With coffee being one of the most widely traded commodities globally, the way we farm it as a society can significantly affect our health and the health of our planet. Since farming practices are in part driven by consumer behavior and preference, are we obliged to vote with our wallets and stick to organic coffee?
Before we dive in and discuss what organic coffee is, let’s look at some of what we consider to be the best organic coffee for your money. Our absolute favorite is the Ethiopian Apollo blend from Counter Culture Coffee. Keep reading to see more of our top choices and learn more about organic coffee.
Our Top Picks
1. Best Overall: Counter Culture Coffee – Apollo
2. Best Single Estate: Volcanica Coffee – Dominican Coffee
3. Best Budget Option: Mt. Comfort Coffee – Peru
What Is Organic Coffee?
Any look at the best organic coffee carries a necessary discussion of what we mean by organic coffee. Essentially organic coffee refers to any coffee that is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. It should also be produced with a good soil management plan to ensure no chemicals have made their way into production.
This can be certified as Organic by the USDA and other organizations or achieved through good farming practices. The latter uncertified crop would be what we would refer to as naturally grown, or pesticide-free, rather than Organic.
A huge amount of specialty-grade coffee is inadvertently organic due to the nature of its growing conditions. Top-quality arabica generally needs to be grown at high altitudes with larger shade trees. Such naturally-grown arabica coffee benefits from natural pest control in the form of bats and birds that eat the insects.
On the other hand, intensively farmed robusta is typically grown at a lower altitude with heavy usage of pesticides. Crops grown in such a manner are usually produced in large open fields, where the habitat for natural pest controllers like lizards and birds has been destroyed.
With that being said, we have still stuck to coffees here that are certified, at least by a third-party organization, as organic. This is because it can be challenging to ascertain the exact growing conditions of coffees. Without talking directly to individual roasters, there is no guarantee. Some sort of certification can give the buyer a degree of confidence that best practices have been followed and that their coffee is pesticide-free.
The Best Organic Coffee – A Closer Look at Our Choices
Now we’ve discussed what organic coffee means to us, it’s time to look at some of our favorites.
Fortunately, we have a range of options when it comes to organic coffee. In fact, there is an important difference between Certified Organic coffee and coffee that is naturally organic with a small o. The good news here is that a lot of specialty-grade coffee is organically grown anyway.
Each of the roasters featured here has committed to ensuring that your coffee has been looked after naturally at every point of the supply chain. While organic status is the main concern here, we also focused on some of the best-tasting coffee, irrespective of your other requirements.
Counter Culture Coffee – Apollo – Best Overall
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Light Roast
Flavor Profile: Citrus / Floral / Silky
While not an exclusively organic roaster, Counter Culture Coffee has a very clear ethical commitment to supporting farms that use organic methods. They have a full sustainability statement on their website that discusses their attitude towards organic coffee.
This particular coffee is certified organic by QCS (quality certification services), a non-profit that guarantees practices adhere to specific standards of organic production and food safety.
Apollo is a year-round blend sourced from a variety of different farms. It is always Ethiopian but is blended to fit an exact profile, so you can always expect the same delicately bright floral notes and citrus acidity.
Volcanica Coffee – Dominican Coffee – Best Single Estate
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium Roast
Origin: Dominican Republic – Jarabacoa
Flavor Profile: Strawberry / Stone Fruit / Smooth / Balanced
Volcanica Coffee has a whole section of organic coffees available to choose from. This one is from the Ramirez estate in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. It is red honey processed, contributing to its jammy sweet strawberry and stone fruit flavors.
Red honey processing deserves a moment’s explanation of its own. As you may know, honey processed coffee refers to a process between washed and naturally processed beans. The pulp is removed from the coffee cherries, but they are left to dry in their mucilage. The various types of honey processing refer to the amount of mucilage left on and how they are dried. With a red honey process, there is quite a lot of the mucilage left, and it is dried in a shaded area allowing for some degree of fermentation.
It typically produces very sweet and fruity coffees, and this coffee from Volcanica is no exception. These beans are some of the best we’ve tried from the Dominican Republic.
