12 Angry Roasters, the Trial by Media of Fine Robusta

Last week I was surprised when my colleague Shawn Steiman pointed out that our mutual friend Miles Small of CoffeeTalk Magazine had published a scathing editorial commentary about the recent surge of interest in Robusta among specialty coffee roasters.

Knowing Miles as an extremely bright member of the specialty coffee industry who has also published articles written by CQI about its Robusta program in the past, I was very surprised by his wholesale dismissal of CQI’s R Coffee system and particularly of his conclusion,

“Let’s take the morally high path. Let’s keep Robusta out of specialty coffee.”

Dr. Steiman was delighted… not by the message, but by the fact that this debate is being held publicly, “it’s something we need to be discussing right now!” He exclaimed.

I admit that I was put off by Miles’ comments initially, but ultimately agreed with Shawn, seeing this as an opportunity to address the perceptible undercurrent of fear and prejudice that I feel whenever the topic of Robusta is mentioned openly. So without further ado, I’m please to present you with my best Henry Fonda-style “12 Angry Men” defense of Robusta for all its alleged and predicted future crimes in an open letter to Miles:

Dear Miles,

I share your same concerns about oversupply and sacrificing quality for price discounting, but I believe a movement to improve Robusta farming and separate a Fine Robusta class of coffee will make conditions better for all, not worse. Please accept this message as my rebuttal, which you are welcome to publish in your magazine.

So strong are my convictions about Robusta’s place in the future of specialty coffee that the Symposium presentation proposal I submitted this year is titled, “Why Specialty Coffee Needs Robusta to Survive,” — melodramatic, I know, but I also happen to believe it to be true.

My argument supporting Fine Robusta is in three areas:

Scientific:

You already know that Robusta is a heartier species than Arabica (weather, pest resistance, disease, higher production yield), but the hidden advantage is in its genetic diversity. Robusta is a cross pollinating species, which unlike Arabica means that it has the ability to evolve and adapt on its own to a wide range of conditions and develop highly localized gene pools. In addition to being able to recover from whatever plagues and ecological disasters are thrown at them in future generations, this also means that unique characteristics exist among small plant populations somewhere in the world that we have never tasted.

For example, in Uganda earlier this year I cupped Robusta coffee collected from a remote area of forest floor that had, without exaggeration, sweetness on-par or higher than the sweetest Arabica sample I have cupped. The sample was horribly defective because of its processing but the sweetness was undeniable; these trees had so well adapted to their undisturbed growing conditions that they had become completely harmonious with the surrounding environment. Ever see the “good milk comes from happy cows,” commercials for the California Milk Advisory Board? There is some truth in advertising.

Characteristics like these are almost completely uncategorized in Robusta families around the globe. I stumbled upon this vacuum of coffee information a few years ago when researching what cultivars produced the coffee a client of mine was purchasing from the Island of Flores in Indonesia. The answer: “we don’t know.” It’s all labeled Robusta and nobody has ever taken the time to catalog the subspecies of plants and their characteristics on Flores — and that’s just one island. We really have no idea of what’s out there or what it can do for us tomorrow.

Market:

Ask anyone what they know about Robusta and they’ll tell you “it’s bad.” They’re generally right, but mostly because of the number of defects allowed in a typical LIFFE contract. Commercial Robusta contracts allow somewhere between 400 to 500 defects per sample, roughly 10 times the allowable number for an Arabica ‘C’ contract. Can you imagine what commercial grade coffee would taste like with 10 times its current defects? I’ll give you a hint: it tastes like what we think of average Robusta.

Market standards aside, without a specialty coffee market for Robusta, there is no incentive for farmers to improve or even to employ reasonable standards for cultivation and processing care beyond those that enhance quantity of production. In fact, Robusta farmers today are caught in a race to the bottom of quality, where those who produce their products cheapest receive the highest profits, those who improve quality lose money.

