Technically speaking, all coffee is vegan. It's blended and ground from the roasted unripened fruit of a small tree known as the coffee plant.
Coffee is vital to the economies of more than fifty tropical countries. The top three producers of coffee today are Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. Coffee plantations also abound in other South and Central American countries, Asia, India, Indonesia, and several African nations. Growing and tending coffee plants involves handpicking the fruit, discarding the thin, parchment-like covering, and cleaning, drying, grading, and hand-inspecting the beans for color and quality. The process is labor intensive, and many coffee plantations pay their workers poorly and are rife with abuse.
Traditionally, coffee is a shade-grown plant. It also maintains a high cash value, second only to oil in the international market. Consequently, coffee grown using traditional methods has helped to preserve rain forest and ecological diversity, unlike beef production and the lumber industry, both of which have slashed and burned precious forest. Unfortunately, more than half the world's coffee producers have succumbed to technological advancements and are now producing sun-grown coffee in order to reap rapid yields and short-term economic gain. These mass-production advantages, however, exact an enormous toll. Sun-grown coffee requires heavier chemical inputs, is more costly to maintain, and drastically depletes the life-span of the plant. It also has transformed coffee plantations into ecological deserts where fauna and flora are unable to survive and land degradation, water pollution, and chemical poisoning are rampant. In addition, sun-grown coffee has decimated indigenous cultures who, as a result, have encountered ongoing health hazards and economic devastation.
Coffee, like tea and cocoa, contains caffeine, a stimulant that affects many parts of the body, including the nervous system, kidneys, heart, and gastric system. Caffeine can also be addictive. Decaffeinated coffee has had the caffeine removed by one of three methods before the beans are roasted. The first method is to chemically extract the caffeine with the use of a solvent, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, either directly or indirectly. The solvent is washed out before the beans are dried, and the roasting process dissolves any remaining residues. The second method is called the Swiss water process, which involves steaming the beans and then scraping away the caffeine-rich outer layers. A relatively new third method uses carbon dioxide (CO2). For this process the steamed beans are bathed in compressed carbon dioxide and the caffeine is removed from the carbon dioxide through charcoal filtering, just as it is in the Swiss water process. However, with the CO2 process, the flavor components remain in the bean rather than being soaked out and put back in again, as they are in both the Swiss water process and the indirect solvent process.
Some people believe that caffeine is harmful to our health and to the environment. Others claim that the methods employed in growing coffee are unsound and unjust. From these perspectives, one could question whether coffee is indeed a vegan product. Certainly, the use of coffee is not one of the most exigent issues confronting vegans, and many might contend that what they do to their own bodies is solely their own business. Nevertheless, if coffee-drinking vegans are concerned about the humaneness, environmental soundness, or healthfulness of coffee -- as is appropriate for anyone attempting to live a fully compassionate life -- they can eliminate it or use it in moderation and seek out only sustainably produced shade-grown coffee that is marketed in accordance with internationally recognized fair-trade standards. Organic, shade-grown coffee can usually be found in food co-operatives, natural food stores, and some specialty coffee shops. If it's not labeled as such, be sure to inquire.