast. For French and Italian roasts, the beans are roasted longer. Unlike other French roasts, which typically feature a single bean that’s roasted into a dark blend, according to Ngwa, the Safari Pride version contains five varieties in different proportions, to bring out flavor.

Working for fair trade

Some local organizations and activists are pushing for more products that carry the “fair trade” label, or at least adhere to its practices. Peace Coffee, a venture started five years ago by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), now has more than 400 accounts locally, according to Andy Lambert, outreach coordinator at Peace Coffee. Peace Coffee is housed in the Minneapolis-based Green Institute. Peace Coffee is a founder of the 22-member Cooperative Coffees, a network of “fair trade” importers, roasters and distributors.

Many Peace Coffee deliveries arrive via bike messenger. The delivery biker may tote up to 400 pounds of coffee in a trailer during a 25-mile journey, Lambert explains. Bags of the coffee sell for $9.95 per pound, compared to other specialty and “fair trade” brands that range from $8-$12. He says that the principle of fair trade justifies a higher price.

Tomás Johnson founded St. Paul-based Cloudforest Initiatives, which collaborates with Mayan communities in Chiapas, Mexico to sell “fair trade” coffee and handcrafted gifts. He says the price gap is starting to close. Where there once was a clear distinction between the consumer’s price for “fair trade” and “C” market coffee, now the line is blurry. In general, coffee costs are higher. “Fair trade” operations are starting to stray away from the collaborative approach that defined its grassroots beginnings. “Fair trade is conflictive at this juncture,” Johnson says. “Our organization is important and influential. We’re trying to carve out a position, but it’s very contentious terrain right now.”

Starbucks is in the middle of the dispute, having become a major player in “fair trade” coffee markets. Six percent of its offerings are fair trade even though the label accounts for only three percent of the marketplace worldwide, according to Starbucks spokesperson Stacey Krum. Krum points to its Café Estima, a “multi-regional blend.” Last year, the company purchased 18 million pounds of certified “fair trade” coffee, double the amount it bought two years ago, making it North America’s most prominent purchaser, roaster and distributor of fair trade coffee.

Activists have pressured the company to carry more fair trade coffee. The fair trade label only applies to smallholder farmers belonging to cooperatives and associations, who produce about two percent of the world coffee supply. For this reason, Krum says, Starbucks buys beans from cooperatives, farms and supply networks of all sizes. The company claims it pays substantial premiums for this coffee, above and beyond the regular rates. “Because the amount of Fair Trade coffee we offer – or any other certified coffee, such as organic – is determined by customer demand, we don’t have any specific targets for future purchases,” she said.