This is one of those rare instances when someone (or some company) trying to do something good has also managed to put out a good product. For some reason, the coffee business seems to include an inordinate number of upstart, rebel companies that make an honest effort toward bettering the industry from the inside out. While it took ten years and 10,000 pages of documents for the U.S. government to define the word "organic" (Bite Me, October 31), roasters and distributors like Allegro and Ruta Maya Coffee out of Austin (I can heartily recommend their beans -- the work of traditional growers in Chiapas, Mexico -- to all you joe junkies out there) fight to improve the system without any laws mandating that they do so. They consistently turn out quality products while paying fair (and often well above-average) prices to farmers, and they do so -- if not entirely out of the goodness of their green and leafy little hearts -- at least partly out of a commitment to inflicting no further damage on the food chain.
Locally, Daz Bog Coffee Company offers certified organic (under the new USDA labeling standards), shade-grown, Fair Trade coffees from every growing region in the world, with over 35 varieties available for sale. And for a taste of the slightly more revolutionary grower, Kerry Appel of Denver's Human Bean Coffee Company offers beans from only one farm (the Mut Vitz co-op in Chiapas), which carry neither the USDA organic nor the Fair Trade labels, but which, according to Appel, exceed the standards of both. "I believe in innocent until proven guilty," says Appel, who adds that the American certification process "is more like guilty until you pay to be proven innocent." And so he refuses to pay for the certification process (and thus the right to use those labels). "TranFair USA [the Fair Trade certifying body] exists for the exploitive coffee companies who've not been Fair Trade, but now want to be called that so they can charge people more per bag of coffee," he continues. "I go on reputation. People who buy from me know that the Human Bean company is doing what they say they're doing."
Granted, there's a nice buck to be made by billing yourself as more friendly, more responsible and more environmentally sound than the big, evil coffee conglomerates, but business is business, right? Even Starbucks has jumped on the bandwagon (under threat of massive protest and boycott by some of those same impish scamps who trashed Seattle during the WTO riots in '99) and started offering a line of "Fair Trade" certified coffee that comes exclusively from small, independent farms and is priced higher -- but with a bigger cut going back to the farmer.
Have you found a great brand of organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly or otherwise politically correct coffee? I'm thinking of setting up an experiment to settle once and for all the question of which tastes better: the honest, traditional sweat of the working man, or that of the oppressed corporate farmer. Or Sanka, which has no politics whatsoever.
Look before you leap: Okay, so last week I expressed skepticism over the organic-labeling standards that went into effect on October 21, but that was before I found an important tidbit while cruising the Web. Apparently, atrazine -- a popular weedkiller and herbicide used all over the world -- could be responsible for causing spontaneous sex changes in certain varieties of frogs.
These hermaphroditic reactions were observed by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, and published last week in the science journal Nature under the grabbing lead line, "A widely used herbicide is making male frogs grow female gonads in the U.S. Midwest."
I wasn't entirely shocked by this revelation, because I've known for a long time that the music of 'N Sync can do the same thing, but the study went on to note that while atrazine's ability to disrupt sex hormones has caused it to be banned by several European nations, U.S. farmers use an estimated 27,000 tons of atrazine a year. They spray it on their crops; rain washes it into the groundwater; the groundwater pollutes rivers and streams, and the next thing you know, thousands of male leopard frogs in the Midwest start thinking The View is a really interesting show.