Date: August 2009

Column/Title: The Devil's in the Details: Bird-Friendly and Shade-Grown Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids; reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

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Suppose the following: You look out your window and see a suddenly appearing flock of song birds. Or perhaps you hear their familiar, melodic burbling first, then see them. For many of us this is a precious moment, particularly so because we often know that these flitting, vulnerable creatures are only making a brief stopover before moving on until (hopefully) making a return next year. Those who love both fine coffee and moments like this one are likely to particularly value this month's reviews. In particular, we turned up three coffees that are both certified "Bird-Friendly" by the Smithsonian Institution (organically grown in mixed species shade in Mexico and Central America) as well as vivacious and engaging in the cup. The other nine coffees reviewed here are also remarkable in the cup and benign in their environmental impact, though they raise complex issues in definition, as in: What exactly is a "shade-grown" coffee? Most people are familiar with the general bird-coffee-shade connection. It is a story that is easy to understand in broad outline, but complex and ambiguous in detail.

The basic "shade-grown coffee" story runs like this: Farmers used to grow their coffees naturally in thickets of shade that provided cover and sustenance for animals and migrating birds, but now they are chopping down trees and growing new kinds of coffee right in the sun, compensating for the advantages of shade (production of organic material) by heaping on chemical fertilizers, and compensating for natural limits on pests (birds eat some pests, for example) by using pesticides. The more sophisticated tellers of this story might add that a transition from shade- to sun-grown coffee is particularly concerning in areas like southern Mexico and Central America where migrating birds are "squeezed" by geography into relatively narrow corridors and where, studies have indicated, they count on crucial support from the sustenance and cover provided by coffee grown in mixed-species shade.

Overall, this is a reasonably true story and a useful one. Unfortunately, it can be grossly over-generalizing when recklessly applied to the larger world of coffee. There are many, many places in the world where coffee has never been grown in shade or does not grow well in shade, but where coffee nevertheless can be grown in reasonable, often close, harmony with nature if farmers care enough to put aside forest reserves, provide wildlife corridors, and pursue other sustainable agricultural practices, up to and including organic agriculture.

Then there is the problem of definition. Some coffee is grown in park-like environments in which neatly pruned rows of non-native shade trees provide a carefully controlled degree of shade. The most common technical descriptor for this carefully managed (though still environmentally positive) version of shade-growing is "specialized" shade. Coffees reviewed this month like the rich, gently fruit-toned Kickapoo Coffee Organic Bolivia Cenaproc (90) and the bright, classic Batdorf & Bronson Guatemala Antigua Finca El Valle (90) probably were grown under this kind of shade. The best Antigua farms, for example, are lovely, shaded places with a dense canopy of trees but without the richly complex natural environment provided by the other extreme of the shade-grown spectrum, the rare but impressive "rustic shade," in which coffee trees are often casually scattered amid what is essentially a forest made up of a rich mix of indigenous trees and shrubs. Obviously this last version of "shade-grown" is the style favored by the Smithsonian Institution's Bird-Friendly certification.

We review three such certified shade-grown, bird-friendly coffees, the Arbor Day Mexico Ismam Co-op (92), Arbor Day Nubes de Oro (91), and the Counter Culture Coffee Guatemala Huehuetenango (92). All are complex and richly nuanced coffees. They present to those who love migratory birds as much as they love fine coffee three excellent, if geographically constrained, choices. None, by the way, are classically pure coffees; their nuance is enriched by slight, serendipitous irregularities in processing that attractively complicate the impressive fruit and floral tones.

On the other hand, there are those who may aspire to support the general health of the environment with their coffee buying, but who do not want to limit their coffee world to a handful of environmentally impeccable coffees from southern Mexico and Guatemala.

In various ways the other nine coffees reviewed here respond to this need. They simultaneously dramatize the ambiguity of the term "shade-grown" once we move beyond the environmentally near-perfect but limited world of Smithsonian Bird-Friendly Certified coffees.

Take, for example, the two Ethiopia coffees reviewed this month, both from the celebrated Yirgacheffe region of southern Ethiopia: the intense lemon-and-floral Conscious Coffee Yirgacheffe Oromia (90) and the wild and brandyish, dried-in-the-fruit Coffee Klatch Ethiopia Wondo Bonko (90). Both are what in Ethiopia are called "garden coffees." Scattered throughout the Yirgacheffe region are tiny family plots in which a casual mix of coffee trees, fruit trees, food crops and tallish banana-like trees surround the family compound. The coffee provides a little cash and the other trees and plants supplies the food, animal feed, and other simple material needs of the family.

These farmers use no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, no herbicides. They probably live about as lightly on the land as sedentary human beings can live. But their coffees are not technically shade grown. The banana-like trees and fruit trees provide some shade, but the point here is that these little farms present a moving testimony to traditional harmony around coffee growing rather than an exercise in fulfilling a certification standard by attempting to reinvent a forest. These humble, tiny farms do organic fine, but most likely would not qualify for the Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification (were it extended to regions beyond certain regions of Latin America) or, for that matter, any "shade-grown" certification.

Next on the list of shade-growing ambiguities are Rainforest Alliance coffees. These coffees are seldom "shade-grown." But they are typically produced on larger farms following demanding environmental and socio-economic criteria. Rainforest Alliance certification requires substantial, multi-species forest reserves, generous buffer zones around watercourses, cautious and sustainable pest management, and the like. It is not an easy certification for farmers, particularly in regard to its environmental standards.

Can we blame roasters who submitted the three Rainforest-Alliance-certified coffees for implying they are "shade grown"? All were produced on farms particularly recognized for their environmental commitment. Two carried organic as well as Rainforest Alliance certification. Selva Negra Estate (Barrington Coffee Selva Negra Estate, 91) is a show-place of spectacularly thoroughgoing environmental and socio-economic responsibility. Coffee at Selva Negra is apparently grown amid shade trees (at least forty different species) rather than technically "under" them. Yet I suspect many migrating birds are happy to stay over in the lush forest reserves of Selva Negra.

In short, none of the coffees reviewed this month are environmental lightweights. Ten were certified organically grown, for example. If roasters occasionally slightly missed the target with the "shade-grown" epithet stated or implied on bag or website, I suspect that in spirit what they were trying to say was that there were a whole lot of other trees, and birds, and positive environmental practices around where this particular coffee was grown.

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