Starting last year we began warning readers that the variable pricing of Arabica coffees would stimulate some coffee companies to lower their standards of quality in order to keep prices at retail unchanged. As we know, that is exactly what came to pass! What we did not expect was the quick embracing of Robusta within the specialty coffee community in the U.S.
Before I start, it is important for all those Robusta true believers to understand that I know there are small pockets of growing areas that produce Robustas of very high quality. I also can understand that there may be a need for “R” graders to certify the quality of Robusta coffees. Additionally I understand the motivations of some enterprising consultants to rush toward Robusta as a way to expand their client pool through niche specialization. If the market calls for it, then someone needs to help it get done.
My problem with the rush toward Robusta is that the carefully crafted value systems upon which the specialty coffee industry and especially the Specialty Coffee Association of America are predicated are being intentionally collapsed. Ever since Alfred Peet, there has been a concerted push for Arabica beans as the pinnacle of quality. The idea that any roaster or café that calls itself specialty would ever serve Robusta used to be unthinkable.
The word “Robusta” was used broadly as an insult – it was spat out as symbolic of all that was bad about the “big guys.” Coffee conspiracy theorists proudly declared that “the evil Starbucks” clearly was vile because they served Robusta, and even though that was patently false, it was the symbol of “how terrible” Starbucks and all of those other “thems” were.
And why is the concentration on Arabica coffee by the specialty industry important? Because for 40 years, we as an industry have encouraged farmers of Arabica coffees to improve quality, improve practices, and improve conditions in their communities with the assurance from us that we will pay them well for their efforts. Our relationships with Arabica coffee growers are founded on the principle that we will pay fairly for their products if they comply with our often difficult and seemingly frivolous requirements.
Because of this relationship, farmers reinvested in land and production equipment; they developed water treatment systems and improved picker housing; they built schools and medical care all because of the belief that we shared the same goals. For a while, I even began to believe that Specialty Coffee was committed toward ending the Imperialist/colonialist buyers’ market mentality of “buy it cheap and let them starve – deplete the resource and then move on.”
Then came one year of high prices that gave some advantage to the grower/sellers – just one year – and suddenly many coffee buyers are behaving like “ugly Americans” once again.
Why does the shift from Arabica to Robusta count? If some Robusta coffee is of specialty standards why not use it? This is the big question that is thrown about by many in the SCAA. It was a major element of the recent Roaster’s Guild Retreat that included cuppings and presentations on why Robusta is now “golden.” I can answer that with one phrase – is all Arabica coffee specialty coffee? All of us are a little outraged that the big grocery coffee guys have co-opted the idea that Arabica coffee equals good coffee and so freely purchase the dregs of coffees off the patios of Arabica farmers and sell it to uneducated consumers as “100% Arabica,” which it certainly is but I wouldn’t drink it. Now the “big guys” are being assured that it is okay to use Robusta beans in their coffee without restraint on quality requirements – and the ones who are telling them this are the same specialty coffee industry leaders/Associations that labeled the major roasters as villains in the first place.
Still, there is a kind of revenge in this story; the commodity price of Robusta has soared in the last few months (after the global financial bounce in 2008) as more roasters move toward lower quality beans. It closed today (08-29-12) at $1.11 per pound (from a low of 28.9 cents per pound) with Arabica closing at $1.82. Analysts anticipate that Robustas with continue to rise, closing the gap between Arabicas and Robustas. As the price rises for Robusta, producing countries like Uganda, Vietnam, Cote de’Ivoire, and others will rapidly increase production and flood the market with Robusta coffee. Any of this sound familiar – maybe the coffee crisis of 2001? Hmmm.
There, I said it – the coffee crisis that our industry has spent the last 10 years apologizing for and attempting to fix is poised to happen again and for the very same reasons. Those reasons of course are
• Greed, Quick cash, and personal aggrandizement
• Imperialistic attitudes about global trade
• Moral bankruptcy
• Speculative commodity trading
• Improving global economies and dollar valuation
• Disregard for the sustainable prosperity of growers
I believe that Robusta coffees have their place; just not in the specialty coffee North Americans drink. The almost overnight shift in attitudes about Robusta within the Specialty Coffee Association is puzzling and, as with so much of their activities, lacking transparency and therefore seems suspect. I do not want to be writing another “follow the money” style editorial 5 years from now while we once again struggle to save children with distended bellies from famine and pestilence. Children whose only crime was to be born into a coffee growing family that trusted us to hold to our promises and relationships.
Let’s struggle against industrial farms producing mechanically harvested tonnage of cheap low grade Robusta. Let’s keep our promises to our farming partners. Let’s follow the morally high path. Let’s keep Robusta out of Specialty Coffee.
Kerri & Miles