Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #12. A review in our conservation organization coffee series.
The American Birding Association is a nearly 40-year-old group that caters specifically to recreational birders. In recent years, the ABA has focused more on bird conservation. One aspect of that initiative was the promotion of Songbird Coffee, roasted and sold by Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Fifteen cents of each package sold goes to ABA education and conservation projects, and another fifteen cents is returned to the growers.
Songbird Coffee is sold in 7 varieties, including decaf and flavored; each package depicts a different North American breeding bird species that winters in Latin American coffee-growing regions. Most coffees are certified organic, many are Fair Trade. They are all advertised as shade-grown, although none of them are certified by Rainforest Alliance or Smithsonian even though the descriptions list “shade grown” under “Certifications.” The web site says,
Thanksgiving Coffee uses verified shade grown coffee. This means that its CEO, Paul Katzeff, or the importer has personally inspected the farm to insure that the plants are properly grown in the shade.
Well, you all know what I think about that, since Katzeff is not a biologist. Songbird Coffees are only labeled to country of origin, but the web site provides further information. All the Songbird Coffees I investigated do appear to be sourced from areas that typically do grow under shade, and I suppose one could make the argument a roaster on the ground might be as equal to the task of evaluating biodiversity as a biologist in front of her computer. And Thanksgiving is a great company involved in a number of other sustainability and social justice projects. But it does bother me that people are led to believe these are certified shade coffees, especially since they are targeted at consumers who may just be entering the sustainable coffee market.
We tried the Panama Blend, in large part because it was sourced from Finca Hartmann, a farm whose coffee we have already reviewed. This was billed as a medium roast, and the beans were on the dark side of medium brown, with a sheen of oil. Our impression from other Thanksgiving Coffee varieties is that they tend to roast a little on the dark side, which probably helps make these so acceptable to American consumers.
We found this coffee to be substantially similar to the other Finca Hartmanns: a classic cup, soft and smooth, with no remarkable qualities. It did not cool very gracefully, becoming a little bitter, but less so when brewed in a drip machine, which is likely how most people will drink it. In fact, when brewed in a drip through a paper filter, it was at its smoothest and most muted. Although none of us were blown away by it, we think people would find this a nice step up from grocery store coffee, and it could certainly win some converts. It earned 2.25 motmots.
A couple of other Songbird Coffees have been reviewed at Coffee Review, and received higher kudos, they are noted in this list of the other varieties of Songbird Coffee, with source information. Many birders know them by their bird labels, which are given in parentheses, along with a link to information about the bird.
- Decaf (American Redstart) — CEPCO Cooperative, Oaxaca, Mexico.
- *Guatemala (Black-throated Green Warbler) — GUAYA’B Association, Hueheutenango. It is my understanding that half of the crop from this coop is certified organic (as is this Songbird selection), and at least
some of the crop is certified Bird-Friendly by Smithsonian, although I don’t think this coffee includes any of these beans.
- Hazelnut (Baltimore Oriole) — Nicaragua (no details, but probably one of the sources below).
- *Costa Rica (Indigo Bunting) — Tarrazu, via Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers. Reviewed at Coffee Review.
- French Roast (Ovenbird) — Cooperative Solidaridad de Aranjuez, Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
- Nicaraguan (Wilson’s Warbler) — SOPPEXCCA Cooperative.
*If I had to pick one of these as the most biodiversity-friendly, it would be the Guatemalan. If I wanted to avoid one, it would be the Costa Rican. Real shade coffee is uncommon in Costa Rica; about 30% of Costa Rican production is sun coffee, and about 50% more is in shade monoculture…they allow very minimal shade to be labeled “shade coffee.” I was unable to determine a precise source for this coffee, although the importer notes the varieties are bourbon, typica (both those require some shade), cataui, and caturra (both of those used in CR for sun coffee). I’ll be writing more about Costa Rica in the future.