It was interesting to read the the latest post from industry blog Coffee Hero, “Espresso Vivace Now Without Robusta,” for two reasons: 1) as a fan of Espresso Vivace, I have enjoyed the Dolce blend in the past, and 2) because the article also sets a few facts straight about Robusta coffees and says a few unsolicited kind words about our friends at Sethuraman Estate.

It all began with an article in the Seattle Times, called “Coffeehouse customers steamed about higher prices,” where David Schomer is quoted as saying Espresso Vivace stopped adding “lower-cost Robusta coffee” to his blends, presumably in an attempt to cut costs.

Is it just me or is that logic a little hard to grasp?

Puzzler aside, Michael Allen Smith of Coffee Hero proceeds to review the new Dolce blend sans-Robusta and finds that it “tastes just like the robusta version, however it doesn’t linger on the palette as much, referring to the new blend as “the younger brother.”

As old-school roasters tinker with their blends, whether to lower material costs or to appear more in touch with the latest style, a little something is lost. Too bad.

My question: Why not just use a better Robusta?

On the bright side, he continues with supporting information as to why roasters should use better Robusta in their blends and even praise of a single origin Kaapi Royale Coffee (Sethuraman Estate) Robusta coffee purchased from Paradise Roasters:

Recently, I had a 100% robusta single origin espresso from Paradise Roasters. It was an outstanding espresso and every bit the equal in quality to arabica espresso blends.

I agree that most Robusta coffees are falling far short of their potential quality and are best used in instant coffees, but I am pleased to see that coffee people are learning that other higher-end Robustas are now available and are not afraid to voice their experienced opinion contrary to current popular trend.

From Coffeehouse customers steamed about higher prices

Before the recession started devouring profits, skyrocketing milk prices were a scourge for the nation’s coffeehouses.

Starbucks raised drink prices by 9 cents in 2007 and said rising milk costs would cut into profits.

Now milk prices are down, along with most other foods, yet coffeehouse prices are the same or higher, and some customers are steaming.

“I’m seeing 10 percent increases in many cases since last year, yet I see no justification for it,” Michael Allen Smith, organizer for the Coffee Club of Seattle, recently foamed on his Coffee Hero blog.
He figures labor, real-estate and energy costs are flat or down, and the dollar has more buying power in many coffee-growing regions.

Smith has returned to home roasting for the first time since moving to Seattle a couple of years ago. He now roasts about half the coffee he drinks and recommends others reduce their intake, roast and brew at home and favor affordable coffee shops.

“If your cafe or roaster raises their price, put them in the time-out corner. Take your coffee dollars elsewhere,” Smith wrote.

Seattle coffee-shop owners say they are not gouging customers. Their costs are up, particularly for high-quality coffee from Africa.

Sebastian Simsch, owner of Seattle Coffee Works, wrote on his blog that higher East African coffee costs pushed him to raise the price of his Seattle Space Espresso Blend by 50 cents to $13.45 a pound.

He’s also raised prices on several other whole-bean blends. It’s coming at a time when Seattle Coffee Works is saving money on coffee by roasting its own, but Simsch said that’s not why he started roasting this summer.

“The only difference now is that we’re maybe getting closer to paying a living wage to all the people who work here, including yours truly,” he said. “For two years, I’ve worked here full time and not gotten a paycheck.”

David Schomer, co-owner of Espresso Vivace, is considering raising drink prices because his coffee costs have gone up, too.

He’s stopped adding the lower cost robusta coffee to his blends to boost the brownish-red foam called crema. “It wasn’t helping us,” he said. “It’s gone.”

And he’s facing higher green-coffee costs, particularly from Africa.

Matt Milletto, director of the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, said coffeehouses should consider raising prices every couple of years to cover the increasing price of doing business.

But they should also find ways to absorb some cost increases, like the ones some coffeehouses are seeing now on coffee beans.

“Even if their costs went up $1 a pound to $9, which seems like a big increase, that’s translating to only 2 to 5 cents in the cost of the drink,” Milletto said. “That could justify a 5-cent increase (in drink prices), but if the retailer is serving a higher-quality product and can bring in five more customers a day, they’ve covered that cost increase (without raising prices).”

Of course, it’s challenging to find more customers during a recession.

Sweet Maria’s Coffee in Oakland, Calif., a popular online seller of green coffee to home roasters, has seen a 12 percent drop in sales this year, says co-owner Maria Troy. Green coffee costs less — about $6 a pound — and can be roasted in a skillet.

“People who are interested in home roasting are not necessarily interested in the price,” she said. “They’re interested in having the best coffee they can have. People who are interested in price go to Costco and buy cheap coffee.”