How many high-dollar coffees are sustainable?

by JulieCraves on August 3, 2006

Last week, Forbes Magazine published an article on the world’s most expensive coffees.  I decided to take a look at the list and see which of the beans might be considered sustainably grown.

  1. Kopi Luwak — Indonesia.  ~$160/pound (all prices in US dollars).  Kopi Luwak is expensive because it is rare: the beans are collected from the scat of civet cats (usually Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, which are not felines but mongoose relatives), which eat the ripe coffee berries.  Passing through the digestive tract, the beans are slightly chemically altered by the fermenting action of the bacteria and enzymes in the animal’s gut, sort of similar to wet processing. Protein is leached out of the bean, which may make the coffee less bitter. High price due to novelty and rarity.Most coffee from Sumatra is generally shade grown, so pay attention to the source: some luwaks are robusta coffees from Java, Bali, or Vietnam (which may also be “processed” by different species of animals). The civets themselves are kept in captivity to process the coffee — they are wild. While they are tolerant of humans, they generally need habitat themselves, so presumably there must be some natural areas near or around the farms where the poop is harvested. Thus, we’ll call luwak coffee sustainable, with some reservations.  For everything you could possibly want to know about luwak coffee, go to AnimalCoffee. At some point, I’ll devote an entire post to luwak coffee, but I suppose I first have to decide to spend the money to try some. [Update: review here.]
  2. Hacienda Esmeralda Especial — Panama. ~104/pound.  Coffee & Conservation wrote a lot of background on this coffee, and also reviewed it.  Price is due to quality and unique flavor, low yield, high demand. This farm is, or was, Rainforest Alliance certified. Sustainably grown.
  3. Island of St. Helena Coffee Company [now out of business]-St Helena. ~$79/pound.  High price due to small yield and remoteness of island, and somewhat to novelty (this was the island where Napoleon was exiled; Tea & Coffee Journal article here). Island of St. Helena Coffee Co. grows this coffee organically (though not certified), and plants threatened endemic trees. So yes it’s quite sustainable; the demerit comes in when one considers the impact of shipping coffee from way the hell out in the south Atlantic.
  4. El Injerto — Guatemala (Huehuetenango). ~$25/pound green. High price due to quality, having won the 2006 Cup of Excellence.Guatemalan coffees are generally shade grown and often organic. Nearly half of the El Injerto farm is preserved virgin forest, and they use bio-dynamic growing practices, although the farm is not certified organic.  Great example of biodiversity stewardship!
  5. Fazenda Santa Ines — Brazil (Minas Gerais). ~$50/pound green. High price due to small quanties and high quality — in 2005 it scored 95.85 points in the Cup of Excellence competition.  A lot of Brazilian coffees are grown in the cerrado, tropical savannah habitat very high in biodiversity.  Only about 20% of cerrado remains due to increasing agriculture, cattle farming, and urbanization. In Minas Gerais, cerrado is found mostly in the western part of the state. Santa Ines is located in the far south, and is said to have preserved a large area of forest on the estate, as well as riparian areas.  This is probably fairly sustainable for Brazil, but I lack full information.
  6. Blue Mountain — Jamaica (Wallenford Estate). ~$49/pound. High price due to small quanities and cache.  A lot of coffee labeled “Blue Mountain” is a blend (not 100% Blue Mountain) or phony.  Coffee that passes through the Wallenford Estate mill can be labeled from this estate, even if not grown there, although it should all be from the Blue Mountain region.  Like many West Indian islands, Jamaica has many endemic birds, and the mountains are important to both residents and migrants.  But deforestation in the mountains is intense. The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is threatened by agriculture and invasive species, and price incentives for farmers to grow organic or shade coffee don’t work well in this system because of the high prices already received, so much of the coffee is not grown sustainably (read more about coffee and biodiversity in Jamaica here). You might be able to find some sustainable coffee from the Blue Mountain region, but I have to say that overall, most is not.
  7. Los Planes — El Salvador (Citala). ~$40/pound.  High price due to quality — #2 in the 2006 Cup of Excellence.  Coffee plantations are very important in El Salvador; much of the remaining “forest” in the country is, in fact, coffee farms. From what little I can find about tiny Los Planes is that methods are “traditional” (though not organic) and there is forest on the farm.  Given that most coffee is shade grown in El Salvador, we’ll call this one sustainable.
  8. Kona — Hawaii. ~$34/pound. High price due to high labor costs, low quantities, and cache. Like Jamaican Blue Mountain, not all Kona coffee is pure Kona, and some of it isn’t Kona at all (although hopefully people aren’t being ripped off as they were about 10 years ago, read more here). There are about 600 small growers on the Kona Coast, and most sell their crops to larger processors.  So it is difficult to determine how the coffee was grown.  There are some direct-sale farms that are certified organic and note being shade grown.  You have to choose carefully, so sustainable with reservations.
  9. Starbucks Rwanda Blue Bourbon — Rwanda (Gatare/Karengera). ~$24/pound. High price due to more to marketing factors than anything else.  All the Starbucks Black Apron selections, of which this was one, are $24-26/pound and come in what must be an expensive to produce fancy laser cut box. This is no longer available, so I’m not sure why it’s on the list.  Rwandan coffees are by and large grown by small holders on steep plots without chemicals, and is therefore considered sustainable.
  10. Yauco Selecto AA — Puerto Rico. ~$22/pound.  High price due to small quantities, as Yauco Selecto is only grown on a few farms in southwestern PR.  The Puerto Rican government has heavily subsidized coffee farmers, leading to frequent use of chemical inputs, and a lot of sun coffee.  I have been unable to find any specific growing information for the Yauco Selecto estates.
  11. Fazenda Sao Benedito– Brazil (Minas Gerias). ~$21/pound.  High price due to quality, another Cup of Excellence winner. Located in the same area as Fazenda Santa Ines, above, and hence with similar reservations. Unlike Santa Ines, which preserves some forest, the only sustainabilty measures I found mentioned in my research had to do with water and waste recycling. There is a cattle ranch on the farm.  You can see photos of both of these estates on this page, and they look pretty monoculturally stark. Since there is even less emphasis on sustainable practices in the material on this estate, I have to go with a not sustainable ruling on this one.
Revised on April 23, 2021

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany

Hugo Mancini September 2, 2006 at 11:35 am

Try at, the price better from AnimalCoffee and they come originally from Indonesia.

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