Last Updated on September 28, 2021 by John Moretti
There are so many varieties of coffee on sale, making it hard to choose what tastes best, what’s good for you, and what is best for the environment. Many coffee beans are labeled “organic.” What are organic coffee beans? And which are the best organic coffee beans to use?
Organic coffee beans have been grown, roasted, and processed without chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
It’s hard to know exactly what the “organic” label on coffee means. Does it mean it is produced or processed in a certain way? Is it the same as Fair Trade? And, most important for coffee lovers, does it make a better cup of coffee?
What Are Organic Coffee Beans?
If coffee beans are labeled “organic,” it means that the coffee beans that have been grown and processed without synthetic or chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or any GMO materials.
To understand what makes coffee organic, it’s helpful to take a quick look at how coffee gets from the plantation to your morning cup.
How Is Regular Coffee Produced?
Coffee is a crop farmed like any other. However, the scale on which coffee is grown is massive – over 12 million pounds of coffee are produced every year.
To produce a crop on this scale has required farmers to adapt their farming methods. Setting up a coffee farm means clearing huge areas of natural fauna and flora in local ecosystems, leading to water runoff and soil erosion. In addition, farmers use enormous amounts of synthetic soil fumigants (to kill pests in the soil), as well as fertilizer (e.g., synthetic nitrogen, phosphate, or potash) and weedkiller.
Coffee plants are planted in the open sunlight, making them vulnerable to pests and weeds. Coffee is one of the crops most treated by chemicals – over 200 different pesticides and insecticides are used to produce coffee.
Other chemicals are used in the processing and roasting of coffee beans.
Many of these toxic chemicals end up affecting the coffee farmers and their workers, as well as the water and farmland. The chemicals even find their way into the coffee we drink.
Coffee farmers began farming organically to avoid these challenges to human and environmental health.
How Are Organic Coffee Beans Produced?
In contrast to conventional farming, organic coffee farming focuses on the health of the consumer, the workers, and the environment.
On farms that produce coffee organically, plants are fertilized only with organic materials, such as animal manure, coffee pulp, or compost, while no synthetic weed or pest control is used. No chemicals can touch the coffee plants at all.
Organic farming is slower than commercial farming, as land is rotated to avoid erosion and depletion of the soil – so the whole farm cannot be under coffee at once. Natural ecosystems are allowed to flourish, providing homes for wildlife and shade for the coffee plants, reducing pests and weeds.
The coffee beans’ picking, processing, and packaging must also be done under organic conditions, without any chemicals.
Organic coffee farms are thus environmentally friendly and more sustainable, as toxic chemicals do not impact the coffee, the air, the land, and the workers. Organic farms also have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional farms.
Where Do Organic Coffee Beans Come From?
Most organic coffee beans are grown in Latin America, with Peru as the leading producer. You can also source organic coffee beans from Indonesia (in Asia), and Ethiopia, and Kenya (in Africa).
Is Organic The Same As Fair Trade?
Although organic coffee beans are often labeled Fair Trade, the two terms do not mean the same. Organic refers to the farming and production process.
Fair Trade is an ethical arrangement or network where producers, usually farmers, in growing and developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable – essentially, fair – trade relationships, especially with economically powerful corporations. If you buy a product labeled Fair Trade, you know that the profits from the product were shared fairly among the farmer, the workers, and the distributors and that the workers were treated decently.
How Can You Tell Your Coffee Beans Are Organic?
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets out the standards for coffee (and other products) to be certified organic. The standards differ slightly from country to country as there is no international standard for what constitutes organic produce.
For coffee beans to be certified as organic in the States, the product must contain a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients – oddly, excluding salt and water).
“Organic” means that the product is free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and GMOs and that US guidelines for soil quality and pest and weed control methods were followed on the farm. Only then can the coffee bear the “organic” label in the US.
Does Organic Coffee Taste Better?
Organic coffee does taste better, as there is no chemical element involved. Many people complain that organic coffee is more expensive than regular coffee. What coffee lovers have to decide is whether it is worth spending more.
