Coffee accolades fall into three basic categories: certifications, awards and label designations. Understanding what each of these designations means can help you make responsible decisions when you’re buying specialty coffee.
A number of the labels that you’ll encounter signify that the coffee growers meet specific criteria in order to be certified by a third-party organization. The use of a particular organization’s logo signifies that the coffee was grown in accordance with these criteria. Below are the certifications you’ll find most often on gourmet and specialty coffee.
The Fair Trade label is one of the oldest coffee certifications in use. In the United States, the Fair Trade Certified label is administered by Transfair USA, which broke off from Fairtrade International (FLO) on December 31, 2011. The Fair Trade Certified label guarantees that farmers receive a minimum price for the coffee they grow. Think of it as a minimum wage for coffee growers.
The minimum price ensures that producers are paid enough to cover their costs. If the market price for coffee is higher than the Fair Trade minimum price, the buyer must pay at least the market price. Buyers also pay an additional amount on top of the negotiated price, called a premium, which is designated for investment in social, economic and environmental projects. Farmers belong to cooperatives, democratically run organizations that represent their interests and make decisions on the best use for the premiums received. . This is one way that Fair Trade promotes the use of sustainable agricultural practices and assists farmers to improve their local communities.
At this writing, coffee farms must belong to cooperatives in order to participate in Fairtrade International. Transfair USA is developing further standards that will include farm workers and small farm holders who do not belong to co-ops
- Premium price paid for coffee
- Promotes the use of sustainable agricultural practices
- Empowers growers and workers through democratic processes
- Developing standards to include workers and small farms in the Fair Trade model
- Empowers growers to make social improvements in their communities
Administered by: Transfair USA
You may also see coffee products with the Fairtrade International label for sale from many roasters, particularly Canadian roasters who sell coffee in the United States. The overall goal and missions of Transfair USA and Fairtrade International are similar, but the two organizations do differ somewhat.
- Ensures premium price for coffee
- Empowers coffee farmers through democratically governed co-ops
- Promotes the use of sustainable agricultural practices
- Empowers coffee growers to make social improvements in their communities
Administered by: Fairtrade International
In order to carry the USDA Organic seal, a coffee must be grown using organic methods set forth by the National Organic Program implemented in the U.S. in 2002. In a nutshell, foods labeled as organic must be grown using only sustainable practices that maintain and replenish soil fertility. For example, organic coffee must be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, and irradiation. The Organic Trade Association requires independent third-party inspections and certification.*
- Complies with established USDA Organic standards
- No toxic chemicals used as pesticides or fertilizer
- Coffee grown without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering, sewage sludge or irradiation
Administered by: Organic Trade Association
*In practice, obtaining USDA Organic certification can be time-consuming and expensive. Many small coffee farmers use organic methods but have not yet obtained and/or do not plan to pursue formal organic certification. In addition, many coffee roasters maintain personal connections with the farmers who grow their coffee and will state on the label or in their description of the coffee that it is grown using organic methods or words to that effect.
Coffee bearing the Rainforest Alliance Certified ™ seal has been grown and harvested using environmental and socially responsible practices. Rainforest Alliance Certified farms must demonstrate that they adhere to the standards set forth by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, which include these 10 principles:
- Auditable management system
- Agricultural methods that conserve the ecosystem
- Actions that protect wildlife
- Irrigation methods that conserve water
- Practices that ensure good working conditions
- Implement occupational health and safety programs
- Commitment to being good neighbors
- Use of safest crop management methods
- Systems to conserve and improve soil
- Integrated waste management
Coffees that consist of at least 90% Rainforest Alliance Certified products can display the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on the package without a disclaimer. Coffees that have at least 30% certified ingredients can display the seal, but must state the percentage of certified ingredients used. They must also agree to increase the percentage of certified coffee by 15% of the total product annually.
Administered by: Rainforest Alliance
Maintaining shade trees and vegetation on coffee plantations is important for a number of reasons. When rainforests are cleared to make room for coffee plantations, the entire ecosystem suffers. Shade trees and other vegetation provide sanctuary for wildlife, including migratory birds. In addition, many coffee experts claim that coffee grown in shade tastes better because the cherries take longer to ripen, leading to better flavor development.
Unfortunately, there is no widely recognized standard to evaluate the quality of shade provided on coffee plantations. There are, however, several organizations that incorporate shade criteria into their programs for organic certification: for instance, Certimex, which operates in Mexico, and OCIA International, which is authorized to do inspections for the Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification discussed next.
Bird Friendly Shade-Grown
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) developed the Bird Friendly certification to encourage the retention and development of shade coffee plantations. In order to bear the Bird Friendly label, coffee plantations must be certified Shade-Grown by one of several third-party organizations recognized by the SMBC and certified USDA Organic. In addition to the advantages provided by the organic methods used, the benefits of Bird Friendly coffee include the following:
- Shade-grown coffee ripens more slowly, allowing better flavor development
- Shade trees preserve biodiversity
- Shaded coffee plantations provide healthier environments for workers and downstream communities
- Shaded plantations reduce soil erosion
Administered by: Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Cup of Excellence
Each year, coffee growers around the world participate in national Cup of Excellence (COE) competitions. The winning coffees are then sold via an international Internet auction to interested buyers. Thanks to the rigorous selection process, which includes at least five separate cuppings, the Cup of Excellence award is one of the highest accolades that a coffee can receive. Any COE ranking, from #1 on down, is considered prestigious.
Administered by: Alliance for Coffee Excellence
Other coffee label designations
In addition to the official awards and certifications above, many coffee roasters and importers use specific designations to denote that their coffees are special in certain ways. Below you’ll find the ones most often applied to specialty coffee. There are no established standards for these designations or organizations overseeing their use in marketing and labeling coffee. There are, however, commonly accepted definitions.
Some coffee roasters prefer to deal directly with farmers and plantation owners rather than purchasing their coffee from importers and other middlemen. They often establish long-term business relationships with the farmers and may partner with them in various ways to help the farmers improve their crops, adopt sustainable farming practices and enhance their communities.
Single-origin coffees contain only unblended beans that are traceable to a specific geographical area, though the definition of that area can be broad; it may refer to a single country (e.g. El Salvador), a geographical region within that country (e.g. Santa Ana), or a smaller coffee-growing region within the larger region (e.g. Potrero Grande Arriba). Single-origin coffees that come from a specific estate or farm are often referred to as “estate coffees.”
Estate coffees come from a single coffee plantation or farm (e.g. Finca Kilimanjaro). They are generally labeled with both the region and the estate on which the beans were grown as well as other details.
Micro-lot refines “single-origin” even further. It generally refers to a lot of coffee that was harvested from a single field on a single farm during a specific time period.