Rainforest-Certified Coffees by Kenneth Davids | CoffeeReview.com

September 2008

The Rainforest Alternative: Twelve plus One Rainforest-Certified Coffees
by Kenneth Davids; reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

It has been well over ten years since the Sustainable Agriculture Network launched the Rainforest Alliance Certified program for coffee. Unlike the more widely publicized Fair-Trade certification, which is principally a socio-economically focused certification aimed mainly at helping democratically-run cooperatives of small-holding, peasant growers achieve better prices for their coffees, Rainforest Alliance offers a comprehensive program with environmental, social and economic criteria open to all growers who meet its certification standards, including larger, centrally managed farms. Of course both certifications attempt to cover all issues: Fair-Trade certification applies environmentally-oriented criteria as well as socio-economic, and Rainforest Alliance enforces socio-economic criteria related to good working conditions, decent wages, education and medical assistance for workers. In deference to those who base their buying decisions on fine-tuned ideological distinctions, I cover some of the differences between the two programs later in this article.

However, from the general point of view of coffee buyers who simply want to help rather than hurt with their coffee purchases, these two programs complement one another nicely. Fair-Trade certification's emphasis on democratically run cooperatives of peasant growers means that it rewards and makes available to the specialty market interesting coffees that were previously lost in the faceless flow of anonymous commerce. Rainforest Alliance balances the more targeted focus of Fair-Trade by recognizing and rewarding farmers regardless of scale or ownership, but who nevertheless pursue progressive, often impeccable environmental and social practices with their farms and workers.

First Review of Rainforest-Certified Single-Origins

We have mounted reviews of Fair-Trade certified coffees in past issues, but this month is our first effort to survey the retail market for certified single-origin coffees from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. By way of context, we have added a review of a mass-market Rainforest Alliance Certified blend (minimum 30% certified content) offered by Kraft Foods' Yuban brand.

What was most striking about the sourcing for this article was how a relative handful of producers dominated the selection of green coffees. Although twenty-four roasters submitted a total of thirty-four retail samples, the thirty-four retail samples represented green coffees from only eleven producers. Five of the thirty-three submissions were produced on the famous Daterra farms in the Cerrado region of Brazil, five were different lots of the celebrated Geisha from Esmeralda Estate in Panama, four came from the same cooperative in the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, and two each came from the ecologically progressive farms Mesa de los Santos in Colombia and Selva Negra in Nicaragua.

We ended by reviewing the three top-rated of the five Esmeralda Geisha samples, the two top-rated of the five Daterra coffees, including the naturally low-caffeine "Opus 1" type, the two top-rated Ethiopias, one dry-processed and one wet, and one each of the Mesa de los Santos and Selva Negra submissions. We included loners from Guatemala (the fine Santa Isabel from PT's Coffee, 92), a suave Panama from Carmen Estate (Coffee Klatch, 91), and a bold-beaned El Salvador Pacamara from The Roasterie (90).

Exemplary Farms and Newly Certified Coops

The appeal of the Rainforest Alliance Certified program is clear for exemplary larger farms whose size and centralized management make them ineligible for Fair-Trade certification. Take Mesa de los Santos and Selva Negra. Both are already committed to organic certification, Fair-Trade is not available to them, so adding Rainforest Alliance Certified is a logical step in confirming and publicizing their passionate environmental commitments and generous social programs. Although the Daterra farms do not focus on organic production and Esmeralda Estate does not pursue it at all, both are models of general commitment to sustainability, social responsibility, and obsessive attention to the quality and distinctiveness of their coffees.

The unusual entrant here is the Ethiopian Koratie (also spelled Korate) cooperative. As indicated earlier, cooperatives and their supporters often find Fair Trade and organic certifications a more congenial way to focus attention on the social and environmental sustainability of their coffees. Generally, Rainforest Alliance Certified standards emphasize quantifiable measures of compliance, making meeting these standards easier for centrally managed organizations with a high degree of control over detail and record-keeping, something that can be difficult for cooperatives of small growers with their varied and informal farm layouts, lack of central authority, and family-oriented labor practices.

