Shade-grown coffee bushes in the cloud forest near Copan, Hondorus (Photo Credit: Adal-Hondorus)
Coffee: that hot, pick-me-up cup has evolved from a simple beverage to a complex commodity that is second only to petroleum in many western countries. And the market shows no signs of slowing. Gourmet organic coffee was once the domain of specialty retailers but now is available at Burger King, McDonald’s, 711 and other convenience chains.
While seniors have dominated the market, Generation Y is the fastest-growing segment of coffee drinkers.
What’s the newest trend dominating North American coffee consumption? Shade-grown coffee.
As the name suggests, shade-grown coffee doesn’t ripen in full sunlight but in shady soil under an umbrella of overhead foliage where the beans mature slowly. The slow ripening process leads to a gradual accumulation of sugar which adds to a more complex and enjoyable flavor.
To the coffee bean, “terroir” impacts taste. Like wine grapes, beans reflect the soil and climate where they are grown.
But the benefits of shade-grown coffee are not only beneficial to the taste buds but to the environment too. The umbrella effect of surrounding vegetation keeps the soil moist and rich in nutrients and the oxygen filtered. Leaf litter is a natural fertilizer as well as a soil covering which traps moisture. Local bird populations provided insect control.
Compared to full-sun (unshaded monoculture) coffee farming, shade-grown coffee has been chemical free because the environment provided optimal growing conditions and limited pests.
In the early 70s, to increase crop production, new varieties of coffee plants were introduced – variates that thrived in direct sunlight. Consequently, coffee farmers cut shade trees and began a chemical-intensive form of coffee farming which also resulted in a 20% decline in bird populations.
In 1996, an environmental movement concerned about dwindling bird populations sparked an interest in and return to shade-grown coffee production to curb deforestation, migration of local wildlife, and groundwater pollution.
What are some considerations to look for when buying shade-grown coffee? There isn’t a single grade of shade-grown coffee. To understand the differences, here are some key words and concepts:
Rustic shade-grown coffee – rusticano – is more forest than farm. It refers to coffee grown in forests where the shade cover ranges from 70 to 100%, and the native vegetation is intact and diverse.
Traditional polyculture shade-grown coffee - policultura tradicional – typically involves more diverse crop production, has slightly less shade cover (60 to 90%), and the vegetation includes a blend of native trees and trees planted for harvest, fuel wood or medicinal uses. This type of coffee farming enables growers to benefit by harvesting more than coffee alone.
Commercial polyculture shade-grown coffee - policultura comercial - involves less shade (the shade cover is from 30 to 60%) and fewer native trees to make room for coffee plants. Fertilizers and pesticides can be used to control soil quality and increase production.
Reduced shade or specialized shade shade-grown coffee - sombra especializada - is the least shady (only 10 to 30%), and uses a single canopy of vegetation. Of all the grades of shade-grown coffee, it is the least bio-diverse.
What to look for on the label, brochure or web site? In addition to “shade-grown”, ensure that the growing technique involves no pesticides or herbicides. Country of origin can also provide clues. Shade-grown coffee is predominantly found in Latin American countries ranging from southern Mexico to Guatemala. Ethiopia, New Guinea, Sumatra and Timor are also adopting shade-grown coffee farming.
While shade-grown coffee is costlier than other organic labels, it leads to fewer toxins in your cup of java and less harm to ecosystems and the environment.