If you prefer coffee without the exploitive economic impact of, say, the cocaine trade, you might look at those reassuring labels on your coffee bag. Here’s what they mean:
Fair trade: This is a broad term that is sometimes applied liberally to mean “playing nice.” But Fairtrade—note the elision of the space—is actually a brand name. It’s a proprietary certification mark bestowed by a lovingly patrician foundation in Great Britain, attesting that you’re not giving coffee farmers a raw deal and you’re not doing anything awful like hiring children and sending them out into the hot Colombian sun. It guarantees minimum coffee prices, and its Fairtrade Premium program offers insurance against crop disease. Most third-wavers use it, and even Starbucks tries to market it (though only 8% of its coffee is so certified.)
Free trade: This is coffee sold without interference of government tariffs and pork bellies and such—the idea being that the playing field is thereby leveled to the farmer’s benefit. Some argue this leaves certain producers vulnerable to market fluctuations, but they’re silly. Free trade is always good. If you question this, you’re a communist. Ava Roasteria in the Beav uses it, as does the Salvation Army (no kiddin’!) for its in-house roasts.
Direct trade: It cuts out the presumably exploitive middle man. So it helps ensure fair deals for the farmers because they can negotiate prices directly with the marketplace, and it cuts out a profit drain in the middle besides. Win-win, right? (Only if the end buyer isn’t an exploitive market manipulator, but OK. We’re all reasonable people.) Direct-trade roasters tend to pay premium prices for higher-grade coffee when bidding—as opposed to fair trade, which doesn’t require this—so direct trade is seen as a step toward better-quality coffee and higher farmer income. Stumptown and Portland Roasting are the two local biggies here.
Bird Friendly: Sometimes called “shade-grown,” because that’s what it is. Bestowed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the certification means nobody got rid of all the trees to plant the coffee, so the birds can all hang out and have kids and sing songs and shit on the beans. Locally, K&F Coffee loves those birds in a certified way.
Rainforest Alliance-approved: It means a foundation in New York says the coffee isn’t screwing up the rainforest and the people in it. The tree standards are less stringent than the “Bird Friendly” designation, but they include protections against child labor and protections of waterways. But note: If the bag doesn’t say 100 percent Rainforest Alliance-approved, up to 70 percent of the coffee might be grown by children in deserts cleared of trees, with pesticides, and still get the designation. So caveat emptor, guilty American. The Knockout blend at Boyd’s is 40 percent RAA. We don’t think the other 60 percent is grown by children.
Organic: This means so many things. In part, it means that big synthetic pesticides or chemicals aren’t used. But it also might mean all sorts of ecosystem preservation such as soil conservation and general animal friendliness, lack of genetically modified plants, soil-preserving crop-switching, you name it. It also means the farmers have the money and wherewithal to fill out the egregiously complicated forms required to gain certification. Lots of hippie brew in Portland, from Dogfeather’s to St. Johns to Cellar Door.
Harvested by Women: Women’s empowerment is included in the fair-trade movement (and is part of the Fairtrade standards), but Equal Exchange foundation’s “Grown by Women” mark takes it further by insisting that women who often do much of the work on small farms also have control of finances. Boyd’s is the first American company to gain this certification, with its Cafe Libre blend.Family trade: This is sort of made up. But it’s the designation favored by Nossa Familia because it owns the Brazilian farms that make the coffee used for its roasters.