However, the Rainforest Alliance has been working with the Sustainable Agriculture Network at adapting their standards to the culture and operating methods of small-holder cooperatives, and the four samples we received from the Koratie cooperative demonstrate some of the first fruits of this effort. Predictably perhaps, the sensory character of the four Koratie samples reflects their small grower context. All represented the newly revived style of dry-processed coffees from southern Ethiopia. Saturated with blueberry-toned fruit but just a touch fermented and musty, they were easy to like but difficult to rate, given the downside of the ferment-induced astringency, particularly prominent as the cup cooled. But readers who enjoy this edgy, explosively fruity style of coffee will enjoy these offerings, particularly the Flying Goat Sidamo Koratie (90) reviewed here. And future crops should improve as the coop responds to market expectations for its newly certified coffees.

Coffee Character and the Esmeraldas

If the Ethiopia Koratie samples often showed too intense (or too uncontrolled) a character, the main weakness with many of the other Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees was not quite enough character: They tended to lack complexity and nuance. This was not true of the five Esmeralda Geisha samples, of course. Here the flowers-lemon-and-cocoa character of the extraordinary Geisha variety of Arabica shone unmistakably in the cup. All five Esmeralda samples were impressive: Terroir (95), Coffee Klatch Lot #9 (94), Flying Goat Lot #7 (93), PT's Coffee (Batches 6 and 10, 92), and Paradise Roasters (Batch 8, 92). I found that I preferred those versions in which slightly better balance allowed the distinctive Geisha aromatics to express themselves with less competition from the acidity. Those who enjoy brighter, more acidity-forward coffees may reverse my preferences and favor the Paradise or PT's Esmeraldas to the three versions we review this month.

Other Fair-Trade and Rainforest Differences

Finally, a word about process and criteria differences between Fair-Trade and Rainforest Alliance certification. Fair-Trade defines a minimum price for all certified coffees, tracks the shipments from grower to retailer, claims a small fee from each component of the supply chain along the way, then uses these funds to effectively advance public awareness of Fair Trade and the issues it addresses, thus increasing the market value of the certification for both producers and retailers. By the way, in today's green coffee market good Fair-Trade coffees typically sell for considerably more than the minimum price required by certification.

On the other hand, Rainforest Alliance allows the market to define a premium for its certification seal and is mainly supported by grants, making it a leaner organization with less media presence. Rainforest Alliance emphasizes that the program certifies farms, not coffees. All coffee produced by a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm is, in effect, Rainforest Alliance Certified. Finally, Rainforest Alliance is easier on those who create certified blends. Fair-Trade certified blends must contain 100% Fair-Trade coffees, whereas Rainforest Alliance will allow blends with as little as 30% content from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms to carry their green frog seal. Given the limited number of coffee origins currently producing Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees, something like the 30% policy may be a necessity at this point or the program might wither. On the other hand, the success of Rainforest Alliance Certified in large-volume producers like Brazil means that, although there may be fewer origins available to a Rainforest Alliance blender than to a Fair-Trade blender, there sometimes are larger volumes of certified coffee available from those fewer origins.

30% Rainforest Alliance Certified Blends

This last situation - minimum 30% coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms required in order to use the seal coupled with the possibility of buying large quantities of certified coffee from certain origins - has meant that at least one mass-market commercial coffee company is managing to offer Rainforest Alliance Certified blends: Kraft Foods' Yuban. Based on a reading of cup profile, the blend we cupped (Yuban Original) probably contains enough Brazil from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms to qualify for the certification seal, with a good part of the remainder of the blend inexpensive robustas, perhaps steamed to remove flavor taints. The result is a Rainforest Alliance Certified version of the bland, woody, faintly sweet supermarket profile that has come to dominate canned coffee shelves over the last two decades. Interestingly and perhaps admirably, Yuban has attempted to go green in other respects with this coffee, using fiber cans containing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified material and a minimum 50% recycled content.