Of all of the behind-the-scenes debates that grumble their way through coffee cupping rooms, those that cluster around coffee and the environment mutter the loudest.
Are environmentally progressive coffees simply second-rate beans masquerading under a growing lexicon of buzz words like organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly, and the latest and grandest, sustainable? Should coffee consumers be asked to pay for cup-quality alone, or should they (and the roaster-retailers who serve them) pony up a bit more to support social and environmental programs? And if you decide to take the environmental high road, which buzz-word do you put your coffee money behind? Squeaky-clean "certified organic" coffees, which are rigorously monitored from seed to roaster by third-party agencies to assure that they are completely free from even a trace of synthetic chemicals? "Shade-grown" coffees, which are grown under a canopy of shade trees friendly to migrating birds and other wildlife, but which may undervalue other environmental and social criteria? Or "sustainable," a category that attempts to combine a staggering range of environmental and social concerns into a single, comprehensive package appealing to almost everyone who deplores the spreading use of high-yield, high-chemical-dependent, low-taste, sun-grown hybrid coffees trees?
The founders of the specialty coffee movement were and are idealists. Some of the old-time coffee professionals who came into specialty coffees from the world of canned commercial coffees may be culturally conservative, and a new generation of young, corporate-minded coffee marketing types may be politically indifferent, but the middle generation, the ones who came out of college in the 1960s looking around for something exciting to do with their lives and found coffee, remain (in my experience) mavericks and idealists. That's why they started little cafes rather than going to work in a bank. And coffee continues to attract people looking for a career in which they can both make a living and make a difference.
So the issue isn't greed versus saintliness; it's more a question of where the idealism is focused: only in the cup and its quality, or on issues outside the cup? Certainly the new sustainable category can be seen as an effort to find a common ground for these two kinds of idealism. The Specialty Coffee Association of America's Sustainable Coffee Criteria Group kicks off its draft criteria statement with support for "... total quality which encompasses quality of life, quality of the cup, and quality of the environment ..."
Which is where this cupping comes in. Wouldn't it be a relief if there weren't any difference whatsoever between the best-tasting and the most environmentally correct coffees? At one time it was hard to find a truly exceptional organically-grown coffee, not because chemicals make coffees taste better, but because so few growers were willing or able to certify their coffees. About a year ago I conducted a cupping of environmentally progressive coffees for another publication. I found several exceptional coffees, but none that were, at in my view, the equal of the very finest conventionally grown origins.
This time around I sampled fourteen single-origin coffees sent to me by seven distinguished environmentally progressive roasters. All but one of these coffees were shade-grown; nine were certified organically grown, while the other five fulfilled the roaster's criteria for sustainability. Of the five non-certified but sustainable coffees, four were "bird coffees" associated with programs specifically supporting habitat for migrating birds in Central and South America. Most of the fourteen coffees were produced by small growers collected into cooperative programs of one kind or another.
I'm familiar with the operations of most of the seven roasting establishments contributing to the cupping as well as the importers who supply them with their coffees, and see no reason to doubt either the factual accuracy of the claims made for these coffees or the passion and sincerity of those responsible for promoting them.
But what about quality in the cup?
Overall this was an impressive group of coffees. They were also an impressively varied group of coffees. One of the wonderful side benefits of the environmental movement is the encouragement it gives exporters and importers to seek out and promote unusual or atypical coffees that until now have been hidden on the fringes of the more celebrated growing regions or coffee types.
Nevertheless, to my palate at least, none of these coffees except (perhaps) the bird-friendly Huila Colombia are equal to the very best exemplars of their type. In other words, the best of both the Guatemalas and Costa Ricas in this cupping were wonderful coffees, but hardly matched the best conventionally grown Guatemalas and Costa Ricas in power and refinement. The same goes for the two organic Papua New Guineas and the one Sumatra. On the other hand, I was impressed by the Huila Colombia, which was less powerful but probably as refined as the best Narino Colombias.
Keep in mind that the world is full of organic and sustainable coffees that are not yet marketed as organic or sustainable because close relationships haven't yet been forged between roaster, importer, exporter and grower. The trick to niche marketing environmentally friendly coffees is first to find a category that excites consumers, then find good-tasting coffees that fit the criteria for that category, then put the two together. There is no doubt that all Yemen coffees and most Ethiopia and Sumatra coffees are de facto organic, for example, but the niche marketing arrangements and relationships have not yet been worked out for them.
Which leads me to my final point: For me the greatest virtue of organic, sustainable, shade-grown and just plain good estate coffees is the way they all buffer and humanize the anonymous destructiveness of the market system. The general law of supply and demand may insure economically logical pricing over the long run, but in its relentless, price-first logic it abuses both the environment and those farmers who live in direct relationship to the environment. Nor is it kind to coffee aficionados who may prefer quality and distinction to simple low price.
Niche coffees, whether organically grown or conventionally grown, whether estate, organic or sustainable, all tend to personalize and humanize the relationship between farmer, exporter, importer, roaster and consumer. And they help create price arrangements that support that more humane relationship.