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Everything you need to know about organic coffee

Traceability has always been important within the specialty coffee sector, but as ethical consumerism grows we are seeing more roasters seek out the organic credentials of our beans.

So what exactly makes coffee organic? And does it make for a better cup? Here is everything you need to know.

What does ‘organic coffee’ mean?

Put simply, organic coffee is made and produced without the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. The farm’s fertiliser must be 100% organic; this could be chicken manure, coffee pulp, bocachi, or general compost. If fertilisers such as synthetic nitrogen, phosphate or potash are found, the coffee cannot be classed as organic.

And there’s the time element. All organic farming requires at least three years of cultivation using only natural fertilisers and pesticides, so that no chemicals come into contact with the plants at all. A sustainable crop rotation plan must be in place to prevent erosion, depletion of soil nutrients and to naturally control pests.

Finally, the coffee must also have been processed and packed without the involvement of any chemicals.

How does organic certification differ from Fair Trade?

Good question. Fair Trade is mostly concerned with reducing poverty through greater equity in international trade. However, it is claimed that over 80% of Fair Trade coffee is non-commercially organic. This is because Fair Trade coffee is usually produced on smallholder farms who are often unable to afford expensive pesticides rather than by design. According to Specialty Coffee Ethiopia, 95% of the coffee produced there can be considered as organic, although not yet officially certified. While this seems high to us, there are certainly many organic coffees produced which don’t carry the label.

It’s important to note that although a coffee is labelled organic, it doesn’t offer any guarantees of worker conditions or minimum pricing.


Is organic coffee farmed differently?

Organic coffee has to be shade-grown. Without the foliage of trees, the sun would quickly scorch the earth and require large amounts of (non-organic) fertiliser to restore nutrients. When coffee farmers keep native trees in place to provide shade, this has a positive impact on biodiversity.

The farming process is significantly different from that of conventional coffee, where large areas of land need to be cleared due to the reliance of intense sunlight to promote rapid growth. Without the use of synthetic fertilisers, organic coffee growth is a much slower process.

Where does organic coffee come from?

According to the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education in Costa Rica (CATIE), 75% of the world’s organic coffee comes from Latin America. As of 2010, Peru was the leading exporter of organic coffee, with over 423,000 bags exported that year. Other large producers include Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala. A number of Asian and African countries also produce organic coffee, including Indonesia and Ethiopia.

What effect does organic status have on the price, quality and character of coffee?

Producers that have successfully achieved recognised Organic certification are able to command a guaranteed minimum 30ct premium over and above non organic certified coffees. (roughly £500/mt). However, the process and limitations that organic growing puts on farmers invariably makes for a more expensive bean to produce and this premium is needed to not only compensate the producer for financial loss, but also incentivize others to take up the practice.

The quality of a coffee is always determined by many factors: Varietal, soil quality, elevation, rainfall, harvest and processing technique, freshness, water quality and the cleanliness of processing equipment.

Whilst the use (or non use) of chemical assistance to the production of coffee has very little effect on the final flavour of the bean, it does impact the coffee’s sustainable credentials. Proud to have recently been shortlisted in the Guardian Sustainable Business awards, DRW strives to support sustainability initiatives wherever we can – Organic farming methods are key to ensuring this long term sustainability.

We work with producers who are meticulous about their beans. When it comes to coffee we agree with the patron of the Soil Association HRH, Prince of Wales, when he says:.

“Organic farming delivers the highest quality, best-tasting food, produced without artificial chemicals or genetic modification, and with respect for animal welfare and the environment, while helping to maintain the landscape and rural communities.”

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