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How do you decide what coffee to buy?

Fair trade, organic, traceability ... what's it all mean? With International Coffee Day giving us all an extra reason to enjoy our morning brew on October 1, here's a guide to some of the key points that matter when it comes to selecting coffee

It’s a very coffee focussed week this week: October 1 is International Coffee Day, while on Thursday it was national Coffee Day in the US. It seemed the perfect time to get some tips on selecting coffee from Melbourne’s Jason Scheultus, author of the new book Coffee: from bean to the perfect brew:

Choosing coffee for home can be difficult and sometimes intimidating. As with wine, there can be a lot of technical and marketing terms used that often aren’t very clear. Hopefully I can shed some light on what information matters the most when selecting coffee, and what information you can chalk up to marketing. There are a couple of certifications to look out for, but generally the industry doesn’t have any fixed standards as to what should be printed on the bags for customers.

The importance of traceability

Until very recently, coffee was traded as a commodity. There were many different grades for different origins, based on quality, altitude and even the physical size of the coffee bean. For a young industry, trading in this way makes sense, after all, how many roasters and customers could the world sustain? Well, very many as it turns out. Improving coffee’s traceability started out because roasters wanted better quality lots of coffee for their customers and more consistent quality year to year.

Coffee brokers and roasters started to look for individual or groups of farmers who were interested in making improvements to their processes in exchange for a higher price.

These improvements were often as simple as only picking ripe cherries, or only selecting lots for export from the highest parts of a farm. But the consequences are significant – changing coffee from a commodity to a traceable, quality product means huge improvements for consumers and better prices for coffee producers.

So how traceable does it have to be to make a difference? This is a very difficult question to answer, because each coffee producing country has a different socio-economic background, and therefore a unique economic relationship between coffee producer, coffee exporter and roaster.

Poorer countries tend to have more government structure surrounding the export and trade of coffee, whereas more developed countries tend to have fewer mediating bodies.

In countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda, coffee co-operatives can be made up of thousands of members, each being a small family with only a few coffee trees to tend to and look after (one coffee tree can produce a few kilos/pounds of coffee per season).

In circumstances such as these, traceability is generally limited to the larger co-operative is based. In more developed countries such as Brazil, Guatemala or Costa Rica, vast coffee plantations can be owned by a single person or a single family, meaning traceability is far more precise.

To make a difference to the lives of the producers, traceability needs to extend down to a washing station level, and ideally further to a smaller group. Defining larger groups of people such as whole regions means that there is very little benefit to identification.

Making informed choices

As with many products, knowing the source of the coffee can help to inform consumers about other issues they might care about. Having the ability to speak directly with coffee producers allows good roasters and retailers to gain insight into that producer’s practices, which not only helps in quality assurance but also allows for transparency on two main ethical issues linked to coffee production: environmental concerns and child labour.

Environmental concerns

The negative environmental impacts of coffee production can include waterway contamination, clear-felling of forests, and the development of monocultures. The use of fertilisers is common in Central and South America (although less so in Africa), and overuse or careless application can lead

to acidification of soil and waterways, killing native wildlife and biodiversity. All water runoff from coffee processing needs to be treated to kill any remaining bacteria or sugars so as not to change the chemistry of the waterways in areas surrounding production.

The ethical implications of destroying local environments to boost crops are very serious – many communities rely on a healthy environment to produce subsistence crops, especially in the poorest parts of the world.

Child labour

Child labour is a grave concern for the coffee industry. It’s an extremely complicated issue, and one that doesn’t have a simple solution or rule that can be applied to avoid it. It’s tragic that it still occurs in coffee producing countries, and it requires efforts from all parts of the industry to ensure it comes to an end.

Without traceability, these concerns can go unchecked and uninhibited. With traceability, consumers can be empowered to make informed decisions about what products and producers to support. As regulation in the coffee industry is not yet tight enough to prevent these concerns, consumers have a responsibility to try and make a difference with the choices that we make.


There are a few certifications available to coffee producers, for the benefit of the retail customer. The most common certifications are certified organic, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance and Cup of Excellence.

Certified organic

Internationally, there are many different associations that can administer organic certification, and different food labelling laws apply too. If you want to support organic farming practices, it’s worth noting that organic farming can exist without certification, but it’s not all that common. Bolivia is a notable exception – their coffee industry is very small, and most of the producers have a special relationship with the environment, caring for it as if it were a whole living entity. Ethiopia is also notable, where a lot of the coffee is grown by individuals, a few plants at a time.

Australia has particularly lax labelling laws when it comes to foods. Essentially, you can label anything as ‘organic’ even if it is literally dripping with fungicides and pesticides. If a food is labelled ‘certified organic’, then it does have to conform to strict rules applied by a few associations, so always look out for a particular certification rather than just the word ‘organic’.

Fair trade

Fair trade guarantees a minimum price paid to coffee farmers. It’s currently USD$1.40 per pound for washed arabica coffee. This price is less than half the price that is paid for high quality coffee, as you would find in good coffee shops around the world, and about 25 cents per pound more than the current ‘C’ price for washed arabica coffee (a floating futures trading commodity price).

The fair trade price is a guaranteed minimum for co-operatives that qualify, but the certification does not assure buyers of any minimum quality standards other than washed arabica. Choosing fair trade certified coffee over similar lower quality coffees, or commodity traded coffees can be a good choice to ensure a better price is paid to producers, but if you are buying high quality coffee then the price paid to the producer will be based on the quality rather than the commodity or fair trade price.

Cup of Excellence

Cup of Excellence is a national coffee quality competition, held in a number of different coffee producing countries each year. It is free for producers to enter, and they are only required to submit a small sample of their coffee. The competition is independently audited to ensure it is free from influence or corruption, and ensures buyers have confidence in the system.

The best 30–40 coffees of that country for that year are determined initially by a national jury, and then finally by an international jury representative of international buyers. Once the final coffees have been ranked, the top coffees (scoring 85/100 or over) are awarded Cup of Excellence, and then sold at auction over the internet. The starting price for these coffees is USD$5 per pound, and the auction drives the price up from that, usually to USD$8–15 per pound, but it has gone as high as USD$45 per pound in the past.

The aim of the competition is to connect coffee producers with coffee roasters or brokers who have a common goal of high quality. The competition helps to build relationships between growers and roasters, while establishing and quantifying the value and quality of their coffee. This means that in years to come, whether the coffee is submitted to the competition or not, the producer can sell their coffee at a premium price based on its quality. If a bag of coffee has a Cup of Excellence sticker on it, you can be assured the quality has been checked many, many times, and a great price was paid to the producer.

Jason Scheltus

Extract from Liquid Education: Coffee by Jason Scheltus, illustrations by Daniella Germain (Smith Street Books, hb, $24.99)