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What Is Shade Grown Coffee And How Is It Different?


Thinking about expanding your coffee options? If so, you should consider learning more about shade grown coffee. Here is everything you need to know about this type of coffee, including what it is and what benefits you can expect.

How is Shade Grown Coffee Different from Sun Grown Coffee?

As the name suggests, shade grown coffee are coffee plants grown in partial or full shade.

Although this may sound like a novel concept, it is not the case at all. Coffee is a shade loving plant. In fact, there are many varieties of coffee plants that are sun-intolerant. As such, they can often be found growing naturally under a large forest canopy.

It was only in the 1970s that sun-grown coffee plants started to become popular. These plants are a hybrid created with the intention of making coffee farming easier. However, sun grown coffee plants need a lot of fertilizer and are often unsustainable.

Shade grown coffee, on the other hand, is self-sustaining. The leaves from trees growing above the coffee plants do more than just provide shade. Once they fall to the ground, they provide mulch for the plants. This, in turn, reduces the need for fertilizers, meaning that the coffee will be more organic and healthier.

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The leaves also act as a barrier against moisture loss, ensuring that the plants get the water and nutrients that they require.

Birds that are attracted by the natural ecosystem created help to keep the insects at bay. As a result, there is no need for pesticides.

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What Kind of Coffee is Shade Grown?

There are two main types of coffee grown today: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the more popular of the two, accounting for about 75 – 80% of production. It is believed to be of higher quality than Robusta.

Traditionally, Arabica was shade grown coffee. Robusta was cultivated in the sun. However, as the demand for coffee grew, strains of Arabica are also increasingly being cultivated in the sun.

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Any strain of coffee that continues to be shade grown today, however, is of the Arabica variety.

The Types and Levels of Shade Grown Coffee

As stated earlier, shade grown coffee can be grown either in full or partial shade. So, let’s break down the levels of shade to give you a better idea of how this kind of coffee can be grown:


This is a term that’s often used to refer to coffee grown on small rural or family farms. In this method, the coffee is cultivated in an environment that is as close to its natural habitat as possible.

As a result, the trees and bushes close the coffee plants can provide between 70 percent and 100 percent vegetation.

On these farms, there is a great deal of ecological diversity since there is little to no change in the natural vegetation of that area. It is not unusual to find around 25 or so species of vegetation. There are often several layers of vegetation as well.

Traditional Polyculture

In this cultivation method, the coverage can be anywhere from 60 percent and 90 percent. This isn’t the only difference, however. Coffee plants grown this way are cultivated in a habitat of native and planted foliage. It isn’t uncommon for the plants to be grown alongside fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, plants for fuel, and more.

Commercial Polyculture

This type of plantation only offers around 30 percent or 60 percent of shade. Here, a significant amount of the natural vegetation is removed. This is done to make for a greater number of coffee plants. The available shade is courtesy of fruit trees and timber that have been purposefully planted.

There are traditionally only two layers of vegetation in this case – the canopy and the coffee plants. The canopy trees are pruned, which results in a lack of cover. To make up for this, farmers have to resort to fertilizers and pesticides to prevent the loss of soil nutrients.

Shaded Monoculture

There is only 10 percent to 30 percent of shade cover provided with type of plantation. This is because the majority of plants grown are coffee. There are only one or two species of trees planted among the coffee plants. Even these are pruned regularly and heavily.

Full Sun

As the name suggests, these coffee plants are exposed to the sun fully without any shade cover. In most instances, plantations such as these have no tree canopy at all. However, it is possible that there may be a few other tree species around.

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What Does Shade Grown Coffee Taste Like?

If you have never tried shade grown coffee before or are considering making the switch, it is only natural to wonder what this kind of coffee tastes like.

Well, the first thing you should know is that it does taste like regular coffee – there will not be too many surprises in this department. Nevertheless, some people who argue that shade grown coffee produces a better cup of coffee.

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One reason for this is that when grown in the shade, the beans grow at a slower rate. This causes them to be denser, in turn resulting in a more flavorful coffee with a higher acidity level.

It is also thought that since coffee beans in shade grown coffee are grown in a more natural way, the flavor is a lot more authentic as well.

Keep in mind that even if shade grown coffee isn’t necessarily superior in taste to sun grown coffee, at least there is no distinction in flavor.

