New-age Coffee: Demand perks up for organically grown beans for cup of java
Courier-Journal – Louisville, Kentucky – 20 Dec 2002
By Sarah Fritschner
Three years ago, Gary Heine could only describe the difficulties in procuring organically grown coffee. It was a complicated process, and good-quality, organically grown beans weren’t readily available. So he didn’t carry any at his Heine Brothers Coffee shops in Louisville.
Two years ago, Medora Safai carried organic beans at the Java Brewing Company. “People were asking for it,” she said, “then they’d see it was a couple of dollars more a pound and they’d buy the cheaper coffee.” So she quit carrying it.
Today, Heine and Safai are among a number of area coffee-shop owners, health food stores and other retailers selling organic coffee beans. Louisvillians are helping drive the fastest-growing trend in specialty coffee houses, according to coffee roaster Mark Inman, formerly head of the Organic Coffee Roasters Assocation.
Though the amount of coffee sold by specialty coffee houses—such as Starbucks and Heine Brothers — is less than 10 percent of total coffee sold in this country, it still comes to 10 million 130pound bags per year.
And with the organic segment of that industry growing 24 percent a year, according to Inman, we’re talking about a lot of Joe. Even Starbucks—after suffering boycott threats and vandalism—has added organic coffee to its lengthy menu of high-quality specialty coffees.
“People are looking for an opportunity to do something sustainable,” said Mike Mays, co-owner of Louisville’s Heine Brothers.
Retailers such as Mays pay more for organic coffee beans, but the customer doesn’t always.
Although specialty coffees are dependably more expensive than supermarket brands, not all retailers charge more for organic beans. Highland Coffee, for example, doesn’t charge more for its organic.
Organic coffee, like organically grown anything else, must be produced according to federal standards that took effect in October.
Organic coffee is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and doesn’t come from genetically modified plants, among other restrictions.
More important, according to coffee importer Bill Harris, it is grown with a commitment to building healthy soils and environments through practices such as composting, terracing and intercropping. Harris runs Cooperative Coffees, a Georgia-based company that imports organic coffee beans for 15 coffee roasters in the United States and Canada, including Heine Brothers.
The Organic Coffee Association’s Web site lists a “dirty dozen” chemicals used worldwide in coffee cultivation, including DDT, which the United States banned in 1972. DDT accumulates in body tissues and can affect the nervous system, liver and kidney.
Other chemicals on the list include the insecticide Thiodan, a highly toxic insecticide associated with the death and illness of coffee workers in Colombia; Paraquat, a quick-acting, non-selective herbicide that destroys green plant tissue on contact; furadan, which is lethal to birds and animals; and 2,4-D, a component in Agent Orange.
Whether these chemicals affect those who actually drink the coffee is subject to debate. Coffee roaster Inman, who’s based in California, thinks it does.
“The way pesticides work in a system is that they work their way into the oils of a plant. All the flavor in coffee comes from the oil in the bean,” he said.
Others say the chemical residue in an actual cup of coffee is negligible — that buying organically grown coffee only ensures a healthier environment for the farming communities and workers.
Driven by their own health or the health of the planet, consumers are buying more organically grown coffee. Heine Brothers has contracted to buy about 25,000 pounds of organic coffee in 2003, three times what the Louisville company bought three years ago.
“Organic has come of age,” Mays said.
Some Coffees Help the Earth
Do you want to save the birds or the Earth?
There are three common terms for what can be called “sustainably grown” coffee— “sustainable” suggesting good to the Earth or good to indigenous culture or both.
If you know the terms, you’ll be confident when reading labels on bags of coffee or buying a cup at your favorite coffee shop. A coffee whose label says something like “multi-certified” means it has more than one certification.
SHADE-GROWN: Left to nature, coffee bushes grow under a canopy of shade trees in tropical forests. Large, one-crop plantations typically are cleared of shade trees to achieve more efficient planting. These sun-exposed plantations have drawn criticism on many levels—destruction of the rain forest, increased use of chemicals and so on.
Several groups, including the Smithsonian and National Audubon Society, support shade-grown-coffee techniques by focusing on the habitat of migratory birds, which is destroyed when forests are cleared.
Coffee connoisseurs, meanwhile, believe that shade-grown coffee tastes better than sun-grown coffee. For more information, go to the Web site natzoo.si.edu/smbc and click on coffee.
FAIR-TRADE: Coffee prices are determined by bottom-quality coffee, according to Gary Heine, owner of five Heine Brothers Coffee shops in Louisville. When the price of coffee on the New York commodity market is 60 cents per pound, the farmer might get 25 or 30 cents for his coffee.
Fair-trade organizations and wholesalers, such as Equal Exchange, deal directly with farmers, cutting out the middlemen, and guarantee a minimum price that ensures a living wage even if the world price for coffee drops. Equal Exchange buys from 15 farm cooperatives and sells to retailers such as Louisville’s Just Creations.
For more information, go to the Web site www.equalexchange.org.
ORGANIC: Grown outside the United States, coffee is not subject to the pesticide restrictions we take for granted. The pesticide DDT, for example, has been banned in the United States since 1972 but is still used in coffee cultivation.
The Organic Coffee Association, an organization of retailers, growers, importers and roasters, lists 12 pesticides commonly used in nonorganic coffee production, some of which are illegal in this country. These pesticides harm the health of humans, birds, fish and so on.
Certifications of organic-growing techniques sometimes come from third-party agencies, such as Quality Assurance International.
For more information, go to the Web site www.orcacoffee.org.
How Do I Buy?
Specialty coffee bars and other retailers often display long lists of available coffees — Nicaraguan Segovia or Costa Rican Tarrazu — all at different prices. But none of these names are particularly meaningful to the average coffee drinker.
As a rule, the first name is the country and the second name is the region or microclimate where the beans are grown. Generally, coffee from South and Central America will be medium-bodied, while those from Indonesia (Sumatra, etc.) will be fuller-bodied. There are no helpful hints for African coffee.
And there are no rules for anything called “Breakfast Blend” or other fanciful names. Talk to the blender, read the information posted with the coffee or taste it when it is featured as a daily special.
Is Dark Coffee Better?
Roasting develops the flavors of coffee, breaking the chlorgenic acid in the green beans into more flavorful acids in roasted beans.
Roasting also develops caramelized or “brown” flavors. The longer you roast, the more acids you break down and the more caramelization you add. The personal touch of the roaster will be balancing acids with caramelization.
Some people prefer a darker flavor, but that doesn’t mean dark beans are better than lighter beans — it just means their flavor comes more from caramelization and less from acidic compounds.
“French” beans are roasted until they become a little oily on the outside and are often the darkest brown. Some people think that’s sophisticated; others think it’s burnt. Be advised: The French don’t roast it that way.
Espresso is simply a blend of coffee beans based on the blender’s taste; the blend at one store will differ from one down the street. Although the blends often contain dark roasted coffee, they also might contain other beans to balance and round out flavors.
What makes espresso different from other coffee is the way it is made, not the beans themselves. For espresso, the beans are ground finer, the grounds are tightly packed and they are brewed under pressure. Your espresso beans can be used in a conventional coffeemaker—just don’t grind them as finely.