Drink Up

Hot Beverages That Are Good for the Earth

Shade-grown coffee. Fair-traded tea. Hot cocoa from all-natural ingredients, chai that’s certified organic. Bottoms up, thirsty environmentalist. It’s never been easier to find a hot drink that’s good both for the palate and the planet. And you don’t have to search the world over to find it. Just peruse the menu board at the ubiquitous cafe around the corner—and increasingly the teahouse—for proof that steamy eco-drinks are entering the great mainstream one order at a time.

Changes for the better are most visible in the booming industry in coffee, which, after oil, is the world’s largest legal export. Once plucked from trees that grew in the shade of taller fruit and hardwood trees, the beans ground for our morning java jolt today come largely from deforested acres of monoculture. Grown in open fields in full sun, coffee trees have doubled their yield, but at a high cost to the environment (see “Singing for Songbirds,” In Brief, July/August 2000).

To steer consumers to Earth-friendly coffee, Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit group based in New York City, has introduced the ECO-O.K. certifying program. To earn the ECO-O.K. seal of approval, plantations must grow coffee in shade forests, use few agro chemicals, protect ecosystems, and manage wastes in an environmentally sensitive manner.

The best coffee eco-wise is both organic and shade-grown. And you’ll find it in coffee that’s certified “bird-friendly.” A project of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), the pro-bird labeling program requires that coffee pass muster with an independent organic certifier, and that the farm where it’s grown meet SMBC’s stringent guidelines for the kind of shade tree management that supports bird populations. Companies that offer bird-friendly coffee, such as Sustainable Harvest, are listed on SMBC’s web page (web2.si.edu/smbc). Other good-Earth coffees, such as Thanksgiving Coffee and Alterra Coffee, are those certified by both ECO-O.K. and an independent organic labeling program. A group called TransFair, which encourages equitable trading practices, also certifies coffee, and companies like Equal Exchange market a fairly traded product. Even Starbucks, the world’s largest gourmet coffee chain, last year agreed to purchase a small volume of coffee that is certified as both shade-grown and organic. If you want to lose the coffee altogether (but not its flavor), there’s Soyfee’s Choice, made in six varieties completely from organic soybeans.

A Good Cup of Tea

Tea, next to water the most widely consumed drink in the world, has undergone a similar makeover. It’s coming at the hands of progressive tea companies that are turning away from a long-standing industrial approach to growing tea, with its reliance on chemical fertilizers, pest- and insecticides. “The typical way of growing tea is non-sustainable,” says Mathias Leitner, coordinator of operations for Nur Natur, an organic tea and coffee supplier headquartered in Germany. “It leads to soil erosion and disease, and the pesticides are a health hazard for the workers who handle them.”

Nur Natur offers organically grown teas, certified by a third party. An independent lab also tests them for over 200 possible chemical residues. Another Germany company, Gepa3 (translated: Society for the Promotion of a Partnership with the Third World) blazed the organic tea trail, selling its first organic tea in 1986. Both companies have a strong social ethic, abiding by “fair trade” agreements that guarantee workers are paid a living wage. Gepa offers workers health and childcare, youth and adult education, vocational training, housing assistance, cultural programs and community development activities, as well as a fair price for their tea. “Conventional tea trade lacks integrity, pays tea workers poor wages, uses chemicals that are bad for the environment,” says Leitner. “It’s just not sustainable. Fair-traded tea benefits everyone.”

Tea certainly benefits its consumers, according to medical studies. In the last decade, tea’s been found to ward off heart disease, cancer and stroke, and improve oral health, among other things. “I’d certainly recommend that people drink tea,” says Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, whose studies show that drinking tea is good for the heart. “Our bodies need more antioxidants [to fight marauding free radicals that corrupt cells and, it’s thought, lead to cancers], and compared to other foods, tea’s very high in them.”

A new trend in tea—chai, a black tea that’s spiked with spices and sugar and often served with cream or milk—is actually a centuries-old staple of India. Chai first gained a toehold in this country back in the 1960s in—where else?—the Berkeley area. In the last five years, a handful of companies have taken it national; today, it’s racking up annual sales in the $20 million range. “It’s a healthy, pleasant alternative to coffee,” says Taylor Peck, president of Nub Circus, producer of Nub Chai, “It’s easier on the stomach than coffee, and the mix of herbs in chai, like ginger and licorice root, are good for the body.”

Increasingly, chai’s proving good for the Earth, too. Ingredients in Nub Chai, from tea to its spice blend, are certified organic, the first chai company to green-up its drink. Nub Chai’s competitors, which include Oregon Chai, Tazo [recently bought by Starbucks], and Mountain Chai [now of Celestial Seasonings], have followed suit.

Not to be outdone, that perennial favorite of kids and parents alike, hot chocolate has also gone high green. The best cocoa for the environment is plucked from trees that grow in a shady, biodiverse environment. Most chocolate on grocery store shelves and in baked goods isn’t. It comes from full- or partial-sun monocultures on deforested rainforest lands. The result has been the loss of yet more rainforest, and, since migratory birds live in canopies surrounding cocoa plants, loss of their habitat, says SMBC’s Rice.

As with coffee, a handful of producers have launched a good cocoa movement. One of them, the Organic Commodity Project, offers a line of certified organic chocolates that are sold to cocoa makers. Another, Country Choice, produces a cocoa mix that’s certified organic. Proof that, for the environment, what tastes good, can actually be good.

MARK HARRIS is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and a regular contributor to E.