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More than Beans, A Quest for Great Tasting Sustainable Coffee


By Bonnie Hulkower

I used to be ignorant about the origin of my morning cup of Joe.  The specialty coffee craze has been going on for years, but I honestly wasn’t paying attention to labels like fair trade or organic or even if the coffee I drank tasted good. I just wanted it to wake me up. (After enough sugar and cream I find most things taste delicious). But my eyes got truly opened after a recent trip to Guatemala, where Rainforest Alliance set out to demonstrate that coffee quality and sustainable farming do go hand-in-hand. Their Cupping for Quality program, now in its 10th year, only bolstered this notion.

The cuppings are like wine tastings, except with spoons and slurpings. There is a winter cupping in December in Long Beach, California and a spring cupping in March in New York City. The top ten scorers for both cuppings will receive awards at the annual SCAA Exposition held in Boston in April.

I attended the one in Long Beach where cuppers sampled a total of 51 coffees from nine origins, including the first sample from Malawi.  I had never been to a cupping, so I was not sure what to expect.

The hostess asked if I wanted to participate.  After some hesitation, I grabbed a spoon and jumped in. That was where I made my first mistake; coffee at a cupping is always allowed to cool slightly as subtleties in taste can best be discerned when the coffee is not piping hot.  After this, I watched as the experts sniffed, slurped and spat.  They coached me on how to inhale deeply and take a big whiff, how to break the crust of the coffee with a back of the spoon, and how to distinguish the body, acidity, and aroma of the various coffees.

This is the coffee industry’s basic method of  evaluating the beans for quality.  A panel of 15 expert cuppers, representing North American coffee importers, roasters, and retailers, evaluated the profile of each coffee, evaluating each for aroma, acidity, uniformity and balance. Samples were roasted and prepared by Ted Vautrinot and Shawn Anderson of Kean Coffee and Andrew Phillips of Rose Park Roasters. Shawn Hamilton of Java City was the Lead Cupper.

After each country cupping, the cuppers communed around a large table to discuss their score sheets and all the intimate details of the flavors.  Although I was told there “are no wrong answers,” the group as a whole seemed to agree on the descriptions. The sample from Malawi was deemed “underdeveloped,” and one cupper defined it as “there was no there, there.” A coffee from Tanzania was hailed for its “pleasant fruitiness and uniformity.” One from the forests of Papa New Guinea was described as “overripe and fermented.” A sample from Kenya was very popular, even though the descriptions of “brothy” and “vegetal” made it sound more like soup to me.

This year, farms in Kenya, Peru, and Colombia earned top scores.  The highest rank, with 87.1 points, went to the Ndumberi Factory, a cooperative of small farmers in Kenya. Ndumberi is unique in that it has its own wet mill with a cupping lab. The lab allows cooperative members to analyze taste, and focus on quality control. Rainforest Alliance announced the top ten scoring coffees this week.

Maya Albanese, a sustainable agriculture associate with the Rainforest Alliance, said that it was “the most successful cupping yet” for the organization, noting that she’s “seen the quality of the cups and the enthusiasm of top national coffee cuppers increase dramatically.” The top ten scoring coffees were announced this week in a press release from the Alliance.
Rainforest Alliance’s certification
seems to take on a holistic approach by encompassing many of the standards from other eco-label and green certification programs-- environmental, wildlife, and fair labor rubrics. Rainforest Alliance also certifies coffee farms in Central America based on standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. They’re concerned with factors like safe working conditions, giving back to the communities, worker education, lowering agrochemical use, waste management, wildlife protection and ecosystem and water conservation. But whether you are an adherent of Rainforest Alliance, or Fair Trade, or prefer the Direct Trade model, it was made clear to me by my cupper instructors that they believed that treating the environment well often results in higher quality coffee beans.  They also seemed to prefer shade grown coffee.

One of the cuppers, Jay Isais, Senior Director of Coffee at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, told me “that while none of the certification programs is perfect, Rainforest Alliance is one that provides for social, environmental, and ecological considerations.” Isais’s job as a coffee buyer (and Q Grader) is to select certified coffees that also meet his company’s high standards for taste. After the cupping, Isais stated that he is “now convinced that the Rainforest Alliance model is compatible with high quality coffee.”

After years of clueless consumption, my visit to the coffee farms in Guatemala and attendance at the Rainforest Alliance cupping have been quite the revelation. The choices we all make concerning coffee may seem bewildering, considering the variety of special labels and certifications available. And there’s always more to learn about varieties of beans and whether they’ve been grown sustainably. Though on the basic level, Rainforest Alliance’s certification and cupping programs reinforced that the choices I make for the cup of coffee I buy on my way to work can make a difference ecologically, all the while tasting great, too.

The top ten scoring coffees:

Ndumberi Factory Kenya


Tunki Peru


El Silencio - Luis Fernando Arias Alzate Colombia


Tegu Factory Kenya


Quechua Peru


Santo Tomas 2; Eibar Jose Rojas Pajoy Colombia


Gichatha-ini Factory Kenya


Ibonia Estate Kenya


Coop Sol & Café Peru


Yadini Estate Kenya



image credits: Bonnie Hulkower

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