Organic Coffee: A Guide to Buying Better BeansCLICK HERE to subscribe to our weekly emails on finding and brewing amazing coffee!
First off, conventional coffee is known to be among one of the most chemically treated foods in the world. And while that might not affect you as a consumer thanks to coffee’s protective fruit and the roasting process, it certainly does have an impact on farmers and the environment.
Farmers may be exposed to high level of chemicals while treating or handling crops if they are not provided with proper equipment to protect themselves. Additionally, runoff may affect surround communities as well. Thus, there has been a recent push to find ways to ensure that coffee is being produced in a way that people feel they can support.
One such push has come in the form of the rapidly growing organic coffee market. And that’s what we’re talking about today. We have everything from what “organic” really means to what brands with the label we actually think are worth buying.
In the case of coffee, producers cannot use synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. If coffee is labeled “organic,” at least 95 percent of the beans must have been grown under organic conditions. This also includes:
- Actively managing their land to restore, maintain, and enhance local biodiversity
- Working within the local environment without disrupting the balance of natural ecological systems
- Using methods to minimize pollution in the air, water, and soil
- Using traditional farming methods (eg. crop rotations) to manage weeds, pests, and soil health
For roasters, this involves putting the green “organic” beans in separate roasters to make sure they don’t come into contact with anything that a non-organic bean has even touched.
For you, that means using a grinder and brewing mechanism that has either been VERY thoroughly washed or has never encountered non-organic blends. Otherwise, the brew is technically non-organic by the time you drink it (Though this does not impact certification).
Before we jump into our recommendations for those of you wanting to buy organic, we need to have a very important discussion about pesticides.
Can certified organic products use pesticides?
Yes, and, in fact, the use of pesticides is pretty necessary for successful plant growth. However, these pesticides must be natural, rather than synthetic. Unfortunately, there is a widespread assumption that naturally-derived=safer for the environment, which is not necessarily the case.
How do pesticides on coffee plants affect you, the coffee consumer?
First, you should note that, unlike with other farm products, coffee fruit isn’t generally sold–just the beans. Those beans are protected by the thick skin of the fruit. That means the pesticides and agrochemicals that you would get from other non-organic produce are unlikely to ever get to the part you are actually consuming. Furthermore, coffee beans are roasted, often at temperatures around 400°F. So even if some of those chemicals did make it to the bean, they’d be purged during the roasting.
However, while you won’t be affected by the pesticides used, the employees of coffee farms and the surrounding communities ARE impacted. And that is what you should be concerned about.
ALL pesticides, every last one of them, are toxic. And while synthetic pesticides are often designed to target specific specifies to protect crops, natural pesticides cannot really be tailored. So while a synthetic pesticide may only be harmful for destructive insects, its natural alternative may cause more widespread harm to the environment. This is especially problematic when considering how runoff impacts water-based ecosystems.
What does it all mean?
So the take away here is that if you are going organic for environmental or humanitarian concerns, you’ll need to do more research than just checking for a label. There are plenty of non-organic and organic options that take steps to make sure their farming practices are safe for both the environment and their employees, you just have to do a little digging.
Best Organic Coffee
Now for the part that many of you came to this article for: the recommendations. These are brands and products that we have gone ahead and researched for you. So you can rest assured that their missions and practices are in the best interest of both the environment and their workers, in addition to the product being USDA Certified Organic.
Death Wish Coffee
Not only is Death Wish Coffee organic, but the company also has Fair Trade practices. It is of blended origin and includes both Arabica and Robusta beans for the sake of caffeination. Oh yeah, did we mention it is touted as the most caffeinated coffee in the world? Their mission statement also includes a commitment to sustainability, a conscious choice that they go into depth about here.
With Death Wish, not only do you get a surprisingly smooth cup with much less bitterness than its competitors, you also get a company that is clearly committed to ethical engagement in the coffee market.
Kicking Horse Coffee
Kicking Horse is a Canadian company committed not only to producing 100% organic products but also 100% Fair Trade Certified products. Being “awake” to the concerns of and their impact upon the world around them is #1 in their core values statement. Their website also includes a list of notable causes and programs that they actively support.
As for the coffee itself, we’re happy to recommend the two following medium roasts.
The Smart Ass blend includes 100% Arabica beans sourced from Africa, Central and South America. It has the characteristic sweet, bright flavors of a great medium roast. Additionally, it is described as having redcurrant notes with hints of sugar cane and milk chocolate, with a “honeyed berry” body.
We have also included the Three Sisters blend because, honestly, we couldn’t help ourselves. The beans are sourced from Indonesia, Central and South America, and they come together to create a beautifully complex, well-rounded brew. You’ll find notes of sweet tobacco, stone fruit and cocoa.
Camano Island Coffee Organic Sumatra
Camano Island Coffee Roasters is a brand that is openly committed to ethical, sustainable practices. Their entire about us page is dedicated to breaking down exactly how they do that. In addition to being a Fair Trade and Certified Organic company, they also partner with Argos and Food4Farmers nonprofit. A portion from all their sales is donated to those organizations.
As for the coffee itself, you won’t be disappointed. The organic Sumatra is an 100% Arabica, single origin dark to medium-dark roast. It makes a robust brew with dried fruit flavor complemented by slightly smoky notes and hints of caramel.
Tiny Footprint Organic Cold Brew Coffee
Tiny Footprint Coffee claims to be a “carbon negative” company because for every bag sold and shipped, they donate a portion of money to plant trees in Ecuador’s Mindo Cloud Forest. Not only are their reforestation efforts admirable, but they also have organic, fair-trade, and Rain Forest Alliance certified coffee. What’s more, they also make an effort to vet and purchase from other small, family-owned farmed that are not fair-trade eligible.