It is more expensive to produce organic coffee because of all the requirements that farmers must fulfill and the fact that the coffee harvest will be smaller than on enormous commercial farms.
This cost of organic farming is passed on to the consumer. You can justify the cost because organic coffee is better for you and the environment. Also, the taste of the coffee speaks for itself. Here are the top 12 organic coffee beans for you to put to the test.
The 12 Best Organic Coffee Beans
As with any coffee beans, each of us has our favorite coffee flavor and strength: there’s an organic coffee for every taste, be it light, medium, or dark roasted.
The 12 best organic coffee beans are:
- Best All-Around: Kicking Horse Three Sisters Medium Roast
- Best All-Around: Real Good Coffee Co Dark Roast
- Best All-Around: Lavazza Organic Tierra
- Best Organic Light Roast Organic: Lifeboost
- Best Organic Medium Roast: Volcanica Ethiopia Yirgacheffe
- Best Organic Dark Roast: Marley Coffee Buffalo Soldier
- Best Organic High Caffeine Beans: Death Wish
- Best Organic Decaf Beans: Jo Coffee
- Best Organic Beans For Cold Brew: Java Planet Guatemala Medium Roast
- Best Budget Organic Beans: Subtle Earth Medium-Dark Roast
- Best Carbon-Negative Organic Beans: Tiny Footprint Kenya Muiri Estate Light Roast
Choosing the best all-around organic coffee beans is a challenge as there are so many great coffees out there. But after some dedicated tasting, these are the top three.
Kicking Horse Three Sisters Medium Roast Coffee
Kicking Horse is a Canadian company that started 25 years ago in the Rocky Mountains. Voted the Best Place to Work in Canada, Kicking Horse source and roast Fair Trade Arabica beans grown in South and Central America, as well as Indonesia.
The Three Sisters beans are named after three mountain peaks in the Canadian Rockies, and the coffee they produce is just as uplifting. Once you open the bag, the aroma will transport you to your favorite coffee shop and put a smile on your face. Labeled as “smooth, savory, and seductive,” this medium roast is luscious, producing a cup of coffee with the brightness of a light roast but the rich, chocolatey hints of a dark roast.
One of the most popular brands in organic coffee, Kicking Horse is an overall good buy if you like a low acid, warmly toned coffee. You have the option to purchase both whole bean and pre-ground coffees.
Real Good Coffee Co USDA Certified Organic Dark Roast Whole Bean Coffee
Having been roasting for 30 years, this Seattle-based company produces coffee that makes you just want to sit back and sigh with pleasure. Detractors of organic coffee say that it can be bland, but these single-origin Sumatran beans produce a smooth, rich, bold beverage.
Real Good Coffee’s organic product, made with only Arabica beans, is well-priced and has convinced even die-hard Starbucks fans to change brands.
Lavazza Organic Tierra Italian Roasted Coffee Beans
If you’re a fan of Italian-style coffee, you’re probably familiar with the Lavazza brand, which has been around for 120 years.
Lavazza’s organic offering doesn’t disappoint, and even though it’s a light roast, it’s full-bodied enough to produce a refreshing espresso with smoky, caramel notes.
Lifeboost Light Roast Organic
Lifesboost’s beans are single-origin, meaning that they procure their organic, Fair Trade coffee from a single provider in Nicaragua.
Although Lifeboost produces light, medium, dark roast, and decaf coffee, their light roast is a winner. The coffee is mild and smooth, with no bitterness or acid. It has a fresh, fruity flavor with delightfully sweet hints of caramel.
If you prefer a light cup of coffee, gentle on the stomach, then try Lifeboost. It’s a little pricier than other brands, but you’re paying for that hand-picked quality.
Volcanica Organic Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Medium Roast
Another major ethical brand in organic coffee is the Volcanica Company, also known as a Fair Trade source of coffee directly from farmers worldwide.
Volcanica Coffee is special because they roast coffee beans on order, so you know that your batch is as fresh as possible. However, you can also order pre-ground coffee if you wish.
