The Claim: “100% Arabica Beans”:
Coffee beans come in two main varieties: arabica and robusta. Of the two, arabica beans deliver the most complex flavors, but because they’re more difficult to grow—i.e. more expensive—commercial roasters such as Folgers often fill out their blends with cheap robusta beans. That makes for a cup with big body but low acid, which means it’s heavy in the mouth but not particularly interesting to the tongue. Small-scale craft roasters don’t generally bother putting this information on the bag, but that’s fine considering most of them wouldn’t dare to pollute their coffee with robustas. But when you’re shopping the commercial blends in the supermarket, you should seek this claim.
The Claim: “Fair Trade Certfied”:
Much of the world’s coffee is grown in impoverished countries where farmers struggle to feed their families. The intent with fair trade certification is to lift these people out of destitution by encouraging coffee-bagging companies to pay them honest, living wages, which are determined by a German-based group known as Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). FLO has 24 members operating worldwide, and in the U.S., the non-profit organization TransFair oversees the approval of FLO-sanctioned fair trade certification. That means that any bag of beans you buy, so long as it carries the iconic certification stamp, has been audited by TransFair to ensure it meets the same regulations as all fair trade certified products worldwide.
Now, here’s the fair-trade coffee controversy. Right now, to be eligible for fair trade certification, coffee importers must pay farmers no less than $1.35 per pound of conventional coffee and $1.51 per pound of organic. That would have been huge in 2001 when a worldwide oversupply of beans drove the average rate for a pound of coffee down to a paltry $.46. But with the demand for coffee now catching up with the supply, the average farmer today, fair trade or not, takes in a more reasonable $1.40 per pound, according to the International Coffee Organization. Some journalists have criticized FLO standards for being too low, and in some countries, farmers making fair trade wages still aren’t meeting the loosely enforced minimum wages set by their governments. So is it worth the extra cash? From an ethical standpoint, sure. The average coffee farmer today is doing far better than he or she used to, but there are still many less-fortunate farmers that could use the help. What’s more, most fair trade coffee is also organic, so the premium price you pay is also going to improve the environment and eliminate pesticides from your cup.
The Claim: “Organic”:
Organic coffee, so long as it bears the official logo of the USDA, falls under the same governmental regulation as organic produce, which tells you that the coffee has been grown, transported, and roasted without the use of herbicides or pesticides. Unfortunately, no major studies have looked at how this affects your health, but there’s no question about organic’s impact on the environment. Chemical-reliant farming methods have been linked to fish deaths along the coasts of coffee-growing communities, and pesticides in water raise the concern for long-term health problems for locals. For organic beans you’ll likely pay a premium—generally about 25 percent more. Some of that trickles down to the farmer, but a wave of Latin coffee growers, for example, have been abandoning organic beans because they can’t recoup the extra expenses. In short, buy organic because you don’t like pesticides, but not necessarily because the farmer will see more of that extra cash you shell out.
The Claim: “Shade Grown”:
A common practice in coffee farming is to clear off the native trees to make room for more coffee trees, destroying natural biodiversity and creating monocultures that rely on pesticides and fertilizers to produce beans. So in theory, “shade grown” is supposed to tell you that a diverse ecosystem still thrives on the farm. The problem is that there’s no organization governing the term, which leaves it open to abuse by any farmer whose farm has a few lonely trees scattered about. For environmentally meaningful certification, look for “Bird Friendly” and “Rainforest Alliance Certified” stamps.
The Claim: “Morning Blend”:
A blend is simply a mix of beans from at least two different regions, and a “morning blend” is whatever that particular roasters thought you might enjoy at the start of the day. In contrast with blends are the single-origin coffees, which are identified simply by their place of birth: Brazil, Columbia, Ethiopia, or whatever the case may be. Presumably the goal with blending is to create a better-tasting cup, but often that’s not the case. Some roasters blend to bury the mistakes of flawed beans, and many connoisseurs find the pure flavors of single-origin coffee more satisfying than blends. And get this: When Consumer Reports recently rated 37 popular blends from places such as Starbucks, Peets, Caribou, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, not one of them was considered good enough to earn the top scores of “excellent” or “very good.”
The Claim: “Rainforest Alliance Certified”:
Rainforest Alliance Certified must meet a strict set of requirements that promote sustainable resource management and the preservation of healthy ecosystems. That means farms must be partially covered by native trees, farmers must make living wages, and farming methods must have a minimal impact on the natural environment. The only designation more meaningful than Rainforest Alliance Certification is the Bird Friendly stamp. Typical coffee farms drive out birds by removing the trees, so Bird Friendly coffees, like Rainforest Alliance Certfied beans, require a canopy of trees to remain over the farm. But Bird Friendly also goes one step further by requireing the farm to be certified organic, whereas the Rainforest Alliance allows the use of some chemicals.***