Coffee trees occur naturally in forests between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Exposing coffee plants to too much sunshine will have a negative effect on the growth of the Arabica coffee tree, hence it is common to grow coffee under canopies or shade-cloth on larger estates.
The best coffee however is found at very high altitudes and often on the slopes of inhospitable mountains. This is a naturally occurring alternative to large coffee plantations - and that is “Shade Grown Coffee”.
Shade grown coffee refers to coffee grown under a canopy of trees. Because this is a natural process incorporating natural ecology promoting ecological relationships, shade grown coffee is considered the most ecologically and environmentally friendly method of coffee cultivation as many of these plants are never actually planted by humans, but simply naturally occurring.
Shade grown coffee has come to include a certification process similar to being “Fair Trade Certified”, there are requirements to being certified “Shade Grown”, with its most redeeming feature being certified environmentally friendly.
Naturally occurring coffee growing in a sustainable way is of course something worth supporting. As to whether naturally occurring forest grown coffee has a major impact on cup quality however, I have not heard of any “litmus” test, nor can I think of a truly transparent way of measuring it’s benefits in quality as a coffee category. We support sustainable, ecologically sound farming methods, however simply labeling something as "shade grown" is more likely to improve the life of the people marketing the labeling organization, than it is for the coffee farmer, and is no guarantee of quality in the cup.
At FIX! Coffee we believe that the best way to ensure sustainable growth for the coffee future is to reward quality, and it is for that reason that we support programs like the Cup of Excellence program that rewards coffee farmers of all sizes for delivering a quality coffee grown using sustainable techniques including naturally occuring and shade grown coffees.