by David Griswold
Commercial coffees are distinct from specialty coffees. They are the
generic, roasted and ground coffees offered primarily by the three
major coffee companies (Phillip Morris/Kraft, Proctor & Gamble
and Nestlé). Commercial coffees usually blend beans of both
arabica and robusta types. Even if the beans come from only one producing
country, the sources or growing attributes of the blended coffees
are difficult to trace or identify.
The bulk of coffee sold as specialty coffee is known as conventional
coffee. A conventional coffee is not "farm-identified."
The designation may describe bean size (e.g. Mexican Altura), but
conventional coffees are always processed and purchased in bulk. Suppliers
of these coffees, such as processors who mill or export coffee, are
hard-pressed to provide specific growing information on the harvesting
or labor conditions. Price is the primary variable, although these
coffees are priced at a premium compared to commercial coffees.
Farm-identified coffees include single-estate and organic and
socially responsible coffees. These come from a specific farm. Elements
of the harvest are usually identifiable - for example, the type of
arabica cultivar, the shade coverage over the coffee plants, or the
farm's ownership structure.
Organic and socially responsible coffees can only come from
"farm-identified" sources, because certification provides
the only proven means to verify the market claims.
Estate coffees are harvested from a single farm or common soils. The
coffee carries the name of the farm or grower. Estate coffees usually
exhibit far better quality control and more consistent taste profiles
from crop to crop than most conventional, bulk sources.
A well-organized village grower cooperative can have many of the same
attributes as an estate farm. If the coffee is centrally milled, administrative
systems are good, and quality control systems are in place, a cupper
can identify the coffee as coming from a single group of villagers.
For that reason, many cooperatives provide organic, shade-grown or
fair-trade coffees. Examples of village cooperatives are the Aztec
Harvest cooperatives based in Mexico.
Organic coffee is a coffee production practice. Organic coffee is
grown on farms that don't use chemical inputs. To market a coffee
as certified organic, a farm must be inspected to receive certification.
At each step in the processing chain, inspectors track the coffee
beans as they move from source to cup. To protect the integrity of
the process, the coffee must be sold through certified importers and
roasters. This certification process helps protect consumers as well,
guaranteeing the products they buy are genuine. Many states regulate
organic products. The USDA is soon expected to regulate organic coffee
under the 1990 Organic Food Production Act.
Shade-Grown coffee describes a coffee production practice. Shade coffee
is grown under native trees and therefore helps protect natural habitats
and tropical forests in coffee-producing countries. In shade-grown
coffee production, canopies of trees consisting of many species grow
over the coffee. The trees provide a habitat for other flora and fauna.
Companies that use shade coffee as a marketing claim are making a
strong environmental statement to consumers that obviates the need
for traceable farm-identified sources to ensure marketing integrity.
coffees refer to the economic system under which coffee is purchased.
Roasters must purchase fair-trade coffees from farmer cooperatives,
and they must follow established minimum prices. (Conventional coffee,
in contrast, is subject to the whims of the New York Coffee Exchange
Fair-trade principles stipulate that farmers are guaranteed
a minimum base price when the world coffee "C" market price
dips below the cost of production. By buying directly from the worker-owned
co-ops, proponents say the money goes directly to those who grow and
pick the beans, not the middlemen.
Certification bodies in the U.S. and Europe regulate supplier
cooperatives listed on an international register and inspect them
annually. Opponents of the concept as it has been established by U.S.
certifiers protest that only coffee from farmer cooperatives may be
designated as fair trade. Estate coffees are not eligible to participate.
Value of Certification
threat facing sustainable organic and shade-grown coffee is the possibility
that uncertified product will clutter the market and confuse or willingly
mislead consumers. One problem is that many roasters and retailers
label their products without obtaining certification themselves. Sadly,
whenever people pay premium prices for a particular point of differentiation,
free riders will always have an incentive to commit fraud.
Independent certification appears to be the best solution.
Certification builds consumer confidence and creates a chain of custody.
Furthermore, it helps maintain a price premium for farmers, importers
and roasters who abide by the rules.
Griswold is president of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Co., a company
he founded in 1995 to provide small grower groups with greater economic
incentive to harvest certified organic and shade-grown coffees. Prior
to Sustainable Harvest, Griswold co-founded Aztec Harvest, a cooperative
marketing and importing company for small farmer co-ops in southern