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The Ultimate Guide to Coffee Certifications

Coffee certifications are confusing. There are too many of them, all with varying criteria. Some are more rigorous than others, and some require expensive fees. Some protect the environment, while others protect people.

So how best to use coffee certifications to guide your coffee shopping? Read this ultimate guide to find out.

The Key Certifications

There are a huge number of coffee certifications out there to confused consumers. However, some carry more weight than others. Here are four certifications you should know when shopping for the best beans.

coffee certifications
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1. USDA Organic Coffee

In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying organic coffee, with several agencies responsible for carrying out actual verifications. The main requirement for certified organic coffee is that no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides are used on the land. 

But that’s not all! There also needs to be a buffer between organic beans and any adjacent non-organic crops. Also, the farm needs to show a plan for sustainable farming, including the prevention of soil erosion. 

The main problem with organic certification is that it can be expensive or complicated to obtain, making it challenging for farmers in poorer regions. However, once obtained, producers can typically demand higher prices for their crops.

2. Fair Trade Coffee Certification

Fair trade is one of the more complicated certifications. So, in the past few years, it has fallen out of fashion. According to Jennifer Yeatts of Higher Grounds Trading Co., buyers now prefer to establish long-term relationships directly with producers (1).

By conducting business in the coffee sector in that way, we can confront inequality and cultivate humanity’s vast potential.

The concept of fair trade is great. The idea is to pay producers fair wages to promote global equity and alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, there are too many certifying organizations, and more have criteria that don’t do enough. For example, the U.S. has both Fairtrade America and Fair Trade USA, with the former having stricter criteria.

Fair trade coffee need not be organic, but coffee with both certifications can fetch higher prices.

3. Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffees

The Rainforest Alliance is an NGO that certifies many agricultural products. In 2017, they merged with another certifier, UTZ, and the two came out with a new set of criteria in 2020.

The NGO is interested in sustainable agriculture from both an environmental and socio-economic standpoint. They care how the coffee is grown, how the local environment is protected, and how local workers are treated. That said, Rainforest Alliance certified coffee need not be organic or shade-grown.

For more information on the mission of the Rainforest Alliance, check out this video:

Farms are scored on how many criteria they meet, receiving the certification for a high enough score. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which criteria were met.

4. Bird Safe Coffee

Ecologists developed the certification for Bird-Friendly coffee at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. It is one of the most difficult to obtain.

The requirements were set to protect migratory birds, but they convey many other environmental benefits.

The criteria are numerous, including a certain height of tree canopy, shade cover, biodiversity minimums, and even a priority for native plant life. And the coffee must be certified organic. Unlike the Rainforest Alliance certification, a farm must meet all the criteria to qualify.

Like the others, this certification requires a fee to obtain, but all collected fees are used to support bird conservation research.

Final Thoughts

Coffee certifications are a useful way to learn how your coffee was produced. More importantly, they show how coffee production impacts its surroundings environmentally and socioeconomically. But the certification system is not perfect. Use this information as a starting point to guide you towards sustainable coffee choices, but don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper.

FAQs

Direct trade is not a certification. Yet, people increasingly prefer it to Fair Trade. With direct trade, buyers and producers interact directly, often to benefit both parties as long-term relationships develop.

No, there is no official shade-grown certification, though you will see it on coffee labels. The only coffee certification that mandates shade cover is the Bird-Friendly certification.

A B Corporation is any business that meets high social, economic, and environmental standards. They balance purpose and profit. B Corporation certification is not specific to coffee or agriculture, but a growing number of coffee companies have obtained it.

  1. Guerra, G. (2021, February 26). How can coffee roasters drive change at origin? Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2021/02/how-can-coffee-roasters-drive-change-at-origin/
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I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.

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