Your article asserts that increased use of Robusta coffees by large-scale roasters will lead to increased planting and an oversupply of coffee that will cause a crash of all coffee commodity value but I simply do not see how separating a new specialty or Fine Robusta market, as the R Coffee system is intended, will cause this to happen. Could your same argument not also be used for specialty Arabica coffee? Why haven’t selling prices from El Injerto coffee led to overplanting and an oversupply of Arabica coffee and consequent market crash? How is what CQI is doing with Robusta any different than what was done a few decades ago with Arabica?

Our reality is that quality improves value, which leads to increased consumption and subsequent demand. Sure, there will no doubt be extremes on both ends as the pendulum of supply and demand makes is unpredictable orbit, but I see the emergence of Fine Robusta as a stabilizing force rather than a destructive one.

Take for example the situation we saw in Colombia just a few years back, where price differentials spiked to historic levels on low production of commodity Arabica coffee. Rather than homogenizing specialty coffee lots for the sole purpose of meeting futures contract obligations, would it not have been better to offer a suitable alternative of good quality Fine Robusta (perhaps even an improvement to commodity Arabica) to the physical market to relieve price pressure? Right now there is no such substitute, so the entire industry and its specialty coffee remain at risk.

Humanity:

Robusta farmers are the most impoverished in the coffee world because their coffees have not enjoyed the same price premiums as their Arabica counterparts due to the market issues addressed above. As we have seen in Arabica cultivation, improvements in Robusta quality and value will lead to higher income, improved living conditions and political stability in coffee farming areas, though with its same challenges.

Furthermore, we must not forget about the impact of climate change and population growth on all coffee farming that is robbing communities of their cash crop. As weather patterns change and land available for Arabica farming shrinks, Robusta farming is sometimes the only feasible way for coffee farmers to continue doing what they know and have done for generations. With worldwide consumption projected to continue increasing, I believe that it is far better to keep coffee farmers farming coffee rather than see them abandon a way of life in favor of, for example, growing rubber trees.

You are absolutely correct that there has been a substantial interest by coffee buyers in Robusta this year and I agree that interest is being sparked by financial motives, but unlike the position of your article, I do not believe that the specialty coffee industry is teetering atop a slippery slope of quality compromises. Quite the opposite, I see that the sustained surge in Arabica ‘C’ market pricing is just the catalyst that we need for the specialty coffee roasters of North America and elsewhere to recognize that there is another area of coffee with vast potential that is completely unexplored and another population of coffee workers largely ignored. We can pretend that our association is called the Specialty Arabica Association of America, but by doing so, we will be limiting our own potential to evolve.

Respectfully yours,

Andrew Hetzel

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12 Angry Roasters, the Trial by Media of Fine Robusta

9 Responses

  1. Great article, but could you please elaborate on the science behind this statement:

    “…the sweetness was undeniable; these trees had so well adapted to their undisturbed growing conditions that they had become completely harmonious with the surrounding environment.”

    Thanks.

    September 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm #
  2. Great post! Thanks for this. Robusta is currently ruled by too much knee-jerk and not enough experimentalism.

    greg October 15, 2012 at 9:50 am #
  3. Nice article Andrew! Also, I thoroughly enjoyed the Robusta cupping at LTC2012! Thanks again, it was a pleasure meeting you.

    October 23, 2012 at 6:56 am #
  4. Like your article. I had a chance to try washed robusta from India a few weeks ago and it was good. Hoping we can make some changes around here in Thailand as well…and we are trying. But changing the way of life of robusta growers is no easy, more incentive, more time, more education needed to show them they can make a good quality robusta and earn more money. Fight for a good deed :)

    October 24, 2012 at 11:34 pm #
  5. Sounds like Robusta has a PR problem that’s not entirely unjustified. Your argument in favor of separating a fine Robusta class of coffee was extremely well thought out, though, and very informative. Comparing the allowable defects per sample for Robusta vs Arabica really puts things in perspective.

    Joel Sussman February 14, 2013 at 4:01 am #
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