Mt. Comfort Coffee – Peru – Best Budget Option
Mt. Comfort Coffee’s offering is a great option if you want a good organic coffee but don’t want to spend too much. These Peruvian beans are USDA Organic certified and are Climate Pledge Friendly. This means that they have made extra effort to ensure that their packaging has a minimal environmental impact.
The flavor profile of this single-origin from Mt. Comfort is very much what you would expect from a Peruvian. Very smooth and sweet with a medium body, you can expect subtle hazelnut notes and milky chocolate rather than dark cocoa bitters.
This is a very easy drinking cup of coffee and a good staple to keep in store.
Blue Bottle Bold is a deeply comforting blend. It has a subtle sweetness and a relatively full body. For a dark roast, it is pleasingly sparse in bitters providing it is extracted sympathetically, with just an edge of nutty cocoa.
All of their roasteries in the US are certified Organic by CCOF (the California certified organic farmers trade association). Blue Bottle is another roaster with a broad range of organic products. In fact, around 85% of their coffees come from farms that are also Certified Organic. They clearly list which coffees are organic in the product descriptions and on the bags.
Blue Bottle Coffee is a big believer in “nature-based climate solutions.” This translates to ongoing support for smaller farmers that incorporate agroforestry, cover planting, and organic growing into their farming practices. They believe that natural is best with coffee, a sentiment we agree with.
If you’re interested in learning more about Blue Bottle Coffee’s sustainability policies, their website features a more thorough rundown of their stance.
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium Roast
Origin: Latin American & East Africa
Flavor Profile: Citrus Zest / Caramel / Hazelnut
Holler Mountain from Stumptown is their signature organic blend and is roasted separately to ensure no cross-contamination with their non-organic coffees.
It features the characteristic body and nutty chocolate smoothness of its Central and South American components. These qualities are lifted and complemented by the bright and zingy notes of the East African beans they are blended with.
This Guatemalan from Mojave is USDA Certified Organic and certified by USA Fair Trade. It is farmed by members of the ADIESTO (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral la Esperanza Toneca) cooperative in the Huista region of Huehuetenango. They are a collective of some 550 small-scale farmers committed to natural farming practices and reducing their environmental impact.
The cooperative even lend money to its member farmers to invest in improving the environmental protection measures they employ at their farm. This includes an effort to reduce water wastage during the wet processing method they use at their farms.
The malic acid apple notes you might expect from a Guatemalan give way to a more citrusy orange sharpness in this coffee. The balance is offset with the much more typical smooth milk chocolate character and caramel sweetness, with an edge of cocoa bitters.
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Medium / Light Roast
Origin: Ethiopia – Yirgacheffe
Flavor Profile: Lemon / Blueberry / Blackberry
This is the number one selling coffee from Volcanica, and it’s easy to see why. Coffees from Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe region are generally a customer favorite for roasters. This one from Volcanica has an incredibly bright, fruity, and vibrant profile, as you might expect from the ubiquitous Yirg. Many coffees from this region tend to be naturally processed, allowing the funky fruit flavors to develop. However, this example is washed and highlights the clarity of the acidity present here.
These beans are farmed organically in the Gedeo Zone on the eastern escarpment of the Ethiopian Highlands. The altitude seemingly allows this coffee to develop such a deeply fruity flavor as the cherries slowly ripen in a cooler climate.
The altitude is also helpful to the farmers. Thanks to the thriving local bat populations who inhabit the surrounding woodlands, there is no need to use pesticides in the mountains.
Things To Consider
There is a lot to think about when shopping for organic coffee. Even once we have established what organic coffee is, there is such a range of considerations around certification that it can become confusing. Read on to be demystified!
What Are the Different Types of Certification Available?
The main organic certification in the US is the USDA National Organic Program which provides a Certified Organic mark. This means that a product has been tested by the department for food and agriculture and found to meet requirements.
There are other national agencies, such as the JAS certification in Japan, that USDA considers to have absolute parity with their standards. This allows them to be sold with the USDA Certified Organic mark when imported into the US.
Another route many roasters choose to go down is to pursue private third-party certification. This involves having an independent auditor check a business’s production processes and practices.
Can Roasters That Buy Organic Automatically Label Their Coffee Organic?
