Terms like "Fair Trade Certified" and "Shade Grown" have started showing up on bags of your favorite coffee beans. But what does it all mean? In short, the importance of each of those claims depends on what's important to your green coffee routine. We'll break it down and decode those labels so you know exactly what to look for on your quest for the perfect cup.
This one seems simple enough; if you're used to shopping for organic produce, you know that anything with the USDA-certified organic label on it means it was grown, shipped and processed without the use of pesticides or herbicides. There are no major studies about whether organic coffee is better for your health, but there is plenty of evidence that it is better for the environment and for the workers. Lots of chemicals used to treat coffee plants have been shown to be harmful to humans, birds, fish and other wildlife in and around coffee plantations. Organic beans cost more to buy, but those extra bucks are not necessariy trickling down to the farmers.
Bottom line: Choose organic beans if you are concerned about pesticides in the environment.
Fair Trade Certified
Anything marked with the Fair Trade certification logo has been checked out by the World Fair Trade Organization. This international organization makes sure that the companies selling the coffee are paying the farmers a living wage. However, because of the volitile nature of coffee prices (supply and demand, you know), the wage set by the WFTO is not much higher than today's market price, and some people believe the organization's standards are too low.
Bottom line: Today, the average coffee farmer is much better off than he used to be, but those extra pennies are still going to benefit the people who need them. As a bonus, most fair trade coffee is also organic.
There are two main varieties of coffee beans: arabica and robusta. The arabica beans deliver the most complex flavors, but they are also more complex—and therefore more expensive—to grow. Some bargain brands of coffee, like Folgers, use robusta beans to make up the bulk of their blends.
Bottom line: Most small-scale and specialty coffee roasters don't bother to put 100% Arabica on their bags, but if you're shopping the big commercial brands, look for this label to ensure a better tasting cup.
It's common practice for coffee farmers to clear native rainforest to make room for their coffee plants, so in theory, shade grown coffee is supposed to grow on a farm where the diverse natural rainforest ecosystem still thrives. Unfortunately, there's no governing body for this claim, so you just have to take the grower's word for it—and his idea of "shade" could be just a couple of trees.
Bottom line: This isn't a reliable label, so it's better to look for Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird Friendly (see below).
Rainforest Alliance Certified and Bird Friendly
The Rainforest Alliance requires that growers meet a strict set of guidelines, including requiring farms partially covered by native trees, living wages for farmers and sustainable resource management. Bird Friendly certification goes one step further, requiring that the coffee be organic, where as Rainforest Certified allows the use of some chemicals.
Bottom line: For the most comprehensive green rating in one little logo, look for the Bird Friendly or Rainforest Alliance Certified stamps of approval.