Shade Grown Coffee


Recently, I was lucky enough to learn more about shade grown coffee research from Amanda Caudill, a professor at the University of Columbia in New York. Amanda reached out to me following my YouTube video on sourcing claims that roasters and shops make.

Amanda has been researching shade grown coffee for 10 years now, with a focus on the importance of mammal populations as well as bird populations on coffee farms. Each year she issues new students with a research task, to head out around Manhattan and visit speciality coffee shops, presenting baristas with three simple questions.

The first question, “where is your coffee from?”

All baristas knew how to answer this question with Colombia and Brazil the most common answers.

The second question, “is your coffee certified?”

In the US, certifications are much more common in specialty coffee and the participating interviewees mostly knew whether the answer was yes or no. The most recent surveys showed that on average 50% of the coffee was certified.

The third question, “is your coffee shade grown or sun grown?”

67% of interviewees didn’t know and importantly weren’t sure of what this actually defined.

18% said the coffee was shade grown, though I wonder whether this could actually be verified and that's one of the challenges with shade grown coffee.

Amanda explained that shade coverage is a really good simple barometer when discussing ecological health of harvested land. The variety and richness of the shade coffee is also important. Coffee is of course very well suited to this and its natural habit is as a forest floor shrub with layered canopy cover.

However in many countries this isn’t the case.

In some countries a lot of coffee is shade grown by default, such as India. We recently met Wycliffe, the founder of an exciting and ambitious coffee project in Uganda. Wycliffe was a coffee picker himself and the coffee was always grown under shade, his coffee company is named after the birds that would sing above him as he picked coffee cherries.

The obvious question is how does one know if the coffee is shade grown or not? There is the Bird Friendly certification by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. This is very challenging to achieve and is recognised as an extremely high standard.

The problem is there just isn’t that much of it. It's quite niche.

I think verification is important with coffee growing and sourcing claims, especially as customers become more aware and wish to make choices based on sustainability in coffee. There really is a tonne of sustainability claims in speciality coffee that have zero auditing or substantiation.

On the flip side, if the certification is onerous on the producer that is problematic. I wonder with shade coverage if modern technology can help and whether a simple drone mapping exercise could validate basic shade coverage. I have been told this is more complex than it may seem!

I think a lot of sustainability narratives in coffee need to go beyond simply paying a good price. I appreciate where this comes from, with the colonialism and slave trade basis for unsustainable coffee pricing. However, considering sustainability holistically is vital. We are developing a sourcing programme policy at Colonna that hopes to address the complexity and context of coffee growing in different origins, whereby we have goals for the sourcing per region.

Speciality coffee has typically been quite anti-certification due to limited accessibility, often not feasible for smaller producers. There is controversy around Fair Trade, which for premium coffee also makes sense as the higher selling price around great coffee makes it less necessary. But there’s complexity and nuance here that is for another newsletter!

Rain Forest Alliance though is a well respected certification across the industry and I think we will utilise it more in our sourcing, but also recognise the limitations and continually work to progress our understanding and relationships.

If anything, I hope this newsletter highlights the awareness of the concept of shade vs sun grown coffee, even if there is not currently the structures in place to fully support it.

As we continue to explore sustainability across our supply chain we will share our thoughts on what we learn and how we consider them at Colonna.