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What is Shade-Grown Coffee?

Shade-Grown Coffee Plot (Wikimedia Commons)
It seems sometimes that it takes as long to read a coffee package as it does to brew a proper cup. There are so many adjectives and descriptors attached for the delectation of the serious coffee drinker: "Selassie Estate Certified Organic Shade Grown Direct Trade Swiss Water Decaffeinated Private Reserve Sidamo" is more of a mouthful than you get at your average cupping. While some terminology has become little more than marketing buzzwords, other terms can be important -- especially if you're concerned about the sustainability of your coffee. Take "shade-grown coffee," for instance. As we've mentioned -- and bemoaned -- elsewhere on this site, coffee growing, harvesting, and roasting have become increasingly industrialized. In order to control costs and maximize yields and profits, major manufacturers attempt to cram as many coffee plants into each square acre as they can. That involves growing coffee in full sun, using all the trappings of modern agriculture. That typically means chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on coffee plants grown on clear-cut land. You've likely deduced from the previous paragraph that the methods typically used have their drawbacks. These often include:
  • Deforestation
  • Loss of bird and insect habitats
  • Decreased flood control
  • Higher CO2 levels
  • Soil depletion from monoculture
In contrast, shade-grown coffee is grown among the natural canopy of trees and other native plants. The yield is generally smaller due to the smaller amount of sunlight, but there are numerous benefits to shade-grown coffee:
  • CO2 sequestration that fights global warming
  • Polyculture eliminates the need for artificial fertilizer
  • Bird habitation combats insect infestation
  • Areas are less prone to flood due to the diversity of plant life
  • Taste is noticably improved
The methods of coffee growing are varied, ranging from rustic (minimal intervention, no pesticides or herbicides used) to unshaded monoculture (the current method favored by mass-market growers, involving pesticides, fertilizers, clear-cutting and intensive labor). One issue with many shade-grown certifications is that they allow for a certain percentage of the beans to be non-shade coffee. Since it's a voluntary standard, some growers and sellers will naturally gravitate toward the "easier" certification. If true shade-grown coffee matters to you, look for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly seal; to date, it's the most rigorous certification, containing only 100% shade-grown and organic coffee. Learn More: Coffee And Conservation Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center on the benefits of shade grown coffee, and their Bird Friendly Coffee certification