Standing in front of the coffee section facing shelf after shelf of the magical bean that jump-starts your day, it’s not always easy to decipher the various labels. Recently, we fielded a question about one label—shade-grown coffee vs. sun-grown coffee.
Do you know the difference? Maybe you have an idea but aren’t confident enough to answer. That’s fine! We’re here today to break things down and decipher the mystery of shade-grown coffee vs. sun-grown coffee beans.
The Basics of Growing Coffee Beans
To understand the difference between shade-grown and sun-grown coffee beans, let’s take a brief look at the various bean types and methods of coffee cultivation.
Types of Coffee Beans
Did you know that there are different kinds of coffee? Most of the world’s coffee falls into two categories, Arabica or Robusta. As the name suggests, the Robusta type of coffee beans handles more extreme conditions, while Arabica beans require more effort to sustain proper conditions.
Arabica and Robusta coffee beans account for the majority of coffee consumption around the world, and most blends come from one or the other. Some companies even use Robusta beans as fillers for Arabica blends. However, lucky coffee consumers may have the chance to experience two rare, and delicious, alternatives:
- Liberica: grown in West Africa and Malaysia, yields such minute quantities that it accounts for around 1% of the coffee market.
- Excelsa: once viewed as a subvariety of Liberica, comes from Southeast Asia and remains equally rare.
Where Coffee Beans Grow
Have you ever heard of the Bean Belt? It’s true; there’s a name for the large swath of the world capable of the cultivation of coffee. Also known as the Coffee Belt, the region covers a range of tropical and subtropical land near the equator that remains warm year-round, meaning the plants avoid frosts, pests, and diseases.
Optimal Conditions for Growing Coffee Beans
Would it surprise you to learn that coffee plants don’t require full sun to thrive and produce? In fact, too much direct sunlight can hurt coffee quality. So while coffee plants thrive in the tropics, they also need rich soil and limited exposure to diseases and pests.
The optimal temperature range for most coffee plants ranges from 64° up to 70°F. Unfortunately, Earth’s changing climate threatens that ideal temperature range, leading farmers to pursue new farmland to grow coffee.
Thankfully, there is an answer to the climate issue. Since coffee plants naturally grow in shady settings, especially under cover of larger trees, coffee producers can use that to their advantage by creating a coffee forest. Planting coffee under the shade of large tropical trees can diversify the region, reduce the number of trees torn down, increase biodiversity for animals, and provide habitat for many bird species.
Is It Possible to Grow Coffee Beans at Home?
We get it; some coffee lovers would like nothing more than to grow their own beans to create custom roasts in their own homes. It may be possible if you have the time and patience to devote to these attractive little plants.
If you like Arabica coffee beans, you’re in luck! You can be a coffee farmer and grow coffee plants inside as a potted plant wherever you live. Of course, it takes a few years, proper indirect sunlight, rich soil, humid conditions, and some loving care to produce beans, but it could be well worth the wait.
What is Sun-Grown Coffee?
Knowing that most coffee naturally grows under a canopy of shade, it may make you wonder why it’s grown in the sun at all. The answer revolves around coffee production methods and the chance to make more money with less effort by growing more coffee per hectare.
Sun-grown coffee usually refers to Robusta beans, though some Arabica hybrids also fall under this category. The smaller, rounder beans deliver a strong, bitter cup of coffee. Roasters usually get earthier, natural flavor with Robusta and hybrid beans because they have fewer oils.
Sun-grown coffee beans gained popularity because farmers could grow them on plantations, meaning substantially larger coffee crops. Additionally, the sun-grown coffee plants held off pests and disease better, required minimal care, and handled extreme weather conditions better.
The Trouble with Sun-Grown Coffee
When farmers realized it took far less work to grow coffee on large, sunny plantations at varying altitudes, they switched gears. Razing acres upon acres of trees to make way for coffee plants led to vast profits and a chance to meet the global call for coffee beans.
- Farmers could grow the plants closer together to fit more on each acre, increasing coffee profits.
- Sun-grown coffee yields more fruit per plant, meaning more beans in one crop.
- Farming sun-grown coffee in the open is faster and easier but plays havoc with soil quality.
Unfortunately, sun-grown coffee contributed to massive deforestation as farmers worked to keep up with the demand for coffee. Beyond the loss of trees, sun-grown coffee plantations created significant ecological fallout for coffee-growing regions because of excess fertilizers leaching into the water table.
The Alternative: Shade-Grown Coffee
Shade-grown coffee farming is a more challenging experience, but they remain the most popular choice for coffee drinkers worldwide. People who love their morning cup of joe usually pay more for the shade-grown beans because of their smooth, soft taste. However, the taste isn’t the only reason to seek out shade-grown coffee beans.
Perhaps the most important reason to choose shade-grown coffee is its superior flavor. Even a coffee novice can probably spot the difference between a smooth Arabica blend and a stronger, more bitter Robusta blend. Even the rarest coffee bean varieties, Liberica and Excelsa, grow under shade and arguably deliver the best-tasting coffee you can find.
Shade-Grown is Better for the Environment
As noted above, the sun cultivation method has contributed to deforestation in areas where farmers claimed more land for plantations. Since trees pull carbon from the environment, they remain critical to the Earth’s well-being. Removing those trees doesn’t just reduce the number of trees pulling carbon from the air; the impact can be felt throughout each region’s ecological system.
When farmers removed trees to make way for the sun-grown coffee farms, they removed important vegetation that drove away necessary wildlife. Birds were forced from their natural habitats and no longer controlled the pest population. Bees and other pollinators lost diverse resources because of the chemical pesticides necessary to drive off pests, impacting the entire ecological system.
Aside from tearing down acres of forest, sun-grown coffee plantations draw more nitrates from local watersheds than shade-grown plantations. Moreover, since sun-grown plants draw so much nitrogen from the water and soil, they greatly impact the other local vegetation.
Even worse, with sun-grown coffee, there’s no way to replenish the soil naturally. That forces farmers to use commercial fertilizers and enhancements on the soil.
Shade-grown coffee trees receive protection and nutrition from the shade trees above in the form of organic fertilizer. Shade-grown coffee plantations create a canopy of trees that prevent soil erosion and encourage a diversity of plant and animal life and other environmental benefits. In addition, the dead leaves create natural mulch and weed control, keeping the local environment clean of chemical pesticides. Conversely, sun-grown coffee production requires artificial and chemical agents to fertilize and control weeds.
Longer Life Spans
Sun-grown coffee plants may bear more fruit in one cycle, but they wear out faster. As a result, farmers must replace sun-grown plants every ten to fifteen years, but shade-grown coffee plants can last more than twice as long.
Shade-Grown Coffee vs. Sun-Grown: Why It Matters
Shade-grown coffee beans may cost a little more, and the plants may require extra care, but the result is an environmentally friendly and stunningly delicious morning cup. Choosing a shade-grown coffee isn’t just improving your favorite drink; it’s a great way to encourage earth-minded farmers to foster eco-friendly farms, which in turn help maintain a balanced ecosystem.
And as always,