Best Organic Coffee
Coffee is one of the most popular and widely consumed beverages on the planet, in a market worth $48 billion in US retail dollars alone, to say nothing of private coffee consumption outside of retail environments. It's one of the top 10 most traded agricultural products, and has been for decades.
Believe it or not, in the 1970s, coffee consumption in America was on the decline. Most people drank coffee from cans purchased at the supermarket, and the roasts were light and bland. In 1962, 74% of American adults regularly drank coffee. By 1988, that number was only 50%. By 1991, coffee consumption had dropped from an average of 3.12 cups per day to just 1.75.
Everything changed when Maxwell House coffee changed their marketing strategy to present coffee as special, personal, and valuable. The idea that coffee could come in different flavors appealed to a wider array of consumers, and suddenly specialty coffee, small brands, hand crafting, and higher prices became the order of the day.
This increase in demand and prices had a tremendous impact on the countries, regions, and farmers who produce the world's coffee. Virtually overnight, a small crop became big business.
Where Does Coffee Come From?
Coffee grows best below the equator, in a defined latitude range between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in a swath called “the coffee belt.” More than 70 countries in this belt export coffee. Is a flowering shrub that can reach up to 15 feet tall, that grows best at higher altitudes, in the shade of taller trees.
The two most widely produced coffee plants are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica tends to be smoother and have a better flavor, and is lighter and has less caffeine. Robusta tends to be more bitter and less flavorful, but has more caffeine and a fuller body.
Importantly, Robusta is also more disease resistant and can be grown at lower altitudes and warmer climates than Arabica. Arabica beans are mostly cultivated in Latin America, eastern Africa, and Asia. Robusta beans are generally cultivated in central Africa, southeast Asia, and Brazil.
As coffee consumption increased, and the value of coffee beans as an agricultural export grew, many farmers moved coffee off of hard-to-reach forested hillsides and grew it at lower elevations, in dedicated coffee fields, for ease of cultivation and harvesting. This transition from coffee as a plant grown in forested mountains to a plant grown on plantations has had an array of far-reaching effects.
Environmental Impact Of Modern Coffee Production
This transition to “sun-grown” coffee in the late 1970s had a range of far-reaching effects.
Coffee grown in the sun in fertilized fields produces more seeds (coffee beans) more quickly than coffee grown in the shade, but coffee grown in the shade produces a higher quality coffee with a better flavor. Growing coffee in the sun not only requires the use of fertilizers, but has led to wide-scale deforestation and habitat loss for wildlife species. Coffee grown in its traditional forested setting creates valuable habitat for many bird species.
A coffee crop also requires a great deal of water, particularly when it is being grown quickly. It takes 37 gallons of water to produce enough beans for just one cup of coffee. Coffee is often produced in countries with a shortage of water, such as Ethiopia, and the combination of high water consumption and high fertilizer and pesticide use can lead to water degradation and pollution in water runoff.
Additionally, coffee grown in these plantation settings has given rise to global concern about the conditions of workers on these plantations. 14 coffee-growing countries are known to use child labor, and many of the manual laborers at these plantations are kept in horrible conditions.
Finally, coffee production is being affected by global climate change. Coffee requires extremely stable temperature conditions in order to thrive. In its natural habitat, elevation and forest would provide additional temperature stability. But today, we are seeing that the “coffee belt” we relied upon for so long is changing, and the regions where coffee can be grown are also changing, with a huge effect on local farmers and economies that rely on coffee exports to survive.
Is Organic Coffee the Solution?
Organic coffee is part of the solution. Unfortunately, in the United States, the designation “organic” doesn't always mean what you think it means.
Generally speaking, a USDA certification for organic means that only organic fertilizers and pesticides were used on a crop within 3 years of harvesting. However, there can be exceptions to this rule that still gain the USDA “organic” designation.
Organic Food Production Act (OFPA)
The OFPA regulates how crops are handled after harvest and discourages the addition of inorganic preservatives and chemicals, but these regulations are not very strict.
For an imported coffee to be certified organic, it must be grown on land that wasn't exposed to synthetic pesticides for 3 years prior to harvest, be grown with a buffer between coffee and conventional crops, and be grown as part of a crop rotation system to prevent erosion and soil depletion.
While the United States imports tens of thousands of tons of organic coffee every year, and it's the most valuable organic imported crop in terms of dollars, it still represents only about 3% of our overall coffee market.
What is the Most Responsible Organic Coffee?
For coffee to be as responsible, ethical, and guilt-free as possible, it should be:
Limiting the use of fertilizers and pesticides protects the watershed and reduces negative environmental impact.
While the sustainable coffee movement is just beginning, it's an important consideration. Continuing the practice of deforesting the environment and depleting the water supply is not sustainable agriculture, even if no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are being used.
While the current “fair trade” designation isn't perfect, it's the best standard we have right now for making sure that coffee is being grown and harvested in a way that isn't unfair for the workers.
That is a lot to ask for a cup of coffee, and not all coffee brands will be able to meet all three criteria. This doesn't necessarily mean the company isn't socially responsible: it is often the case that these designations are difficult to achieve all at once and still produce coffee at the volume and price necessary to satisfy the market. But they are good things to watch for when you compare brands and taste organic coffee.
