11 Things You THOUGHT You Knew About Organic Coffee (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

You’re choosing between two flavorful whole bean blends from Central America.

  • Blend A has “organic” written front and center.
  • Blend B doesn’t.

Clearly Blend A is better, right?

Maybe.

“Organic” is a general term that can mean a lot of different things in the agricultural world.

Before Organic was a certification given out by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it was a general principle of using natural ingredients and processes when available. This means “organic” can fluctuate from product to product.

Plus, people just assume that organic = natural = better. That isn’t necessarily true. There are many ingredients or processes involving synthetic compounds that have never been shown to have adverse health effects.

organic coffee is natural is better
Is coffee that’s labeled organic automatically better? Not necessarily.

For example, in order to be called organic a crop can’t be grown using GMO seeds. That makes sense, right? GMOs are nasty and terrible for you! Or are they? A Pew Research study showed that 9 of 10 doctors believe GMOs are “generally safe.” In truth, there’s a lack of compelling evidence that GMOs are any different than regular crops.

Clearly “organic” is a loaded word with a lot of variance. What does that mean for you and your coffee habit?

We’ll give you the complete picture in The Coffee Maven’s complete guide to organic coffee. Let’s start with the basics.

coffee farm
Tarrazu at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

1. What is organic coffee?

Organic coffee is coffee that’s produced without the aid of synthetic substances at any part of the process from farm to roasting.

That’s a rather vague description, though. What’s really meant by “farm to roasting”? Well, it includes the following:

  • Farm land
  • Fertilizers
  • Pest control
  • Processing
  • Packaging
  • Roasting
what makes organic coffee

Let’s dive into each briefly.

Farm land

Soil must be free from synthetic chemicals for a certain number of years, depending on the country giving the organic certification. For the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the period is three years.

Fertilizers

Options here generally are manure, spent coffee pulp, and general compost. Here’s an interesting abstract on the performance of organic vs inorganic fertilizers on coffee trees.

Pest control

Organic pesticides exist and use substances such as soaps, lime sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide. Natural solutions are employed as well, such as growing coffee in shade, which fosters a healthy ecosystem with predators (e.g. birds) that can keep the crop pest free.

Processing

The coffee must be processed in a certified organic facility using equipment that doesn’t have any synthetic residues.

Packaging

Even beginning with harvesting, care has to be taken with which materials are used to package the coffee. If coffee comes in contact with any packaging material that isn’t organic, the coffee can no longer be called organic despite how it was grown.

Roasting

Similar to processing, the coffee must be roasted at a certified organic facility. However, most roasters process both organic coffee and regular coffee that hasn’t followed the organic path. These facilities must take great care to avoid contamination.

Related: Roast Your Own Coffee At Home In 10 Easy Steps

Note: The USDA provides a complete list of what is (and isn’t) a banned substance.

This post from Organic It’s Worth It does a really great job of giving a ton of detail on the whole process.

Organic is all about the process and says nothing about ethics or labor practices. This means a farm may be able to grow and sell organic coffee while still having exploitative labor practices. If you care about the whole picture, look for coffee with organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance certifications.

usda logo
United States Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2. Who gets to label coffee “organic”?

It depends on the country where the coffee is being sold. In the United States it’s the USDA. In the UK it’s The Soil Association. Each body has their own requirements for what organic means.

Note: Because the vast majority of visitors to The Coffee Maven are from the United States, the majority of this article references USDA requirements unless otherwise specified.

3. What are the different “degrees” of organic certification?

Many people don’t even know to ask this question. Three degrees of organic certification are specified by the USDA, depending on the amount of the product that is produced organically:

  • 100 Percent Organic: Made of completely organic ingredients
  • Organic: Not less than 95% organic ingredients
  • Made With Organic ____: Not less than 70% organic

Since coffee generally has one ingredient — coffee beans — it frequently falls in the “100 Percent Organic” category, but that may not totally be true, especially for blends.

4. How popular is organic coffee?

This is always an interesting question to me, because there are a few ways to answer it! As a web site owner, my first thought is always “how much are people searching for [insert phrase]?”

Here’s the answer to that question according to Google:

For context I also included the search terms “Italian coffee” and “cold brew coffee.”

Searches for “organic coffee” have increased by 20-25% over the last five years, and the term is almost as popular as “Italian coffee,” which honestly was surprising to me.

(Perhaps the biggest takeaway above is regarding cold brew, both how cyclical it is with its high summer peaks and how much search interest has grown over the last five years.)

Here’s another interesting approach: organic coffee sales.

global organic coffee market
Image courtesy BusinessWire.com

Some takeaways:

  • Organic coffee had a $2.7 billion global sales volume in 2016. For comparison, global pod and capsule coffee sales in 2017 were $14.7 billion.
  • That’s only 5.4x larger than organic coffee sales, which is surprising to me given the popularity of Keurig, Nespresso, and other machines.
  • Organic coffee sales are forecasted for a 12.01% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
  • With that CAGR, organic coffee sales are expected to double in just six years!

So yeah — organic coffee is pretty darn popular.

5. Is organic coffee better for your health?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes, but how much better is hard to quantify.

Organic coffee has the benefit of not being grown, processed, or transported with synthetic substances.

How bad are these synthetic substances for your health? Well, long-term exposure to some of the compounds found in pesticides has been linked to many health conditions:

  • Allergies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Hypertension
  • Strokes
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney failure
  • Dementia
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • And more

(Not all pesticides are linked to all of these conditions. It depends on the type of pesticide used.)

