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High-End Coffee is Better for the Planet

In recent years, buying a pound of coffee has come to require a moral and gastronomical scrupulousness not normally associated with food staples. Walk into the supermarket today, and you'll be confronted by bags of organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, single-source coffees, each proudly emblazoned with a wordy label and an assortment of certifications. It can be a disorienting experience.

"Sometimes I look at my own coffee, and I scratch my head and I say, 'How could anybody figure this out?'" says Donald Schoenholt, the proprietor of New York-based Gillies Coffee, a specialty coffee merchant. "It's got a born-on date. It's got a fair-trade label. It's got an organic-certified label. Sometimes it's got a Smithsonian bird-friendly label. It's got a kosher label. People look at it, and I think they just get bleary-eyed."

Bleary-eyed or not, Americans clearly enjoy the fine Arabica beans - from East Africa, the Pacific Islands and Central and South America - that Schoenholt and an expanding pool of specialty roasters around the country are offering, often at prices well in excess of $10 a pound. A boutique industry in 2000, today specialty accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of all coffee consumption in the United States, according to the National Coffee Association.

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