Also, to be purely selfish and not think about the planet for a moment, organic coffee often simply tastes better. Grown in their natural environment, the beans take longer to mature, and develop a deep, complex flavor without as much acidity. Of course, the finished taste of a cup of coffee has as much to do with the roasting and brewing as it does the origin of the beans, but organic coffees generally come out far ahead in taste tests.
Best Brands of Organic Coffee
Equal Exchange Mind Body Soul
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Equal Exchange is about as responsible and ethical as coffee can be, for a truly guilt-free cup of coffee. The Equal Exchange Mind Body Soul combines dark and medium roasts, for a blend that is rich and smooth, with hints of cocoa and mild berries, and delights the most discerning coffee tasters. The Mind Body Soul blend is:
USDA certified organic, sustainable, shade-grown coffee
Authentically fairly traded, with farmers forming an equal part of the cooperatively owned company
Equal Exchange is one of the most ethical coffee companies around, and the Mind Body Soul blend is praised by experts and amateurs alike. It's a great organic coffee.
Doma Coffee The Chronic – Super Dank
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Doma Coffee has their own cult following, and for good reason. Multiple experts claim that The Chronic blend is literally the best coffee they have ever had. The Doma Coffee Chronic – Super Dank is a darker roast of the original Chronic blend, with notes of cocoa, walnut, and warm spices.
Doma Coffee is a family owned business based in Post Falls, Idaho, and partners with coffee growers in Central and South America for ethical trading and growing practices. The Chronic – Super Dank is:
USDA certified organic
Suitable for espresso-style brewing
Doma takes roasting seriously, and all their coffees are freshly roasted-to-order, to reach you in peak condition.
Doi Chaang Signature – Single Estate
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Vancouver-based Doi Chaang Coffee is a unique partnership between the Akha Hill Tribe of coffee growers in Thailand, and the roasters and sellers in British Columbia, who split company profits equally. They call this practice “Beyond Fair Trade” and the partnership produces economic growth in the mountain villages of Thailand and the highest quality coffee for consumers in North America.
The Doi Chaang Signature – Single Estate is a blend of small, individually roasted batches of beans combined for medium body and smoothness. It has hints of wood, chocolate, and cardamom-like spice. The Signature – Single Estate blend is:
Beyond fair trade, supporting environmental and economic sustainability in partnership with growers
Doi Chaang has won numerous awards for innovation, fair trade, and good corporate citizenship. It's a guilt-free cup of coffee.
Best Organic Dark Roast
Death Wish Coffee
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For lovers of strong coffee, there is simply no substitute for Death Wish Coffee. Death Wish is not only the world's strongest coffee, pleasing lovers of dark, strong coffee with a rich, deep taste that is smoother than many dark roasts, but it's socially responsible as well. Death Wish Coffee is:
USDA certified organic
Committed to sustainability
Death Wish is another brand with a cult following, and this coffee packs more caffeine per ounce than anything short of espresso. If you like your dark roast really dark, you may have a death wish.
Best Organic Light Roast
Cafe Don Pablo Subtle Earth Organic Gourmet Light Roast
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For an organic light roast with wonderful flavor, there is no one better than Cafe Don Pablo. Cafe Don Pablo Subtle Earth Organic coffee has a rich flavor with hints of honey, cocoa, and caramel, with a clean, low-acid finish.
Cafe Don Pablo has a unique relationship with their coffee producers in Columbia, where the company grows, picks, and processes its own coffee beans, ensuring they are at the highest quality and grown organically and sustainably. The Subtle Earth Organic Light Roast is:
CCOF-certified organic, non-GMO
Pesticide free with no chemical inputs
100% Arabica beans
While some people find that this roast is too light for them, those looking for a truly light roast with low acidity and rich coffee flavor love Cafe Don Pablo, and it's an ethically run company to boot.
Best Organic Decaf And Half-Caff Coffee
It can be difficult to find truly organic coffee with reduced caffeine, because coffee is often decaffeinated using chemicals. But if you want delicious coffee with less caffeine and no harsh chemicals, here are your best bets:
No Fun Jo Deca
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No Fun Jo Decaf is consistently rated highly by professional tasters, and it's a great way to satisfy your desire for rich, delicious coffee without the caffeine. No Fun Jo Decaf is 100% Arabica beans, roasted to medium dark perfection, then decaffeinated using the Swiss Water process. Jo Coffee is:
USDA-certified organic, non-GMO, and chemical free
Fair trade certified
The No Fun Jo Decaf is a great choice for a delicious, satisfying cup of coffee with no caffeine and no chemical processing.
Fresh Roasted Coffee Organic Mexican Half Caff Coffee
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The Fresh Roasted Coffee Company Organic Mexican Half Caff is a great choice for reducing caffeine intake without sacrificing delicious coffee or introducing unwanted non-organic products into your diet. This single-origin mild roast coffee has a clean finish with notes of walnut and brown sugar. The Mexican Half Caff is:
Swiss Water Process decaffeinated
Fresh Roasted Coffee Company is also certified by the Rainforest Alliance, fair and directly traded, and uses bird-friendly farming techniques. It's a great choice for reduced caffeine organic coffee.