decoding coffee…
what’s in your cup?


We Americans like our coffee, in fact, per capita, we drink more coffee than we do milk. It doesn’t matter if you like yours straight up, half-caff, extra foam or with a twist of lemon, coffee is a popular drink and many of us not only purchase on the go (hopefully in a reusable travel mug) but we also brew our own at home. And there the fun really starts.

Shopping for coffee beans has gotten almost as complicated as purchasing wine; there are even coffee cupping parties. Beyond your personal taste for flavor and roast, how do you choose the right beans? It’s not all just about light roast vs. city roast and single-varietal beans. Coffee labels have changed along with the rising popularity of artisanal coffees as well. Terms like “organic,” “fair trade” and “shade grown” nestle alongside claims of “Rain Forest Certified” and “Bird Friendly.”What do they mean and how can you ensure you’re buying the best beans for your buck? Read on!

USDA_Organic_LabelCertified Organic

In order for a farm to carry a USDA Certified Organic label, it must meet a specific set of requirements similar to organic produce. Organic coffee is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, assuring the health of the soil, forest and farmers. The certification also requires certain levels of soil and water conservation and must be managed organically for three years prior to receiving certification.

Direct Trade Certified

Direct Trade refers to the specific relationship between a coffee grower and a coffee roaster or buyer and includes price negotiation, growing practices, transparency and communication. This certification lacks any official accreditation and several roasters have developed their own set of standards. It is, however, still generally considered to be a sign of quality.

Fair Trade LogoFair Trade Certified

Fair trade coffee gives farmers a better standard of living and producer cooperatives are guaranteed a minimum fair price for their crop. Coffees with this certification must meet requirements set forth by Fair Trade USA. The certification is designed to enable small farms to stimulate local economies, offer better prices, pay an actual living wage and improved working conditions. 


Rainforest Alliance Certifiedrainforest-alliance-certified-logo

Coffee bearing the Rainforest Alliance label meets a series of standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network that relate to land, wildlife and water conservation. Farmers also provide proof of acceptable working conditions, community relations and interaction as well as pollution control.

Shade Grown

Shade grown coffees are considered environmentally friendly for a variety of reasons. Coffee farmed in open fields requires more water and damages more wildlife. Shade producing plants that grow near coffee replenish nitrogen levels in the soil, promote biodiversity and provide habitats for birds and other wildlife in the farm area. The added protection from direct sunlight also reduces water consumption and prolongs the coffee cherry’s maturation time, increasing quality and flavor in the cup. (also: Bird Friendly)

SmallerBirdFriendlyLogoBird Friendly

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center offers this certification to organic coffee farms that meet criteria as being a protective environment for migratory birds. This includes, but is not limited to pollution control, water management and shady growing areas. (also: Shade Grown)

If that seems like a lot to remember, it is. Want to simplify things? If you opt for coffee that is certified organic, fair trade and bird friendly, you are covering all possible bases. Is it likely you will find coffee beans bearing all three certifications? Not without paying a very high price per pound.

Shop smart, use the internet to do some comparisons and pick and choose the beans that offer the best value for the smallest ecological footprint. Like many commodities, coffee is an ever-changing marketplace. Different brewing companies and distributors will have their own terms for their beans. Look for the actual certifications and don’t be afraid to ask questions if the certifications aren’t there. As the industry changes, other certifications and labeling will come up as well.

Whew! It’s time for a cuppa coffee!

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