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Organic Coffee: Brands To Look For, What Makes Them Different
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
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Grocery shoppers usually fall into two categories: those who buy organic products and those who don’t.
To the first group, the label “organic” means healthier, higher-quality, and responsible.
To the second group, “organic” is essentially a synonym for “expensive.”
Most people would probably concede that purchasing organic products would be a great idea if they could afford it. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that the price differences can be extreme, ranging from 7% for spinach to 82% for eggs.
Organic coffee falls on the low end of that spectrum. The premium that consumers have to pay for organic beans and ground coffee is in the vicinity of 10-15%.
And as it turns out, the extra few bucks are definitely worth spending.
Here’s a deeper dive into organic coffee – and the best organic coffee brands to look for.
What Is Organic Coffee?
Before discussing organic coffee, let’s define it.
The traditional definition of organic food is simply “food produced with organic farming methods.” That’s obviously not much help, so let’s talk about organic farming methods.
The Agriculture Department has a long definition of organic practices that address the underlying reasons for organic growing, including issues like ecological balance, biodiversity, and cycling farm resources.
But here’s the part of their “organic” description we’re looking for: “maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality…and avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.”
That’s still a lot of words, so let’s boil it down even further.
Organic coffee has been grown with only natural fertilizers and practices. No chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or GMOs are used, and farming is done in an environmentally responsible way.
Here are just a few examples of what that means.
- Organic coffee farmers use natural fertilizers like compost, cow or chicken manure, or coffee pulp, instead of commercially-produced fertilizers that may contain petroleum and hazardous chemicals.
- They control insects and predators with natural methods instead of planting genetically-modified crops or using pesticides that could contaminate the coffee beans or harm the environment.
- They rotate crops and use manual techniques for weed control and plant protection, instead of relying on chemicals or GMOs.
That sounds great: no chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, or GMOs. But is it worth paying an extra 10-15% for coffee grown that way?
Benefits of Organic Coffee
It’s a common belief that organic foods provide more health benefits than their non-organic counterparts. We’ll discuss that shortly – after first asking what many consumers might consider the more important question.
Does Organic Coffee Taste Better?
Not necessarily. There’s no scientific proof that organic growing methods lead to an improvement in the flavor of coffee.
Many coffee drinkers, however, do swear that organic beans produce better-tasting coffee. Some say it’s “smoother,” some claim it’s “cleaner,” others say it’s “richer.” The only way to know if your taste buds prefer organic coffee to non-organic coffee is to try some for yourself.
Is Drinking Organic Coffee Better For Your Health?
You may be surprised to learn that the health and wellness benefits of organic coffee are exactly the same as they are for non-organic coffee.
Coffee contains a bountiful amount of crucial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, no matter how it’s grown. Coffee, or the caffeine it contains, has been shown to reduce the risk of a wide range of illnesses and medical conditions that include diabetes, heart disease, degenerative neurological diseases, and heart disease.
Coffee provides an energy boost, eases depression, and may even contribute to longer life – whether it’s grown organically or not.
So health benefits aren’t the issue. The real question is whether organic coffee growers’ avoidance of chemicals and synthetic materials lowers the potential health risks.
The evidence isn’t conclusive, but a growing amount of in-depth scientific research has shown that organic foods are generally healthier to consume than ones that haven’t been grown organically.
However, coffee may be a special case.
Coffee crops are among the most heavily treated in the world. Some estimates claim that each acre of conventionally-produced coffee is treated with around 250 pounds of chemical fertilizer.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: most of those chemicals are apparently burned off during the coffee roasting process. One study found that about 85% of those potentially-hazardous chemicals are removed.
There have been no detailed studies on the health risks of drinking non-organic coffee, so that’s the closest we can come to an answer. It appears that organic coffee brands may be somewhat better for your health, but it’s not an open-and-shut case.
The Greatest Benefits of Organic Coffee
That brings us to a fact that most people don’t realize when they’re deciding whether to splurge on organic coffee: the greatest benefits are experienced by farmers and the environment.
