November 2004 / Links updated 2012 THE PERFECT CUP
Back in the days before Starbucks, when instant coffee was considered a perfectly acceptable drink and most brewed coffee came from a can, I had my first taste of fresh-ground premium coffee at the Clayton Coffee House in St. Louis. This charming shop-cum-café encouraged customers to sample beans straight from the burlap bag. Mmm, they were good, and the brews, even better. The experience turned me from a coffee addict to a coffee fanatic, ever in search of the perfect cup.
These days, I have something new to search for -- the perfectly produced cup of coffee. I'm speaking from an environmental perspective, of course.
Production is now an issue because of changes in the way coffee is grown in Latin America, where most of the world's supply originates. Until the 70s, it was cultivated in the traditional manner -- on shade plantations under a canopy of trees. But when coffee leaf rust appeared in Brazil, many farmers shifted from shade coffees to new sun hybrids that didn't need cover (and would therefore be less susceptible to the fungus). As it happens, the leaf rust never did the expected damage, even on shade plantations, but that didn't stop the juggernaut of change. Forty percent of shade plantation acreage has been converted to sun -- or "technified" -- farms, turning land that once resembled forest to something approaching biological wasteland.
The ecosystems on shade plantations can be quite complex. Their overstories contain as many as 40 species of trees, which farmers harvest for wood and fruit. Besides protecting the coffee bushes underneath from sun and rain, they help to fertilize the soil, maintain soil quality, prevent erosion and control pests and weeds. Above all, they provide precious habitat for birds and other species -- sometimes the only habitat available.
In contrast, technified farms are monocultures (areas where only one species is planted) that rely on chemicals for fertilizer and protection from pests. Their yield is higher, but their coffee plants need to be replaced more often. And they provide very poor habitat. Ninety percent fewer species of birds live on technified farms than shade plantations.
This difference actually hits closer to home than you might think. More than half of the birds in North America winter in the tropics. The forest-dwellers among them often end up in shade plantations. If the plantations disappeared, along with the ever-dwindling rainforest, where would these species go?
That concern has led the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to create a certification program for "bird-friendly coffee" -- i.e., shade-grown, organic coffee that provides good habitat for birds. Go to their website and enter your zip code to find out where to get it. I managed to find a seller in walking distance that way, but then I live in Manhattan. If there are no retailers near you, order by phone or online and have it shipped to you.
Note that shade-grown coffee isn't always organic, nor organic coffee always shade-grown, though the two tend to go hand-in-hand. Further, shade-grown, organic coffee isn't always certified because some small growers don't find the cost of certification worthwhile. And those that are, may be certified by a different organization -- the Rainforest Alliance, for instance. It's confusing, all right, but a mistake to let that get in your way. The point is just to do your best in identifying sustainably-grown shade coffee and to buy it when you find it to help build demand.
If you also care about human rights, as I do, look for one thing more -- the Fair Trade logo. This guarantees that the grower was paid a minimum of $1.26 a pound. I know that doesn't sound like much, but it's more than twice as much as many small growers have made since a glut on the market sent prices plummeting some years ago. If you already buy specialty coffee, the additional cost won't be much.
Fair Trade coffee is often shade-grown and organic, but not necessarily. For the perfectly produced cup of coffee, you'll need to look for a label that promises all three.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Coffee cherries (top). It takes around 2,000 cherries, containing two beans each, to produce one pound of coffee. The entire tree, depending on the species, will yield one to three pounds.
Coffee plantations (bottom). The shade plantation at left provides good foraging ground for birds and other animals, while the technified farm at right does not.
Making inroads. In the last few years, many local cafes and shops have begun carrying shade, organic and Fair Trade coffees, as have several chains. These include Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Safeway, Trader Joe's and Borders Books. Some have shifted a significant amount of their coffee business over to sustainable coffees out of real commitment; others have done the bare minimum to avoid negative press. But motives are one thing and availability another. These places actually offer the stuff. So go, buy it, and encourage them to offer more.
Bad Advice. You may have heard that the best place to store coffee is the refrigerator or freezer. Wrong! The moisture in these environments can cause it to deteriorate. Put your coffee in a cool, dry cabinet instead -- away from the stove, sun and any source of heat. Divide it among several air-tight containers, so the full amount isn't exposed to air every time you make a pot. Most important, buy only as much as you'll drink in the next week or two. If you absolutely must buy more, then do store the extra in the freezer, but once you start to use it, move it to the cabinet.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.