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Making Sense of Coffee Labels


You may have noticed a variety of labels on the coffee packages in the grocery store that communicate some social or environmental benefit, i.e., “Shade Grown”, “Fair Trade”, “Rainforest Alliance”. But what do they really mean and how do you decide which coffee is best aligned with your values?

The good news is that most of these labels usually indicate that something positive is happening to affect the way the coffee is being grown, harvested and/or sold as it relates to environmental impact and/or impact on farmers, workers and their communities.

Some labels focus on a specific issue. For example, “Fair Trade” focuses on ensuring that small farmers receive a fair price for their crop as well as the business skills necessary to compete.

“Shade grown” indicates that the coffee was grown on a farm with some shade, meaning trees are preserved or planted which protects bird habitats and prevents soil erosion, among other things. Shade grown coffee is also thought to taste better, as the coffee cherries ripen more slowly in the shade and have a chance to fully develop. While there’s no formal certification for shade grown coffee, the Smithsonian “Bird Friendly “seal certifies that the coffee came from a farm with at least 40% shade cover.

Caribou Berries

Coffee Cherries ripening in the shade. Photo courtesy of Caribou Coffee

“Rainforest Alliance” is perhaps the most comprehensive certification (you may have seen its green frog seal) that ensures coffee farms are being managed in a way that protects the environment and that farmers get fairly compensated and workers receive fair wages as well as access to education, healthcare and housing. Twin Cities based Caribou Coffee is the only major coffee company to achieve 100% Rainforest Certification for all of its coffee proving that business can do good and be successful and we can all feel good about the coffee we buy. Makes sense to me.


This post is presented by Caribou Coffee Caribou Coffee Logo

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Minnesota Monthly's Taste Blog answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally brings the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Learn more about the Taste bloggers.

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