The use of trees in growing coffee

BURNING QUESTIONS

August 13, 2008|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

What is shade-grown coffee?

Buying coffee used to be easy. Now, shoppers are confronted with all sorts of arcane descriptors.

There are two main varieties of the coffee plant, Arabica and Robusto. Arabica is harder to grow - it prefers higher elevations and is less resistant to disease, but it produces a finer coffee. Robusto beans are sometimes added to espresso blends because they contribute to the foamy crema that distinguishes a well-made shot.

Traditionally, coffee trees were shielded from the sun by a canopy of taller trees, but many modern plantations do away with the noncoffee flora because an orchard of just coffee is easier to manage. Ecologically minded critics point out that the canopy trees provide homes to migrating birds and are central to the ecosystem. Shade-grown refers to coffee that has been grown under a canopy of native trees. As with all fruit and vegetables, organic coffee is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

While high coffee prices may benefit the middlemen who buy the coffee beans from individual growers, the growers themselves do not necessarily benefit. If a coffee has been certified fair-trade, that means the growers were paid a fair price for their beans, and the growing practices are environmentally responsible.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.

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