Benefits for Farm Owners and Workers
Organic growing methods support the health of coffee farms.
The practices improve soil quality and sustainability, prevent water runoff and nutrient loss, and encourage the proliferation of plant, animal and insect species that benefit the crops and the land that surrounds them.
Organic growing methods also support the health of farm workers.
They’re not exposed to the hazardous chemicals they would otherwise be tasked with applying to crops, and potential issues go far beyond the obvious. Many farm workers are not provided with or able to understand information that would warn them about those dangers, leaving them more vulnerable than would otherwise be the case.
Benefits for the Environment
The greatest benefits of organic coffee growing may be global ones.
- The reasons that organic growing practices benefit farms are also good for the environment at large: healthy soil, clean water, sustainability, and the protection of natural habitats.
- Most non-organic species are hybrids cultivated to grow in open space, which requires deforestation. Organic coffee crops are grown naturally in shady forest areas.
- And the avoidance of petroleum-based fertilizers increases the amount of carbon dioxide that plants absorb from the air, reducing farms’ carbon footprint and helping to fight global warming.
Here’s the bottom line. Organic coffee may taste better. It may be better for you. But the 10-15% premium you pay for organic coffee brands is a huge investment in farmers, their workers, and the planet we all share.
Organic, Certified Organic, and Fair Trade
Even if you’ve decided that you want to purchase organic coffee, it isn’t easy to understand exactly what you’re buying. For starters, you may see some products labeled “organic” or “made with organic ingredients,” others labeled “certified organic,” and still others labeled “USDA-Certified 100% organic.”
Let’s sort out the potential confusion.
The Messy World of Organic Certification
No manufacturer can legally claim that a product is organic unless it’s been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Otherwise, all they’re “allowed” to do is identify the product’s organic ingredients on the nutrition facts/ingredients part of the label.
Unfortunately, not all companies rigorously follow labeling laws, so you may see the word “organic” used on non-organic products.
USDA certification is the only guarantee that a product has been organically-grown. But even that can be complicated because there are three categories of USDA certification.
- Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of a product’s ingredients (not counting water and salt) are organically-produced. Most products that are legitimately labeled “organic” fall into this category.
- Certified Organic: At least 95% of a product’s ingredients (not counting water and salt) are organic.
- USDA-Certified Organic: This is the only label that theoretically assures a completely organic product. (More on that in a moment.)
Four issues complicate the picture even further.
- Both “Certified Organic” and “USDA-Certified Organic” coffee may carry the USDA seal, so seeing the seal on a package isn’t a guarantee that the product is completely organic.
- Roasters can call their coffee “USDA-Certified Organic” as long as 95% of the coffee in a bag is certified. That means up to 5% of the beans or grounds may not be certified organic.
- The majority of coffee producers don’t submit their organically-grown products for certification because it’s an extremely expensive process.
- Some states have their own organic certification process, so an “organic” label may refer to looser (or stricter) state requirements, not federal ones.
The confusion around organic labels is bad enough. But then you look more closely at the label and see another phrase, possibly accompanied by a different seal: “Fair Trade Coffee.”
What the heck is that?
What Is Fair Trade Coffee?
“Fair Trade” labels don’t tell you anything specific about the methods used to grow your coffee. They tell you about the way the source farms operate. Essentially, the term means that the workers have been paid a living wage and have been protected from unsafe conditions.
Once again, there are several types of certifications you may see.
- “Fairtrade” – Certified by the organization Fairtrade International, these products come from small farms which have received a fair price for their sustainably- and ethically-produced coffee beans.
- “Fair Trade Certified” – Certified by the organization of the same name, these products may be produced by large farms or plantations, but the workers are paid a minimum wage and receive workplace protections.
- “Direct Trade” – The grower has made its own commitment to fair operating conditions, but no third party has certified its operations.
