Last month, a number of coffee bloggers, including C&C, received an offer from a public relations firm offering samples of Millstone Coffee Company‘s organic line. Millstone is a coffee brand of the global conglomerate Procter & Gamble.
There are five certified organic varieties in this line (update: as of 2011, after being acquired by Smuckers, there are only three in the line, neither is Rainforest Alliance certified). One is Fair Trade certified. Another is Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified. I asked the PR rep a series of questions regarding these coffees. My questions, the answers from P&G relayed to me via the PR firm, and my further comments are below.
Arabica or robusta?
My question: For all types, are they 100% arabica beans? Or do some or all have some robusta beans in them? If they do, can you provide a percentage, and the country of origin of the robusta?
Millstone replies: All Millstone Coffee flavors and roasts, including the 100% Organic line-up of Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified coffees, are made from premium Arabica coffee beans.
My comments: This is not a straight answer. My 50/50 cotton shirt is made from cotton, but half of it is made from polyester. Searching the entire Millstone site does bring up many mentions that only the top 15% of arabica beans are used in their coffees. I don’t know what that means. Along with robusta? Top 15% of what? The word “arabica” is not on any of the web pages for four of the five coffees in this organic line; it is on the Nicaraguan Mountain Twilight Blend, but 100% is not indicated. It is not in the promotional material for this line for this line I received. Four bags I got had handwritten labels so I don’t know what is on the usual bags. The Rainforest Reserve came in a valve bag, which did read “100% certified organic arabica beans,” which could still be considered ambiguous.
Given the added appeal and marketing cache of labeling coffee “100% arabica,” I can’t imagine why, if this line is all arabica, that this specific wording is not trumpeted from every bag, brochure, and web page.
My question:What specific regions, cooperatives, or farms do the Peruvian and Nicaraguan coffees come from? Are they grown under diverse shade? There is no mention of country of origin for the Rainforest Reserve, Organic Mountain Moonlight Fair Trade, or Mayan Black Onyx varieties. Can you provide this information (with region and cooperatives?)
Millstone replies: P&G doesn’t disclose information about the specific regions, coops, farms, etc. where the coffee is grown. This is all proprietary information that the company does not share publicly due to competitive reasons.
My comments: This answer is nonsensical. A roaster might want to protect the source of an exceptional, small-lot coffee, available via auction, so that the competition doesn’t try to outbid them. Why make a such a secret out of where you get your mediocre, inexpensive beans? Maybe, like Nestlé, P&G doesn’t even know where they all come from. Or, like Kraft, would rather you didn’t know.
No matter why they won’t divulge origins, the fact that a consumer cannot easily find out where their coffee was grown — and therefore if it was produced in an ecologically-friendly way — is unacceptable.
100% Rainforest Alliance-certified beans?
My question: What percentage of the beans in the Rainforest Reserve variety are Rainforest Alliance certified?
Millstone replies: A medium-dark roast, Millstone’s 100% Organic Rainforest Reserve coffee comes from the forested slopes of Latin America, where the high-altitude volcanic soils have produced high-quality coffees for centuries. And because the beans are 100% certified by the Rainforest Alliance, you can feel good that you’re giving back to farmers and the environment with each and every cup.
My comments: I asked this question specifically because big roasters have been using only the minimum amount of RA certified beans that are necessary to carry the RA seal (30%). I’m wasn’t quite sure that “the beans are 100% certified” is the same as 100% of the beans are certified.
Just to be sure, I wrote to Rainforest Alliance. They replied that the Rainforest Reserve uses 100% RA-certified beans. Great! But the link they provided was to Millstone’s Signature Collection Rainforest Reserve. It’s a different package and not marked organic. If this is the same coffee that has been relabeled or rebranded, why is one labeled certified organic, and the other not?
Determined to clear this up, I wrote to Millstone directly. I specifically asked if these were the same coffees (providing links to the product pages), why one was organic and the other not, and once again the percentage of RA-certified beans in the organic Rainforest Reserve. After a week, I received a reply informing me that there was lots of useful information on the web site that I would find helpful — but they did not give me any links or any answers!
I gave up. The answers to all of these questions should be simple, straightforward, and easily available to consumers.
Coming soon, the C&C tasting panel gives these coffees a try. Update: Reviews are posted here.