Understanding coffee labels such as organic, free-trade, shade grown and single origin.

Understanding coffee labels such as organic, free-trade, shade grown and single origin.

For lovers of great coffee, it may be the best of times-with an unprecedented availability of good and even great brews and beans everywhere, from local roasteries to espresso bars and even upwardly mobile gas stations.

Sadly, it is also the worst of times for traditional coffee farmers throughout the Tropics, who must compete with a glut of cheap, low-quality beans from new, industrial-scale plantations in Vietnam and Brazil.

Conscientious consumers, and anyone seeking classic, full-flavored coffee, will want to look for these labels:


Small-farm coffees that meet strict standards guaranteeing farmers a viable price for their crops ($1.26 per pound vs. an average starvation-level 82¢ for green Arabica beans).


Coffees certified as Organic are grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and kept contaminant-free from farm to grocery shelf. Fair Trade growers receive an extra 15¢ per pound premium for certified-organic beans.


Most of the best, heirloom coffees are cultivated in the understory, or shade, of larger trees, where wildlife diversity is high. Also labeled as "bird-friendly," these eco-superior coffees are promoted by Smithsonian, Audubon, the Rainforest Alliance and others.


Also known to connoisseurs as "specialty coffees," these beans (e.g., Sumatra Mandheling, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Hawaiian Kona) often have wonderfully distinctive flavor characteristics. If not yet certified as "Fair Trade," many nonetheless are sustainably produced without chemicals by farmers who are rewarded for producing superior beans.

Fall 2004