Coffee Review covers Rainforest Alliance coffees

by JulieCraves on September 12, 2008

Kenneth Davids’ excellent Coffee Review takes on Rainforest Alliance coffees for its September reviews. Please go read his concise and insightful introduction to the reviews. He provides a good overview of the RA program and how it differs from Fair Trade, how they complement each other, and RA’s efforts to adapt their standards to different cultures and types of coffee organizations.

Davids makes a couple of interesting observations about the RA coffees submitted by roasters for the reviews. Two dozen roasters submitted 34 single-origin RA-certified coffees, but they only represented eleven producers. Familiar RA producers Daterra Estate in Brazil, Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda, Selva Negra estate in Nicaragua, and the Mesa de los Santos farm in Colombia (which is also certified Smithsonian Bird-Friendly) were all in the mix.

In addition to the twelve submitted coffees that were reviewed, Davids threw in a review of Kraft’s Yuban coffee, which contains 30% RA-certified beans. The rest, based on his trained palate, is cheap robusta:

Based on a reading of cup profile, the blend we cupped (Yuban Original) probably contains enough Brazil from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms to qualify for the certification seal, with a good part of the remainder of the blend inexpensive robustas, perhaps steamed to remove flavor taints. The result is a Rainforest Alliance Certified version of the bland, woody, faintly sweet supermarket profile that has come to dominate canned coffee shelves over the last two decades.

I understand the theory behind RA working with Kraft or other multinationals to get them to buy more certified beans. However, I think there is a serious problem with consumers thinking that this is a truly sustainable coffee if 70% of the beans are not certified, and likely cheap, sun-grown beans grown with chemicals. Nor do I think RA is doing itself any favors by putting its seal on crappy-tasting supermarket coffees, especially when it is highly likely to be the first or only RA-certified coffee consumers will encounter.

Go enjoy the reviews and give some of the coffees a try — just skip the Yuban.

Revised on December 11, 2018

Posted in Certifications,Coffee reviews,Rainforest Alliance

Diane, Rainforest Alliance September 13, 2008 at 10:03 am

I know what you mean about the "other 70%" — it was a hard decision for us too. But we had to look at the overall impact. Kraft is buying so much coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms to blend into Yuban that the result is HUGE benefits for farmers, their families, communities, waterways and wildlife. There's just no way we could turn up our noses at those important pluses. Kraft has committed to buying more and more certified coffee…there's not enough on the market so they can sell 100% certified in Yuban…but with the company's help we are working hard with farmers to get more and more farms certified. Which of course means more benefits for more farmers and the environment.

Julie (BirdBarista) September 13, 2008 at 11:26 am

Diane, thanks so much for commenting. Was there any thought to working around the supply shortage by requiring a higher percentage of certified beans…and just having Kraft sell less Yuban? Many people I've talked to have said they'd rather have a 100% certified Kraft offering — even if it were more expensive and in shorter supply.

I also am not sure I completely understand the supply shortage issue. I often hear (especially in the case of FT coffee) that more certified coffee is grown than is sold as such. Is it just that the supply of certified beans from regions that fit Kraft's flavor profile is short (e.g. is there surplus supply where it's not needed, and not enough where it is?)?

Feel free to reply to me directly — I'd love to learn more about this specific issue (the "30% rule" and supply/demand) and write specific posts about it.

Peter G September 14, 2008 at 3:08 pm

Here is my take on the whole 70%/short supply thing.

First of all, Diane has a point, there is some intrinsic good in the pounds of coffee Yuban is buying and blending into their product.

I don't think the "short supply" argument really holds water. I know of at least one farm that has let their RA certification lapse this year, and a number of others who chose not to pursue RA certification. The reason is simple: there is (and indeed there has never been) a clear premium for RA certification. Most farmers will only undergo the rigors of certification if there is a "sure thing" increase in price at the end of the rainbow (particularly a certification like RA that is seen as a compromise; the committed no-chemicals farmers usually go organic and stop there). Since there has been no reliable premium for farmers, there has been a shortage of farmers willing to take the chance and certify, which incurs some expense for them. Why is there no premium? Well, one reason is that Yuban was allowed to use only 30% in their product. This takes some demand pressure off, and therefore the supply price can stay low. Ultimately, though, Yuban/RA doesn't bear all the blame. A big problem here is the consumer.

In my experience and according to much of the research, consumers seem to make the "right choice" (green, fair, whatever) only when the price to them is the same or near what they would pay for the product otherwise. To this extent, Yuban feels, I am sure, that their consumer will only bear a slight price increase for RA certification. If they were convinced that consumers would pay a big premium for RA certification, and they could make it profitable for Yuban, they would do it in a heartbeat. It's a chicken/egg situation, and the way to improve is constant progress. In my view this progress comes in two forms: 1. companies who invest in sustainability as an end in itself (hard for a public company to do) 2. and consistently push coffee prices upwards to readjust consumers' ideas of what coffee should cost.

As for one, there are good examples of coffee companies who are pushing farmers towards Rainforest Alliance certification. Caribou coffee should get special recognition for this, they have been amazingly proactive in pushing farmers to get certified and supporting them in this goal. Allegro coffee has done the same thing, to pretty much the same extent. These companies are taking responsibility for their own supply chain, taking matters into their own hands, and creating supply of certified coffees. (I was disappointed that these companies didn't make Davids' list….)

As for my second point, coffee sold at the price point Yuban and other supermarket coffees sell for is just unsustainable, period. There is no way to produce coffee at that price, period. As long as consumers, grocers, and roasters maintain the fiction that it is possible to get sustainability on the cheap, we will have compromises like this. This is a tough battle, particularly during an economic downturn, since consumers feel driven (and entitled) to "good value" and feel that they should be able to have good value and good values in the same product. (how was that for a slogan?)

The battle cry, as far as I am concerned, should be "pay more for your coffee." Extra $ in the system solves soooooo many problems….and the only way I can see to get consumers to pay extra $ is to deliver them an extraordinary sensory experience in the cup. It is for that reason that I feel that sustainable-ish value products like Yuban have a really tough row to hoe. p.s. I am AMAZED that Ken Davids gave that coffee an 81!!! ohmygosh.

just some thoughts….

Peter G

Julie (BirdBarista) September 14, 2008 at 6:14 pm

Thanks for your expertise and insight, Peter. One thing I learned at the SCAA sustainability talks — from producers themselves — was their focus on the bottom line. Certification for them is often (usually?) a means to that end, rather than a be-all, end-all itself. Who can blame them, given their circumstances? And as well, I also can't lay the blame with Kraft or any of the multinationals…I've also said in previous posts that they are also honoring their shareholders and bottom line.

I agree that the burden lies with the consumer. But ignorance is bliss, and it's also hard to blame the guy next door who hasn't the foggiest notion where his coffee comes from and what is involved further back than being put in the coffee maker. Ergo, consumer education, I think, is key (hence, why I started Coffee & Conservation).

I'd like to see a strong, coordinated consumer education campaign focused on helping people understand coffee is a crop, not a commodity, and all that entails. That cheap coffee is not a bargain for anybody: not the farmer, not the consumer. SCAA would be a natural sponsor of this effort, as would RA.

That being said (and easier than done), some people will never care. But surely there are many coffee drinkers that would switch to better, fairly-priced, sustainable coffee if they knew the stakes.

Thanks again, Peter!

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