Interestingly, a roaster can buy certified Organic coffee from a producer. However, they may not be allowed to label the coffee as Organic once roasted unless they are certified as an Organic roaster.
The certification process requires that businesses exclusively process certified Organic coffee beans in roasters. If a coffee roasting company wishes to sell other coffees that are not certified, they would need a separate roaster to roast them in. Multiple roasters aren’t necessarily an option for smaller-scale businesses, and it can make the certification process not worth their while.
What Are the Benefits of Organic Coffee?
Organic coffee certainly has its advantages. It usually comes with a higher price tag; however, you may want to know what you are paying for. Who is really reaping the rewards when you buy organic?
Is It Better for the Environment?
Organic farming practices are certainly far better for the environment. Fortunately, a lot of specialty-grade coffee is grown in regions that neither need nor have access to pesticides and fertilizers. Specialty coffee, as we find it in our society today, focuses on origin and producer and favors naturally grown produce.
One of the main direct environmental dangers of non-organic farming is that chemicals have a nasty habit of not staying where you’ve put them. They can thake a very long time to go away. Rainfall can wash chemical treatments from the farms and, in some cases, can pollute local water sources.
Another way intensive coffee farming can damage the environment is through deforestation for large plantations. This isn’t directly related to organic agriculture as such. But, it is an important consideration when thinking about the environmental impact of natural vs. non-natural farming practices.
Is It Better for You?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no link between threats to your health and consuming non-organic coffee. Because the consumable part is actually a seed covered by several layers of parchment, flesh, and skin, coffee is quite well protected from chemicals. It is a very low risk of carrying any pesticides to the finished product.
However, with other non-organic produce, there is a risk of pesticide exposure and ingestion, which has been found to lead to health problems.
Nutritionally, there is no perceivable difference. The nutrient contents of any produce farmed organically or otherwise is the same with all other factors being equal.
Is It Better for the Farmers?
While the pesticides that can be used on coffee pose little threat to the end consumer, the farmers who work with them are potentially at risk of harmful exposure. With this in mind, growing naturally has a great benefit to the well-being of those handling the crops.
On the other hand, official certification could be prohibitively expensive for small farmers who may be growing their crops without pesticides. It is important to bear in mind that organic does not begin and end at USDA certification. A good relationship between roaster, importer, and producer through a direct trade system may be a better aim.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where Is Organic Coffee Grown?
Organic coffee can be grown anywhere in the world. It is worth noting that some countries and cultures have more access to pesticides than others. A lot of specialty coffee is grown by indigenous peoples in small plots in the mountains. An indigenous Sumatran farmer or a Bukonzo tribesman will not have the same resources for acquiring synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as a crop-share farmer on a larger plantation in Central America.
Does Organic Coffee Taste Better?
No, organic coffee doesn’t taste any different from regular coffee. Shade-grown, specialty-grade arabica grown at high altitude will probably be grown organically (intentionally or inadvertently). It will undoubtedly taste better than a hybridized, sun-grown robusta for mass-market coffee, which is probably not organic. This quality difference has nothing to do with the fact that it’s organic, though.
What Is the Difference Between Organic Coffee and Fair Trade Coffee?
Fair trade refers to business being carried out fairly for all parties and not exploiting farmers in economically poorer areas. In the specialty coffee industry, it is usually employed through direct trade between growers and roasters in the country where it is to be consumed. In some cases (somewhat controversially), this may involve relatively small exporters and importers. Fairtrade is a registered trademark of Fairtrade International, a large organization whose mission is to facilitate fair trade.
This has nothing to do with organic coffee. They are both often associated with similar goals of sustainability and ethical business. As we’ve discussed above, organic coffee is more concerned with actual farming practices.
So if you’re shopping for the best organic coffee, you can find there may be more to consider than you’d initially imagined. Specialty grade coffee is usually farmed so that its produce tends to be inadvertently organic. It is often at least naturally grown in a pesticide-free environment. However, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain the exact farming practices. This is particularly problematic when shopping online.
Hopefully, you feel a little clearer about how to proceed now. A great place to start is with Counter Culture’s Apollo, a delightfully citrus-forward blend of Ethiopian coffee beans. But now you know what to look for, spread your wings and try a few of the others we have featured here too!