by David Griswold

Commercial vs. Specialty
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.

Farm-Identified Coffees Ownership Structures
Estate Coffee
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.

Cooperative Coffee
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.

Harvesting Attributes
Organic Coffee
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
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.

Fair-Trade Coffee
Fair-trade 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 "C" price.)

     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.

The Value of Certification
The greatest 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.

David 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 Mexico.

What's Brewin' | Virtual Gallery | Feature Articles | Archives