Additionally, coffee grown with organic fertilizers has been found to have higher concentrations of anti-oxidants.

organic coffee cherries in bags
Organic coffee cherries in bags courtesy 2Chek on Pixabay.

6. Does organic coffee taste better?

The answer to this question is totally subjective. In my experience, organic does taste better in an apples-to-apples comparison.

(Like literally, organic apples taste better than regular apples.)

But if you want to say Roaster A’s organic coffee tastes better than Roaster B’s regular coffee — and therefore organic tastes better overall — I just don’t think you can do that. That’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Why does organic coffee taste better? Probably two reasons, one direct and one indirect:

  • Direct: Those nasty synthetic compounds just don’t taste great in general.
  • Indirect: Organic coffee generally is produced on small lot farms that take better care of their coffee trees, which results in better tasting coffee.

7. Does organic coffee have more or less caffeine?

After much research I have found no evidence that organic coffee has more or less caffeine than regular coffee. If you want high-caffeine organic coffee, Death Wish Coffee makes some potent stuff.

usda organic fair trade rainforest alliance certified logos
USDA Organic (source), Fair Trade Certified (source), Rainforest Alliance Certified (source)

8. Organic vs Fair Trade vs Rainforest Alliance: What do these terms mean?

There are a lot of different regulatory bodies out there that give out these certifications. What are the differences between them?

Organic Certification

We’ve already covered this one is detail. Organic coffee has been grown, processed, and roasted without the use of synthetic compounds in facilities that are certified organic. In the United States it’s regulated by the USDA.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade America is the US arm of the international Fair Trade certification system and grants the Fair Trade Certification to farms that meet criteria in the following areas:

  • Income equality
  • Gender equality
  • Workers’ rights
  • Child labor
  • Climate change

There are other Fair Trade organizations as well that have their own criteria, so check that the certification logo matches the organization you want.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

The Rainforest Alliance grants certifications to farms, forests, and tourism enterprises that “has been audited to meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability.”

For coffee farms, the Rainforest Alliance looks for the following:

  • Biodiversity connection
  • Improved livelihoods and human well-being
  • Natural resource conservation
  • Effective planning and farm management

While there is some overlap between Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance certifications, it boils down to this at a high level:

  • Organic Certification is most concerned with how the coffee is produced.
  • Fair Trade Certification is most concerned with the workers and the community.
  • Rainforest Alliance Certification is most concerned with sustainable practices, most notably environmental.
organic coffee brewed with a chemex
Delicious cup of organic coffee brewed in a Chemex, courtesy Simon Wright on Flickr

9. What are the benefits of brewing with organic coffee?

The main benefit of brewing with organic coffee is that it’s certified to be free of synthetic chemicals frequently used during the farming, processing, and packaging processes. There may be some health benefits to brewing with organic coffee, as mentioned above. I also think most organic coffees taste a little better.

However, brewing with organic coffee does not necessarily mean you’re supporting farms or roasters with fair labor and/or sustainability practices.

For those, look out for the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance Certified labels as described above.

10. Does decaf organic coffee exist?

Yes. There are three ways of decaffeinating coffee:

  1. Chemical solvents
  2. Swiss Water Process
  3. CO2 Process
3 decaffeination methods

Let’s take a quick look at all three.

Chemical solvents

Caffeine is removed using a chemical solvent, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. (Read more.) NOT ORGANIC

Swiss Water Process

Coffee beans are steeped in hot water to dissolve caffeine, flavorful oils, and organic acids. Resulting liquid is pushed through activated carbon, which filters out the caffeine molecules since they’re largest. This caffeine-free liquid is then used to steep new beans. Because the liquid is so concentrated with the oils and acids, they mostly remain behind in the bean and only the caffeine is extracted! The beans are then dried to their original moisture level and bagged. (Read more.) ORGANIC

CO2 Process

Newest and least-used method, coffee beans are steamed and combined with CO2 under pressure. The compressed CO2 selectively binds with caffeine molecules, leaving the oils and acids behind. (Read more.) ORGANIC

are nespresso capsules organic coffee
Colorful array of Nespresso capsules, which are NOT organic, courtesy Joe Schlabotnik on Flickr

11. Do organic coffee pods and capsules exist?

Organic coffee isn’t reserved for you manual or drip coffee brewers out there. You can also buy organic coffee pods and capsules for Keurig and Nespresso machines, as well as other single serve coffee makers.

Organic Keurig Pods

San Francisco Bay Coffee Company makes a lot of organic Keurig-compatible pods, many of which have Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and other certifications. Here’s a link to their organic offerings in their online store. At the time of this writing, they don’t offer any organic decaf coffee.

Organic Nespresso Capsules

Artizan Coffee makes organic Nespresso-compatible capsules, many of which have Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and other certifications. They also offer decaf capsules which were decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process described above. Another plus: Their pods are compostable and biodegradable.

Final Word on Organic Coffee

“Organic” is a widely misunderstood term for consumers due in large part to the complexity around the certification process, the multiple types of certifications, and the (sometimes) intentionally misleading package used by manufacturers.

While I don’t personally care too much if my coffee is organic, I do care whether it’s Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

It can be challenging for many small lot farms to achieve the organic certification because of the costs associated with adhering to the strict organic criteria on a small scale, but I do want to support these farms, especially those who endorse fair labor practices and a sustainable approach for both the environment and the local community.

Search