Why does it matter? Specialty / Single Origin / Organic / Fair Trade / Bird friendly / Rain Forest Alliance / Shade
Why does it matter? Isn’t all coffee the same?
You may already know that all coffees are not equal. It is complicated. The coffee industry is striving to overcome a legacy of human rights and environmental abuse which began in the 1600’s. Unfortunately, disreputable industry practices continue today. Here are some key points:
On many commercial grade coffee plantations there is a lack of transparency- no tracing of green bean origin, nor accountability on ethical treatment of the farmers. Illegal and unjust employment, such as indenturing workers, slavery and child labor are still in practice. A cycle of indebtedness between workers and plantation owners has gone on for generations.
Use of chemicals and pesticides (which are banned in the US and EU) to increase yields is common. Tropical rain forests have been replaced by large, sun-drenched coffee plantations, reducing biodiversity and polluting the environment.
Commercial plantations employ large machines to harvest all cherries at once, ripe or unripe. Though cost-effective, this type of harvest seriously impacts the quality of the beans. Most of the coffee sold in the world today are beans such as these, of the lowest quality and price.
What is ‘specialty coffee’ anyway?
The term ‘specialty’ coffee at its inception in the 1970’s, meant coffee grown specifically for quality and flavor on mostly small family or cooperative-owned farms. Today, the 'specialty' emphasis is still on quality, not quantity, thus, farmers harvesting only ripe cherries by hand for several days, end up with a more flavorful but more expensive product. This is why ethical coffee buyers, who are trained in bean quality appraisal, and dedicated to environmentally sound farming practices are important in order for positive change to occur in today's coffee industry. A cooperative relationship between the farmer and the buyer builds trust and provides an infrastructure for access to such things as technical training, education, medical supplies, housing, food, and equitable job opportunities for women.
To determine bean quality, these green bean grader/buyers visit the farm or cooperative for a ‘cupping’ or tasting. All coffee can be graded up to a score of 100, but for coffee to be ‘specialty’ it must have few defects and ‘cup’ at 80+. During this visit, the grader/buyer communicates with the coffee producer about quality improvement strategies, ecological concerns, and farm community needs.
Next, the roaster is tasked with bringing out the best flavor profiles of beans which are constantly changing from one season to the next, from crop to crop, and region to region, in moisture content and taste. Distinctive small-batch roasting requires numerous hours of practice, knowledge and testing to achieve a superlative, consistent and delicious outcome.
Throughout the specialty coffee supply chain, from the farmers, to buyers, to roasters, and baristas there is a commitment to the highest SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) standards of quality. This begins with non-GMO seeds, best farming practices, careful harvesting, processing and storage, attentive roasting and skilled brewing protocols. Finally, you, the home coffee brewer/consumer can choose to buy beans from roasters who support industry transparency, an assurance that farmers are planting to protect forest habitat for birds and other wildlife, and working conditions that are humane and improving.
What does single origin mean?
A single origin coffee is traceable to a specific region or producer in a country. Other coffees labels such as ‘single estate’, ‘single farm’, or ‘microlot’ can further indicate the cooperative, individual farm or even a section of the farm where a varietal was grown. Tracing coffee back to its source is a window into the lives of farmers whose beans we put in our grinders each morning. Ultimately, we at Gale Force believe learning to recognize the diverse flavors of single origins matters because it deepens our appreciation and understanding of coffee and the people who grow it.
Fair Trade, Fairly-traded, or Direct Trade?
An International Fair Trade organization was originally set up in the 1990's for a variety of products with the intent of certifying a “fair” or economically justifiable price, with sustainable environmental standards, and restrictions on child labor. The organization advocated respect and transparency, trained farmers in business practices, assisted with organic certification, and managed warehouse and processing plant construction, among many other things.
The mother organization has since splintered into satellite factions each with differing opinions on how to best achieve sustainable development and alleviate poverty. However, in spite of the 'fairtrade' squabbles, the original model, without a doubt, has benefited the lives of farmers/producers worldwide through certifications for fair labor conditions, environmental protection, and respect for human rights. Fair Trade branding has also raised consumer awareness worldwide on working conditions and abuse that farm families experience.
At present, ethical green coffee buyers support the Fair Trade certification but buy only from farms or coops that make sure that farmers are personally benefiting from the certification. This is in response to criticism that corporate-style cooperatives with the certification invest capital into large projects which doesn't always trickle down to growers.
Another type of green bean buyer may 'Direct Trade', that is, buy directly from farmers, or purchase 'Fairly-traded' beans. Neither of these types of farms hold the Fair Trade certification, but uphold the same standards for fair working conditions. In either case, buyers develop a personal relationship with small-holding farmers who may not be able to afford 'Fair Trade' certification but still comply with farming practices that are fair, healthy and environmentally sustainable. As we said, it is complicated!
As one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world at over 12 billion pounds annually, coffee is in demand. In order to maximize production, conventional coffee has the ignominious honor of being one of the most chemically treated foods in the world. A cocktail of herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and fungicides, many of which have been banned in the US and Europe, are still in use in many of the coffee growing countries, exposure to which creates serious health concerns for farmers and their families, wildlife and the environment. Organic coffee is grown with organic fertilizers such as coffee pulp, chicken manure and compost, plus, it naturally thrives in the leaf litter, bird droppings and the organic decay that exists in the shade of a bio-diverse tropical rain forest canopy.
Organic certification includes training for farmers in best practices for the environment. It is important to note that many small holdings may already be organically farmed by default since farmers cannot afford to purchase the fertilizers, pesticides or pay for certification. However, certified or not, buyers must have a trusted relationship with the growers, and have common goals to uphold sustainable farming methods. This is yet another reason to support education in farming practices which help farmers understand why growing organically is good for the environment and people, and it is especially important to pay fair prices to farmers who are making the effort to grow sustainably and improve their livelihoods.
Why Bird-friendly, Rain Forest Alliance, or Shade grown?
Bird-friendly was a certification created by the Smithsonian Bird Migratory Center with strict guidelines for conserving habitat for birds and other forest creatures. This certification also includes organic certification. Standards require 40% shade coverage and make further recommendations for diversity and tree size to enhance habitat for forest-dwelling animals. Labor conditions are not a stipulation of this certification, but with the organic certification, come benefits to farmers. The downside, as with FairTrade, Rain Forest and Organic, is the cost to farmers and the time involved in obtaining these 3rd party certifications.
Rain Forest Alliance is a non-profit with a mission to conserve biodiversity by promoting sustainable agriculture and improved working conditions for farmers. In 2018, it merged with UTZ, the largest certifying agency for coffee sustainability in the world. Standards for coffee farms include guidelines for canopy coverage (40%, in 2 layers minimum, with at least 12 species of native trees/hectare of cultivation), restrictions on altering waterways or trafficking wild animals, forbiddance of hiring children under 15 or preventing them from attending school, securing fair wages for farmers as well as other safety measures. This certification does allow pesticides under certain conditions, so this certification alone does not insure that the coffee is organic.
'Shade' coffee does not have a certification, per se, and therefore there is no guarantee that the coffee was produced under shade-grown conditions, unless the buyer has visited the farm and inspected the habitat personally.
Visit Coffee Habitat for more info on these fraught issues: http://www.coffeehabitat.org/
What can you do?
Complicated, right? The coffee industry can change with enough demand from people who want to feel good about the coffee they drink. So, be a conscientious consumer and think about paying a little more for quality, roast, origin and environmentally sustainable and ethical farming practices the next time you buy a bag of coffee. Vote with your mug!