CoffeeTalk has been accused of advocating “class warfare” over the past few weeks. Our belief that Robusta does not belong in Specialty Coffee seems to have brought out the dark side of some folks. This notion is of course patently absurd. However, if you mean by “class warfare” my contention that we should stick to our guns and support the growers who have dedicated themselves to a path of continuous improvement in order to support the 17% of coffees sold in consuming countries that can be classed as Specialty, then yes, I am advocating class warfare, just as we as an industry have done for the last 40 years to differentiate our industry from “commercial” coffee.
Diligent removal of defects in order to approach a ‘Zero Defect’ score does not change the significantly higher CGA (chlorogenic acid) percentage and the resultant impact on flavor, there is no pixie dust here. Botany and genetics are sciences, not whimsy. It is disingenuous to imply that the flavor profile of the species has been altered or that some Robusta grows in such pristine and wild conditions that its fundamental genetic chemistry has been altered for the better. No, it continues to demonstrate the same profiles as Ted Lingle, Dr. Illy, Ken Davids, Dan Cox, and so many others have written – rubbery, woody, harsh, unbalanced bitter, and astringent (The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook; Fourth Edition and others).
Robusta coffee is typically harvested as naturals. The only way that defects can be detected is through visual examination after the pulp has been dried and removed — in other words, at the dry mills. The impoverished farmers are long out of the picture before the mill begins to sort the coffees for defects. Removal of defects beyond current market standards costs the processor a great deal for which they will have to charge a substantial premium to the roasters.
This now advances two issues. Dry mills are not going to pay farmers more for their coffee. Any belief to the contrary is naïve. All the value-added in premium Robustas is incurred at the processor level, not the farms, and therefore naturally any increased price should be elemental to the mill’s compensation. The farmers are delivering the same coffee they always have. Nothing has changed except the increased labor costs of the mill owner. Second, who will be the buyers for this enhanced Robusta? Specialty roasters will certainly not embrace the taste of premium Robusta, especially because it will have to be mitigated with premium Arabica in order to present an improved product that will still be perceived as inferior to a 100% Arabica product. Commercial roasters have no motivation to alter their current blends toward a more expensive Robusta bean. Commercial roasters have a trained consumer base that is unlikely to respond positively to a higher price point. So, faced with rejection by specialty roasters and dismissal by commercial roasters, why would countries of origin pursue development of premium Robusta for sale in the United States? One thought? Countries are jumping on this bandwagon because government agencies and international development agencies such as USAID, UN-ITC, UNESCO, and others are pushing millions in grants to private contractors and countries to attempt to recreate the success of the “Q” program in Robusta producing countries.
Where are the benefits?
• The farmers will not be paid more for their Robusta coffees because all the improvements to the quality take place at the mill level after the growers have delivered.
• There is unlikely to be willing and eager market makers in the US commercial coffee universe, if premium Robusta sells at a substantially higher differential to the LIFFE Robusta market.
• Specialty roasters are unlikely to embrace Robusta for fear of losing their wholesale customers to local competition.
• Specialty coffee and especially the Specialty Coffee Association of America will likely lose one more level of credibility and generate more confusion as to its purpose.
So, who wins then?
• Commercial coffee roasters who can now declare “Super Premium Robusta” in their blends with no method of verification.
• A hoard of new international “R Graders” will find employment at beneficios and cooperatives in Robusta producing countries.
• Private “schools” certified and paid by CQI, and in a year or so, the SCAA, will spring up to train and certify international “R Graders.”
• Consultants and contractors who have seized on the potential opportunity to train a new class of coffee graders and set up “certified” labs in a new group of countries through the support of UN-ITC, USAID, and other development funding agencies grant dollars.
There are simply not enough words to convey my admiration for many of the most vocal advocates for Robusta coffees and for what they have done for millions of people worldwide. Their contributions to coffee businesses and coffee science are extraordinary. However, on this issue, I think they are reaching for a governmental gold ring without regard for the consequences. I realize that contracts are the lifeblood of many a consultant in our business and essentially are the only means of support, but pursuing the “R Grader” program is, in my opinion, purely opportunistic. It appalls me to be part of a club that would admit a new member not because of their qualities, or because of their potential contribution to the greater well being, but simply because the club can make a whole lot of money.
As many of you know already, this issue will be Ashley Prentice’s last for CoffeeTalk as a member of the staff, at least for a while. Ashley has been with us for a little over a year and during that time she has made a deep impression on people from all segments of coffee. She is off to Italy now to attend the University in Trieste. She received the first scholarship given to an American to pursue a Masters Degree in Coffee through the University of Udine (UNIUD) and illy Caffe. This is an extraordinary opportunity and we are so proud of Ashley and her accomplishments but we will miss her deeply.
While away, Ashley intends to continue writing for CoffeeTalk and journal her experiences in Trieste.