Now for the coffee. We picked this one because an organic cold brew blend is something that struck us as rather unique. It’s 100% Arabica and features a mix of light and dark roasts from Ethiopia. You’ll notice the coffee has floral, fruity, and cocoa notes.
Cameron’s Coffee Organic French Roast
Cameron’s coffee is dedicated social responsibility in their sustainable sourcing, humanitarian efforts, and environmental awareness. They use natural pest management and fertilization with a commitment to protecting biodiversity and land stewardship. Additionally, they roast in small batches to reduce water consumption.
The coffee itself is a dark roast perfect for a French press. It has a classic coffee vibe with a rich, smooth profile.
Marley Coffee Organic One Love Ethiopian YirgaCheffe
In addition to being certified organic, Marley Coffee is Fair Trade Certified. They also aid in deforestation and their single-use pods are completely recyclable. How’s that for sustainability! The coffee itself is medium bodied with fruity, aromatic and winey undertones.
If you’re looking for an ethically sourced Ethiopian YirgaCheffee coffee that is available in whole bean form, try Coffee Bean Direct’s Coffee Bean Direct Dark Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Organic Fair Trade Whole Bean Coffee, 5-Pound Bag Organic Fair Trade dark roast.
The Bean Coffee Organic Mocha Java
The Bean Coffee company is a family owned business that offers 100% organic coffee that is also CCOF certified. Their among their core values is a dedicated responsibility to their customers, employees, global partnerships, families, and the environment. They also use small batch roasting and 100% Arabica beans.
The medium roast has a rich, delicious complexity created by a blend of Arabian mocha with Indonesian java. It has a fuller body with a blended balance of acidity.
Ethical Bean Sweet Espresso
Our next Organic recommendation is so committed to their ethics that they put the word in their name. Ethical Bean’s four pillar outlook prioritizes serving the community, practicing Fair Trade, ensuring quality products, and recognizing their responsibility to their producers as well as the environment.
Their sweet espresso is rather unique as far as espresso goes. It’s a medium-dark roast with a full, velvety body. Their website even specifically mentions that it “marries beautifully with milk.” So if you’re looking for the perfect base for your cappuccinos and lattes, this might be it! However, if you’re looking to serve it as a straight shot, for what’s worth, it also has a nice crema.
Additionally, if you like the brand but not the brew, their homepage has some lovely animations to communicate the feel of each one they offer. It’s both convenient and aesthetically pleasing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the benefits of going organic?
100% USDA certified organic coffee supposedly contains more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that boost the immune system. However, these properties at some level are common to all coffee. So, while organic coffee doesn’t necessarily have any exclusive health benefits, coffee in general certainly does.
One of the main environmental benefits to organic coffee over conventional coffee is the reduction of deforestation. Organic coffee can thrive with more canopy cover than other conventional coffee, meaning forests, with their native wildlife and vegetation, can be conserved. Additionally, many certified organic companies donate to organizations that actively attempt reverse the affects of deforestation.
Another benefit of leaving these ecosystems largely in tact is that natural pest-deterrents/predators, including birds and lizards, remain undisturbed. This helps to reduce the need for large amounts of pesticides. Also, bird droppings, leaf litter, and natural decay serve as natural fertilizer to the coffee plants.
In the end, these factors help maintain the organic production system as it be comes sustainable and logistically feasible to use only natural product to promote growth. Additionally, growers are encouraged to be actively aware of their environmental impact.
Many farmers who are able to go through the trouble to become certified organic producers are also able to afford to be fair trade compliant. Furthermore, organic arabica beans are quality checked by three different certification programs: Quality Assurance, Fair Trade, and Smithsonian Institution.
Furthermore, some proponents claim that organic practices are better for maintaining long-term soil health. However, this does largely depend on what exactly farmers are or are not using for their plants.
What is the certification process like?
For the sake of simplicity, we will be talking about USDA certification. However, you should know that there are other organic certifications in different regions that have separate certification processes.
To be USDA certified a farmer must have been practicing complete organic-approved production for at least three years. That means no non-organic agrochemicals or pesticides for at least that period of time. Then, the rest of the supply chain must also be certified as having proper, organic-friendly practices. For roasters, that involves having specifically dedicated roasting equipment as to not “contaminate” the organic beans.
Unfortunately, for small batch roasters, it is difficult to have seperate equipment for that purpose. So many will opt to either only produce organic coffees or simply forgo the entire organic market altogether.
Does organic = sustainable?
The short answer is: no, not necessarily. While many companies that go through the effort to obtain the “organic” label do take conscious steps to also make other parts of their production sustainable, the certification has no requirements to promote or enforce these practices.
Therefore, there is no guarantee that a certified organic brand also has financially, socially, or entirely environmentally sustainable. In fact, often using organic fertilizer creates a larger carbon footprint than simply using safe practices with conventional fertilizer.
A Better Way to Vet Your Coffee
As you may have probably figured out, the organic label doesn’t exactly mean what everyone thinks it does. In some cases, it doesn’t even mean what companies advertise it as being. So how do you know if the beans you are buying were produced in an environmentally and ethically conscious manner?
What we’ve learned through years of engaging with the coffee industry is that the best way to get high quality coffee that you can feel good about sipping on is to just do your research. By coming here, you have a great start! But you don’t have to take our or anyone else’s word for it.
We’ve linked to each company’s website so that you can apply the information provided here to determine for yourself if their mission is one you’re comfortable with supporting. Even if you can’t find a list of exactly what pesticides they’re using, you can usually tell by how they present their company in other areas whether their practices are worth supporting.
As a general rule of thumb, sticking to small-batch roasters and micro-lots is a good bet. Also, looking for how closely they deal with farmers and even their choices on packaging materials can give you great hints on where they stand on these important issues.
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