You may also see other certifications. One is from the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies that some (not necessarily all) of the beans have been sourced from farms that promote sustainability and protect the environment. Another is the “Bird-Friendly Habitat” seal from the Smithsonian Bird Center, which certifies that the source farms protect biodiversity.
Once again, coffee producers have to pay for those certifications, and many don’t.
That’s a lot of information to juggle – and even worse, “Bird-Friendly Habitat” is the only certification out of all the ones we’ve mentioned that guarantees coffee has been 100% organically grown.
What’s a poor coffee buyer to do?
How to Buy Organic Coffee
All of the “right” labels on coffee beans or packaged ground coffee are a good start. “USDA-Certified Organic” and “Fairtrade” certifications are indications that you’re buying high-quality organic coffee, as are Rainforest Alliance and Bird-Friendly Habitat seals.
However, you should go further than that if you want to be sure that you’re really purchasing organically-grown coffee.
The best approach is to buy from local coffee roasters. Most work directly with farms or reputable brokers, so they will be able to tell you exactly where their beans are sourced from, how they were produced, and whether they are organic.
If that’s not practical, purchase from trustworthy stores or websites that focus on organic, sustainable products. Whole Foods, for example, may be a better option than Sam’s Discount Grocery.
There are other phrases on packaging or in online descriptions that can give you a good indication that your coffee has been grown with care for the product and the environment. They include “shade-grown,” “wild-grown,” and of course, “organically grown.”
We have one final suggestion: consult our list of the best organic coffee brands, which we’ve compiled to eliminate most of the confusion.
Best Organic Coffee Brands
This will be a straightforward list of the best organic coffee brands on the market. But for those who are looking for a specific type of organic coffee beans (or pre-ground coffee), we’ll be highlighting those as we move along.
1. Lifeboost Organic Coffee – Best Organic Coffee
Lifeboost boasts just about everything you could ask for in a gourmet coffee.
This company sources single-origin Arabica beans from the mountains of Nicaragua. They’re USDA-certified organic, mountain shade-grown, and lab-tested to be free of heavy metals, pesticides and mycotoxins (toxic compounds produced by certain types of mold). Lifeboost is also low-acid coffee, ideal for those who suffer intestinal distress when they overdo the java.
Lifeboost roasts these beans in small batches just before shipping, and that’s reflected in their rich, delicious taste.
You can choose from midnight (extra dark) roast, dark roast, medium roast, light roast, and espresso roasts in whole bean or ground varieties. The company also offers dark and medium roast choices in pods and in organic decaf coffee, plus two specialty flavors, French vanilla and Highlander Grogg.
Lifeboost Coffee is pricey but worth it.
2. Café Don Pablo Subtle Earth Organic Coffee – Best Organic Medium-Dark Roast
The one option Lifeboost doesn’t offer is a great medium-dark roast, and that’s why we turn to Subtle Earth. Available in ground or whole bean coffee, Subtle Earth’s USDA-certified organic beans are ethically-sourced from Honduras. They’re small-batch roasted in facilities guaranteed to be gluten-free, and they also produce a cup of coffee with very little acid.
This medium-dark roast is about as full-bodied and flavorful as you’ll find, redolent of milk chocolate with honey and caramel notes along with a sweet aftertaste.
Don Pablo produces an enormous and excellent collection of organic coffees, and their Colombian decaf is also worth checking out. We’re partial to the Subtle Earth line, though.
3. Kicking Horse Grizzly Claw Dark Roast – Best Organic Dark Roast
Kicking Horse Coffee is probably better known for its “Kick Ass” dark roast and “Smart Ass” medium roast beans – and they’re terrific. We’re even bigger fans of the company’s Grizzly Claw dark roast coffee.
Like all Kicking Horse coffees, Grizzly Claw is a certified organic, fair-trade, kosher, and gluten-free product. The beans are sourced from Central and South America, with the roasting process handled in the Rocky Mountains where the coffee (whole bean or ground) is vacuum-packed for shipment.