Their medium roast is on this list is their Ethiopian Yiracheffe, a unique coffee gathered largely from wild coffee bushes. The coffee these beans produce has a naturally exotic flavor, floral and fruity, with a light lemony sweetness.
Marley Coffee Buffalo Soldier Dark Roast
No more waiting in vain for the darkest, fullest-bodied coffee – produced by the family of the late reggae legend, Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier dark roast is what you’ve been waiting for.
With a strong chocolate flavor, this coffee is strong without being bitter and produces a fantastic espresso.
Marley Coffee source their beans largely from Ethiopia and are strictly Fair Trade associated.
Death Wish Coffee Beans
If you haven’t heard of this cult gourmet favorite, Death Wish coffee is both organic and Fair Trade certified and is known as the strongest coffee not in the world but the galaxy. To prove this point, Death Wish sent freeze-dried coffee to the Space Station in 2018.
Death Wish’s Dark Roast is strictly for caffeine addicts, with this Arabica-robusta blend boasting three times the caffeine of ordinary coffee – and it’s all-natural. The flavor of this Peruvian-Indian blend is appropriately dark, bitter, and delivers a massive punch.
Java Planet Organic Coffee Roastery Guatemala Medium Roast
Cold-brew experts explain that a cold brew is not necessarily a hot coffee that has been chilled – coffee can be brewed at any temperature. For coffee to be successfully cold-brewed, it’s best to use a single origin bean with a mellow, non-acidic flavor since some flavors and acids won’t be released at low temperatures.
Java Planet’s offering fits the bill as it is sourced from Guatemala, where the coffee plants are shade-grown under fruit trees. The beans are freshly roasted on order, so there’s none of the overbaked or burnt flavor other coffees can suffer from. The medium roast is gentle enough for both cold and hot brewing, producing caramel and chocolate flavors.
Jo Coffee Decaffeinated Organic Coffee
It can be a challenge to find organic decaffeinated coffee. Unfortunately, the decaffeination process tends to use methyl chloride, a chemical banned under the US organic certification.
However, Jo Coffee uses a Swiss decaffeination method that uses water, temperature, and time to remove the caffeine instead of chemicals. The result is a delightfully smooth, rich beverage with hints of chocolate and blueberry milk. Jo Coffee’s decaf could be a new favorite for decaf lovers.
Café Don Pablo Organic Gourmet Subtle Earth Coffee Medium-Dark Roast
Don Pablo produces both regular and organic coffee – the Subtle Earth brand is their organic label. All Subtle Earth Coffees are Arabica beans grown at high altitudes in the shade in Colombia and surrounding Central and South American countries. In addition, all beans are roasted to order, ensuring freshness.
The medium-dark roast makes a deliciously rich and intense coffee, but with the low acidity levels typical of the brand. The flavor is bold and chocolatey but velvety instead of the bitterness you may expect from a dark roast.
The Subtle Earth brand delivers gourmet flavor at a surprisingly good price and has a refund policy if you’re unhappy with their product.
Tiny Footprint Organic Carbon Negative Kenya Muiri Estate Light Roast
If you’re a coffee fan who’s interested in drinking organic coffee for both your health and that of the environment, then you’ll want to try Tiny Footprint Coffee.
This artisanal coffee roastery has teamed up with a non-profit conservation group called the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation in 2010 to make a difference to the environment. Calculating that it takes 4 lb of carbon dioxide to produce and distribute 1 lb of coffee, Tiny Footprint donates proceeds to fund reforestation in Ecuador’s Mindo forests – which will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
All Tiny Footprint coffees are organic and shade-grown, then processed and roasted in Minneapolis in the US. The choice on this list of best organic beans is their Kenyan roast. Although most Kenyan coffee is not organic, these beans are produced on a single farm which supports organic farming and a large family-based community.
The Final Word
Many coffee drinkers are turning to organic coffee because it is produced under good conditions for the drinker, the producers, and the environment. Grown without harmful synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers, organic coffees tend to be farmed in the shade to limit pests and weeds. Although organic coffee can be pricier than regular brands, the taste speaks for itself.