noticed that sometimes the coffee tastes better than others. That's because there is a great variety in quality among brands and styles, and usually
even WITHIN brands and styles.
This article explores a few angles on how coffee is grown and processed that affect coffee quality. We focus on three characteristics:
- fair-trade, and
Organic, shade-grown coffee is the really good stuff, my friends, and if you've never had a cup of it, you don't know how good coffee can be!
And yes, we said "bird-friendly" above. Read on, my fine-feathered coffee fiends.
Shade Grown Coffee / Bird-Friendly Coffee
The coffee plant by nature loves shade and, thus, the best quality beans come from coffee plants that grow slowly under the rainforest canopy.
Unfortunately, as demand for coffee expanded, a new, higher-productivity approach was developed for coffee farming. The approach includes the
- Clear the native rainforest trees and undergrowth to make way for dense planting of coffee bushes.
- Get a sun-tolerant variety of coffee bush and plant it.
- Apply chemical fertilizers to keep up with the plants' faster growth and to make up for the loss of nutrients (because of soil erosion and because
nitrogen-fixing trees and plants have been removed).
- Apply chemical pesticides to control insect pests, which were previously controlled by higher numbers of birds (which are now greatly diminished
due to the less hospitable nature of the full-sun coffee farm).
This approach is a disaster on several fronts:
- Chemicals contaminate the land, water, and farm workers.
- Habitat for songbirds—and many other species, including howler monkeys, iguanas, ocelots, peccaries, pumas, and tree frogs—is greatly
- The loss of the larger trees leads to soil erosion from the typically steep terrain, which lessens the land's fecundity and pollutes local waterways.
- The increased productivity associated with mass conversion of shaded coffee operations to full-sun operations floods the market with coffee
beans, depressing prices and lowering quality.
In spite of all this bad news, there is a growing worldwide movement to support and enhance systems for producing shade-grown coffee, from
the farm to the bean buyers and processors, to the markets and coffee shops, and finally to your coffee cup. This helps birds and other
critters, addresses local environmental and farm-worker issues, and ensures you the best-tasting beans.
Like other organic crops, organic coffee beans are:
- grown without harsh chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides;
- processed without the use of harsh chemicals.
The agricultural techniques used to grow organic coffee need to work with the coffee plant's natural preferences and the advantages inherent in
a healthy farm ecosystem. Thus, the approaches for organic coffee and shade-grown/bird-friendly coffee are mutually supportive, and the two
characteristics are often found together in high-end retail coffee (which makes shopping a lot easier).
Because organic coffee plants feed nutrients more slowly and steadily to the beans, and because the native soil still retains its complex nutrient
base (as compared to the depleted soils on full-sun coffee farms), organic coffee beans have a rich, smooth flavor. Organic coffee growers
often get a higher price for their beans, partly because they're organic, but also because greater care is taken to remove the occasional bad bean
from the lot. All this results in a great, non-bitter cup of coffee.
When you buy organic coffee, you're also:
- supporting farmers who are committed to maintaining the long-term health of our environment,
- supporting family farms and strong communities, and
- helping preserve biodiversity.
Fair Trade Coffee
When you sometimes pay $4.00 or more in a coffee shop for a single cup of coffee, you'd probably think coffee farmers are making a killing. But
they aren't. Between the coffee grower and your pricey little cup o' joe are the middlemen—processors, roasters, exporters, creditors, commodity
brokers, retailers, and others—who add to the cost.
Coffee is traded as a commodity—just like oil, gold, or pork bellies—and is second only to oil in commodity value. Because of the production glut
brought about by sun-grown coffee, the price of coffee has been chronically depressed on the world market, making it difficult for farmers to make a
good living from year to year.
Fair trade organizations work directly with cooperatives of small farmers to eliminate much of the middleman costs and provide the growers with a
stable price that ensures a reasonable standard of living. For instance, in 2004 the UK Fairtrade market guaranteed participating coffee growers a
minimum of 126 cents per pound for arabica coffee beans, compared to a world market price of 52 cents per pound. Many fair trade organizations
also encourage their growers to employ sustainable farming practices (such as organic and shade-grown).
Where to Buy Organic Coffee, Fair-Trade Coffee, and Shade-Grown Coffee
Almost all natural foods stores carry organic coffee, fair-trade coffee, and shade-grown coffee—and usually coffee that has all three
characteristics. Some mainstream supermarkets are beginning to carry such products as well.
Here are tools to help you find "good coffee" at stores near you:
You can also shop online. Here are two of our favorite brands that every morning help us communicate the following data to our brains:
And finally, please share this article with a coffee-loving fiend. Er... friend.
ENN would like to thank Grinning Planet for their permission
to reprint this article.