Top | Sift

Java jitters

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Okay, everybody's up to speed on the coffee-labeling thing, right? Here's a quick refresher course, just in case.

1) Fair-trade certified. This label means coffee farmers were paid a minimum price for their product.

2) Bird-friendly, shade-grown, or canopy-grown. Coffee with this label was grown in the shade instead of on deforested land. Keeping the local trees as a canopy protects natural habitats (for, you know, birds and such) and typically produces a better-tasting coffee bean.

3) Rainforest Alliance. A blend of the previous two categories; both ecosystems and farmers were helped under the growing conditions for this label.

4) Utz Kapeh or Utz Certified. Same as category 3, except that while Rainforest Alliance oversees many product certifications, Utz Kapeh (the phrase means "good coffee" in a Mayan language) focuses solely on coffee.

Hang on, what about certified-organic coffee? Well, as Samuel Fromartz reported in Salon last month, organic coffee might be going the way of the percolator.

See, since coffee isn't grown in the U.S. (with the exception of Hawaii), it's tough for U.S. organic inspectors to certify the stuff. So a compromise has been in effect for several years in coffee-growing countries, wherein an organic inspector would inspect farms in rotation. In April, however, the National Organic Program (NOP) announced plans to tighten this regulation, declaring that organic coffee farms should be inspected annually. 

So will organic farmers overseas, like many organic farmers Stateside in recent years, simply throw up their cherry-picking hands and stop trying to figure out all the regulations and fees? Getting certified sounds like a great idea, but it's troublesome for already-harried farmers. 

And since most coffee growers can't afford industrial chemicals anyways, much of the coffee we purchase is, in effect, organic. 

By early May, after a petition campaign, the NOP had backed down on its annual-inspection plans. As Fromartz reported on his blog, Chews Wise, "for now there will be no immediate change in the way these farmers are certified." 

In the meantime, go local at the coffee shop: Ask your coffee vendors where they get their coffee and how it's produced. If they don't know, maybe it's time to get your caffeine elsewhere.