6 Common Coffee Label Terms You Should Know

(Image credit: Jeremy Brooks)

Direct trade. Fair trade. Organic.

You might recognize all the words that make their way onto a coffee label, but what do they all really mean?

Here’s a quick guide to these common phrases on coffee, and whether you should take them into consideration when buying your coffee beans.

Just like it’s good to know where your food comes from and how it’s produced, coffee is exactly the same. But while we can talk to a farmer at farmers market about they grew the vegetables we’re buying, since coffee is an exotic product that comes from far away, most of us don’t have any connection to the producer. Which is why if you want to know where your coffee is coming from, how it was produced and how the people who produced it are treated, you’ll want to know what all the various labels and certifications mean.

The SCAA has a great matrix that compares a few of the main certifications. But in the coffee world there aren’t just certifications, there are also indicators like “single origin” and “direct trade.”

To help you figure out what you’re drinking, here is an explanation of some of the most common things you find on your coffee label.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade coffee is all about the people that produce it. According to Fair Trade USA, who governs Fair Trade labeling in the US, “Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price, and links farmers directly with importers, creating long-term sustainability.” However, there are many in the industry that question how much Fair Trade is really helping farmers, and there are many studies that point to the ineffectiveness of the label. This is part of the reason why many in the coffee industry have moved towards direct trade.

Direct Trade

Direct Trade means pretty much what it sounds like: working directly with producers to source coffee, ensuring both that farmers are paid ethically, and allowing coffee companies to source higher quality coffee. It also can allow coffee companies to work with the producers to establish more sustainable practices, as producers have an incentive to produce higher quality coffee.

Single Origin

Single origin is simply a term that means that coffee comes from one specific region. However, since’s it’s just a general term, often it can be up to interpretation. While some coffee companies use it to refer to a single coffee from a single plantation, others use it to mean a coffee that’s made with a blend from an individual region, and othere will use it to mean coffee from a single country, which means that a huge number of suppliers may have provided the beans that ultimately end up in the bag.

(Image credit: feeb)


If a coffee is certified organic in the US, it means that the coffee was produced under the standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. This means “without synthetic pesticides or other prohibited substances for three years and a sustainable crop rotation plan to prevent erosion, the depletion of soil nutrients, and control for pests.”

Shade Grown/Bird-Friendly

Shade Grown certified coffee is intended to protect the habitats of migratory birds. Traditionally, coffee was grown in shade, until hybrids were produced that could be grown in full sun and produced higher yields. To ensure the protection of habitat for these animals, and prevent things like clear cutting an area to make room for high yield coffee production, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center created the Bird-Friendly coffee certification. But shade-grown isn’t just good for birds, it’s good for the entire ecosystem, creating a healthy symbiotic relationship between organisms. Currently 24% of total coffee cultivation is devoted to shade-grown.


UTZ Certified is the world’s largest program for sustainable coffee and cocoa farming. Almost 50% of all certified sustainable coffee is UTZ grown. The certification takes into consideration both environmental and social questions, looking at not only how the coffee is grown, but how the farmers who grew it are paid, and what their work conditions are.

Which Are the Right Labels to Choose?

If navigating the world of certifications sounds overwhelming, that’s because it can be. The best thing to do if you want to ensure that you’re drinking good coffee is to get as close to the source, since most of us aren’t going to hop on a direct flight to a coffee producing country, often the next best bet is buying directly from a roaster that’s ethically sourcing their beans.

The best advice for drinking coffee that’s not only tasty, but good for the environment and the people that produce it is to, is the exact same as it is for food: buy from people that know the product inside and out and can answer your questions about it.