What Is Shade Grown Coffee?
Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance – these are all coffee friendly movements that the world is familiar with. But what is shade grown coffee?
On the surface, it seems a little bit less urgent a subject than coffee farm working conditions or organic growing methods. But the truth is, shade grown coffee is a vital part of the coffee-growing process that impacts not just the beans themselves, but the entire ecosystem they grow in.
From birds to trees, sun to leaves, let’s take a look at just how important shade grown coffee is.
The Not-So-Shady Details: Some Shade Grown Coffee Facts
I’m not a fan of beating around the bush (or coffee plant) so let’s start with a basic definition of shade grown coffee (hint, it’s in the name!): Shade grown coffee comes from coffee plants that grow either partially or entirely in the shade. Surprised? I didn’t think so…
Coffee plants naturally grow and thrive in the shade. Due to the regions that coffee grows in, that shade usually comes from a forest canopy with tall trees and a diverse habitat.
When fully grown, coffee plants (1) are generally the height of an average adult, and tend to look like a beautiful, waxy green bush. The plant is small enough to nestle in under the much larger trees that surround it in a tropical setting. So, one could say that when coffee is “shade grown” all it means is that it’s been grown in its natural setting.
Does Shade Grown Coffee Taste Better?
While there isn’t a ton of measurable data to prove shade grown coffee is superior, the main factor that is usually brought up is the overall quality of shade grown beans. Now, beans grown in the shade aren’t magically turned into something other than a typical coffee bean. But growing coffee plants in the shade does tend to lead to some damn fine, high-quality beans.
And why not? They’re growing the way they were designed to grow and getting enough nutrients to thrive.
Sun grown coffee plants, on the other hand, sit out in the scorching sun all day, sacrificing quality and taste for mass production. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Studies have shown that even migratory birds know how to find the best plantations… and continue to return year after year for the best coffee around (2).
Shade Grown Coffee Benefits vs Sun Grown Defects
Some of the benefits of shade-grown coffee — apart from the higher quality taste — are best shown when contrasted against the other option available to farmers: growing coffee in the sun.
When a farm abandons the natural process for more productive means, often the plants end up out in the sun. This way, the coffee can be grown in massive quantities in an orderly, crop-like style. But under the brutally hot sun, they don’t get the same level of nutrients they need, and are often sprayed with fertilisers and herbicides.
Shade grown plants, on the other hand, are fertilised by dead leaves dropping from the tall trees overhead, while things like weeds are rarely an issue between the carpet of dead, decaying leaves and the shade itself. Chemicals are therefore unnecessary in this method.
The entire process of growing coffee plants in the sun also forces an unnatural acceleration to the plant’s lifespan, leading to sun grown coffee plants lasting a mere 15 years on average, whereas shade grown plants can live for twice as long. (3)
What is ‘Shade Grown Certified’?
Shade grown coffee is not a very structured movement yet, and there is no actual shade grown coffee certification to set standards for the industry. Because of this, you should keep a sharp eye out for the standards and commitment that each individual producer has before you blindly follow the label.
But that doesn’t mean the search for shade grown coffee is a hopeless quest! There are other things that a coffee-conscious consumer can look for that point to a genuine company. A few great examples include certifications like USDA Organic (like these beans), Fair Trade, and Bird Friendly.
Bird Friendly Coffee
Bird Friendly coffee is the closest thing you’re going to get to an official “shade grown” certification at this point in time. The “Bird Friendly” label comes from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (4) based in Washington, D.C., and it has some of the most stringent requirements you can find regarding coffee-growing environmental standards.
What draws birds back are the benefits of shade-grown coffee—food, water, and cover for safety and warmth—which help them to survive and gain weight over the winter. That extra weight is needed to fuel their arduous migration.
Finding coffee with this label is fairly difficult, but it does mean that it is automatically organic certified (a requirement!), and that the forest the coffee is grown in provides at least 40 percent shade for the coffee plants – which in turn helps to preserve the forest itself and the wildlife and habitat that it maintains.
It’s fascinating to note that the ecosystems of cutting-edge Bird Friendly certified coffee plantations have been found to be nearly as diverse as a natural forest unadulterated by humans in the first place! Now, that’s an endorsement if I’ve ever heard one.
Where to Get Shade Grown Coffee
As mentioned above, finding a good shade grown coffee brand can be a bit more difficult than, say, a good fair trade coffee brand.
Here’s a great source that offers individual lists of certified growers in places like Canada, the US, the UK, and even the Czech Republic: nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/where-buy-bird-friendly-coffee
Another good option is Birds and Beans Coffee. Their beans are all shade grown and certified organic.
Shade Grown Coffee In A Nutshell
So, there you have it. Shade grown coffee is coffee grown in a natural way under a forest roof. While not yet a full-blown movement, it’s well on its way to a global consciousness. And now YOU know what it’s about as well, so you can feel more equipped than ever when you make your coffee purchases.
Just remember, if it’s truly shade-grown, it’s coming from an undamaged habitat that is eco-friendly, and most likely producing higher-quality coffee beans. It’s a win-win!
If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them. And, if you truly care about creating a more ethical, conscionable coffee world, please share the post! This is a topic that the world needs to hear more about!
Frequently Asked Questions
Shade grown coffee is better for the environment: it requires little or no chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides. Because the trees produce their crop more slowly than sun-grown coffee, many people also believe that this yields coffee beans with a superior flavour.
A coffee tree produces around 5 kilos of coffee cherries each year, on average. It takes about 2,000 cherries (2.3 kilos) to produce 500 grams of coffee.
A coffee tree can yield fruit for about 25 years. It takes between four and five years for a tree to produce the first crop.
- Coffee 101: What Does a Coffee Plant Look Like? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://theroasterie.com/blogs/news/coffee-101-what-does-a-coffee-plant-look-like
- Rodewald, A. (2017, April 30). ‘Shade-grown’ coffee has a surprising environmental benefit. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/shade-grown-coffee-has-a-surprising-environmental-benefit-2017-4
- Craves, J. (2006, February 5). The problems with sun coffee. Retrieved from https://www.coffeehabitat.com/2006/02/the_problems_wi/
- Bird Friendly Coffee. (2019, January 30). Retrieved from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/bird-friendly