What’s so good about this organic dark roast? It starts with a wonderful cocoa and sugar cane aroma, which is backed up by a flavor profile that includes rich dark chocolate, brown sugar and roasted hazelnuts, and absolutely no bitter aftertaste. It’s ideal for French press, drip and pour-over brewing, and makes a great cold brew coffee as well. Grizzly Claw is reasonably-priced, too.
4. Death Wish Coffee – Strongest Organic Coffee
It isn’t just a marketing slogan from this company; they really do make the world’s strongest coffee that’s available commercially.
You want to see numbers? The average 12-ounce cup of joe contains about 140 milligrams of caffeine. Death Wish contains more than triple that amount. Coffee lovers may not literally need a death wish to drink this stuff, but they’d better be ready for one incredible energy blast.
This dark roast, as you may have guessed, isn’t just another Arabica coffee; it’s made from a blend of Robusta and Arabica beans. But they’re USDA-certified organic and fair trade certified, primarily sourced from India and Peru – and they produce very tasty coffee, with chocolate and cherry notes but not any of the bitterness you might expect.
Death Wish Coffee is available in dark and medium roasts, and in whole bean, ground and K-cup versions.
5. AmazonFresh Organic Coffee – Best Value Organic Coffee
Amazon usually does a nice job with their house-branded products; they are able to source quality products and sell them at low prices because of the volume of sales they record. And that’s true for the company’s two varieties of organic, fair-trade coffee sold in whole bean, ground and K-cup formats.
AmazonFresh dark roast beans are from Sumatra and produce an intense, delicious flavor; the medium roast beans are sourced from Peru and deliver the fragrant coffee with a smooth finish that you’d expect from higher-priced brands.
There are also AmazonFresh light and medium-light roasts (sourced from Rwanda and Nicaragua, respectively), but be careful; they’re not organic.
6. Equal Exchange Organic Ground Coffee – Best Organic Breakfast Blend
There are times you don’t want a dark roast, or a light roast, or even a medium roast. For those times, a breakfast blend that combines the qualities of medium roast and French roast beans is the perfect alternative, and Equal Exchange makes a very good one that’s priced nicely.
What makes Equal Exchange special, other than its tasty coffees (and other products), is the fact that it’s a worker-owned, fair trade company that supports small organic farms around the world. The beans for their coffees are grown on those small farms and collected at farmer co-ops, before being roasted and sold to end-users as beans or ground coffee.
Other varieties available from Equal Exchange include a good medium roast from Colombia, and their “Love Buzz” blend of Full City and French Roast Beans.
7. Volcanica Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee – Best Organic Medium Roast
This is an exotic-tasting delight that may be a little closer to a light/medium roast. However you classify it, it’s delicious.
The organically-grown, single-origin, Arabica beans are sourced from a part of southern Ethiopia known for its fruity, floral, complex taste profiles with bright acidity. They grow at high altitudes in volcanic soil and are some of the best organic coffee beans that can be found in Africa.
Volcanica’s Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is available for almost any coffeemaker, sold as whole beans or in drip grind, French press grind and espresso grind options.
8. No Fun Jo Decaf – Best Organic Decaf Coffee
Jo Coffee is a terrific coffee roaster, and even though this product comes from its line of decaffeinated coffees, we don’t think it’s fair that they label it “no fun.” We certainly enjoy it.
There are three varieties of Jo Decaf. Caffeine is removed from No Fun coffee with the Swiss water process, which is not only the cleanest way to go about it but the method that preserves the most flavor. This is a medium-dark roast with milk chocolate and blueberry notes – and it’s yummy.
The other choices are Smooth Jo Decaf and Cold Brew Jo Decaf, both dark roasts. All varieties are certified organic and fair trade, and sold as ground or whole bean coffee. Jo Coffee also sells an enormous line of caffeinated organic coffees as well, and they’re just as good.
Other Organic Coffee Brands Worth Checking Out
- Real Good Coffee Company
- Gimme! Sumatra Gayo Highlands
- José’s Whole Bean
- Tony’s Coffee Café Carmelita
- Stumptown Coffee Roasters