How Is Shade Grown Coffee Better?

There has been renewed interest in shade grown coffee because of the ecological benefits of this variety. If you’re thinking about making the switch to this variety of coffee, keep reading to find out more. Let’s take a look at the main advantages it offers:

Increases Biodiversity

Coffee plants grown in areas of natural or even planted shade can help to create a thriving ecosystem of plants and vegetation. Why is this so important?

Well, biodiversity supports various connected function of an ecosystem. For instance, more trees (and shade) means a great amount of organic matter created on the forest floor. In turn, microbes in the soil break down this matter, allowing the surrounding plantation to benefit from the nutrients. This cycle is allowed to continue.

The other advantage is that when various species of vegetation are grown together, they are more likely to be resistant to various diseases and even pests. As such, the crop is less likely to be disrupted from one season to the next.

Boosts Bird Populations

One of the main reasons ecologists have been desperately fighting for shade grown coffee is because of diminishing bird populations.

Shade grown coffee plantations function as habitats for birds. Not only do these plantations house local birds, but they have a significant migratory bird population as well. This has to do with the fact that the biodiversity lends itself to an increased level of fruits and vegetables for the birds.

This can lead to a significant decline in the overall bird population. Not to mention, birds will be forced to fly farther away, often towards less favorable habitats.

Reduces Need for Fertilizers and Pesticides

The organic matter created by the canopy of trees overhead allows the coffee plants to grow without the addition of fertilizers to the soil.

This is important because when fertilizer is added to the soil for plants, there is an increased risk of runoff. As a result, the fertilizer can be washed away into streams, rivers, and other bodies of water where they will cause pollution and affect the natural flora and fauna there.

With sun grown coffee, farmers also have to use pesticides. The lack of biodiversity creates a lack of natural predators such as birds. Due to this, destructive pests are allowed to populate without any obstructions.

On the other hand, with shade grown population, this natural balance is restored. So, you don’t have to use harmful pesticides that can also pollute surrounding bodies of water.

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Soil Conservation

Shade grown coffee protects and maintains the soil in a variety of ways. For instance, this form of plantation requires less tilling. In turn, this helps to sustain the integrity of the soil.

This is why farms that promote shade grown coffee experience far less rates of erosion. This is true for farms on hillsides as well as flat lands.

It was also found that the soil on which shade grown coffee plants were grown could retain nutrients and moisture more effectively. Not only did this cut down on the necessity of farmers having to fertilize the plants, but it resulted in healthier plants overall.

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Do Coffee Shops Offer Shade Grown Coffee?

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many cafes that offer shade grown coffee. It is important not to get confused by the language and terms that some cafes and chains use.

For instance, it is not uncommon to find coffee chains that offer coffees that have been sustainably grown and produced. This doesn’t automatically mean that you are dealing with shade grown coffee.

This is why you should always clarify the specific terms that the company uses when describing their coffee. Always check that the coffee is shade grown. Or, ask for details of the coffee brands used and research these instead.

How to Choose Shade Grown Coffee

Here are some points to consider when choosing shade grown coffee:

Start with Arabica Coffee

As mentioned, it is unlikely that you will come across Robusta beans that were grown in the shade – they are meant for the sun. This is why you should always start your search with Arabica. Stay away from brands that blend the two beans as well.

Of course, just because the beans are Arabica doesn’t mean that they are shade grown. As a result, you will need to take the next step.

Look for the Right Certifications

There are two main terms or stamps of approval that you should check for here. The first is the Rainforest Alliance Certification. The other term that indicates shade grown coffee is “Bird Friendly”.

To make doubly sure that the brand lives up to its claims, check the Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center for further proof. This will guarantee that you have chosen the right brand.

Choose Smaller Roasters

Smaller roasters are more committed to sustainability and quality. Due to this, they will have connections to smaller farms that grow coffee in more sustainable habitats. Naturally, it is important to research these claims before committing to the brand.

This is your guide to shade grown coffee. As mentioned, there is quite a bit to learn about this type of coffee. Now that you are aware of all the facts, you can make a more informed decision when purchasing coffee.

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About the author


Samuel is a coffee lover and a writer. He's travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and has soaked up the sun, the culture, and of course - the coffee. He loves to write about his experiences, and he hopes to travel even more in the future.

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