by Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog
Over the past two years, CRS has partnered with Sustainable Harvest to create Let’s Talk Robusta, a workshop series held during the importer’s annual Let’s Talk Coffee event. After more than a decade of working almost exclusively in the realm of specialty Arabica, we have seen Let’s Talk Robusta as a kind of market intelligence jet-pack that can help us power our way up the Robusta learning curve. We came into the process with a long list of items on our learning agenda, but have been focused primarily on the $64,000 question: just how big is the market for quality-differentiated Robusta? We have spent almost that much so far to underwrite the Let’s Talk Robusta events, but still don’t have a clear answer.
ESPRESSO as the GATEWAY
Let’s Talk Robusta has helped us confirm what we already suspected: espresso blends are Robusta’s principal point of entry to the specialty market and the greatest source of hope for Robusta growers seeking premium prices.
Craig Dickson of Melbourne’s Veneziano Coffee Roasters told a Let’s Talk Robusta audience that that his leading espresso blend is 20 percent Robusta, and his business is built on espresso: his café may serve just 6 or 7 filtered coffees a day against 600 or 700 espressos.
During the 2012 edition of Let’s Talk Robusta, the late Vinko Sandalj of Italy’s Sandalj Trading spoke of a vast European market paying premium prices for Robustas that don’t even boast a distinctive cup profile, but are clean in the cup and contribute body, crema and caffeine to espresso blends.
But Robusta has made fewer inroads to the U.S. specialty market. And even when U.S. roasters do buy Robustas for their espresso blends, they don’t buy much. Blue Bottle has an espresso blend that includes Robusta. Stephen Vick says it’s his favorite. He also says that Blue Bottle buys only 50 bags of Robusta a year.
The market for single-origin Robustas is considerably smaller.
Robusta’s evangelizers have been preaching about the bright future for single-origin Robustas for years, but precious few have made their way to market. CQI’s R program is designed to change that. Progress has been slow.
Nishant Gurjer, the sixth-generation coffee grower who owns Sethuraman Estate, has earned CQI fine Robusta certifications three times, but no one else has achieved that distinction. All of the roasters assembled for Let’s Talk Coffee 2013 — Blue Bottle, Mr. Espresso, Veneziano and Zingerman’s — buy their Robusta from Nishant. And they generally don’t present it as a single-origin coffee: it is mostly destined for espresso blends. If the world’s most celebrated Robusta isn’t single-origin material, the prospects for single-origin Robustas seem dim.
I have seen some Robustas offered as single-origins in the U.S. market: La Colombe once offered a single-origin Malagasy Robusta, and Crop-to-Cup has been importing a high-grown Ugandan Robusta for several years (in addition to a peaberry from Nishant). But mostly, these coffees are few and mighty far between.
THE TRUE ART of BLENDING
More than a few observers have suggested that roasters don’t blend flavor profiles as much as they blend price points. There are exceptions: cases, like Nishant’s, in which roasters seek Robustas precisely because of their profiles and are willing to pay premiums for them. Craig Dickson points out that he pays more for Nishant’s coffee than many of the single-origin Arabicas in his inventory. But until there are many more farmers like Nishant trading coffee in ways that Arabica growers have been for decades in the specialty market, it seems most Robusta farmers will be limited to producing low-value coffee to meet the demand for industrial processing and to helping roasters blend price points: their Robustas will be lower-priced substitutes for Arabicas that are getting too expensive or scarce, sought less for their sensory qualities than their affordability.
ON FORESTS and TREES
Part of the problem seems to lie in the fact that in a Robusta market overwhelmingly filled by vast amounts of low-quality coffee, there have been a few cases in which Robusta growers have succeeded in establishing the kinds of trading relationships that represent the best of specialty — direct relationships with roasters, premium prices for quality, higher margins all around. Nishant’s case is exciting but not representative, and yet it has helped fuel a powerful narrative of Robusta’s rise. One specialty guru complained to me privately that advocates of fine Robusta have, in a kind of creative non-fiction, woven a fabulous tale of Robusta’s rise from fragments and anecdotes: “They have constructed a big lie out of a lot of small truths.”
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This is the third post in a series on Let’s Talk Robusta 2013, the second annual series of workshops sponsored by the CRS Borderlands project during Sustainable Harvest’s annual Let’s Talk Coffee event.
Michael Sheridan has worked on coffee for Catholic Relief Services since 2004. He currently directs the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador and advises other CRS coffee projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is based in Quito and publishes perspectives from the intersection of coffee and international development for the CRS Coffeelands Blog at coffeelands.crs.org.