Specialty Robusta – A Revolution or a Tragic Mistake

Earlier this year, the Coffee Quality Institute announced the launch of the R-grading system. The premise is that there are Robusta coffees good enough to be considered specialty coffee and that a system of discovery and promotion is needed to build a substantial specialty industry around them. The idea of specialty Robustas has polarized some parts of the specialty coffee industry with both strong detractors and adherents speaking out; it is not a simple issue.

As Robusta coffees have a significant taste difference from Arabicas, the specialty coffee industry (at least, in the U.S.) has spent decades demonizing them. While the industry admits that not all Arabica coffee is specialty coffee, there has been a fairly good agreement that Robusta is evil. While there have been some Robusta supporters, in general, though, the message has been clear: it cannot be specialty coffee if it is or if it contains Robusta.

The idea of specialty Robustas is not new. An Internet and trade magazine search will turn up articles written in the last few years discussing the matter. It is only the new R system, with its active promotion of Robusta coffees, which has caused some people to cry foul.

CofeeTalk Magazine has played host to a conversation about specialty Robustas in the last few months within the editorial section and letters to the editor. Instead of recapping those conversations, this article will explore some points of those conversations while bringing up some new ones.

Can Robustas taste good enough to be considered specialty coffee?

I have long been a proponent that each individual consumer is an arbiter of quality. Far be it for any expert to claim what is universally good or bad for everybody else. In this context, there are certainly Robusta coffees that will be acceptable and desirable to some consumers.

Given the current Q-grading system and its attempt to define specialty coffee, are there specialty Robustas? Nobody knows. A few farmers are selling them but the sample size is so small that it is impossible to make a generalized conclusion. Thus, coffee geeks cannot even weigh in on the possibility.

Agronomically, the question is difficult to answer. Arabica coffees have long been receiving royal treatment and pampering. In the field, they are better cared for, better harvested, and better processed than Robustas. Farmers even plant specific varieties with taste in mind. Arabicas are given more opportunities to attain their potential as specialty coffee. Robustas, on the other hand, are almost never treated as well. Thus, we do not know if, given a chance, they could be much better than they currently are. It is probable that there will be a variety, a process, a location, or a combination of such things that will produce a specialty Robusta.

Can specialty Robustas help keep costs down?

Most likely, no. The primary reason Robusta coffees are cheaper is that they are not produced as lovingly as Arabicas. Thus, if farmers fertilize and water them more, pay pickers more for better harvesting, and spend more money on processing, their cost of production is likely to rise to comparable Arabica levels.

In addition, if specialty Robustas do take off, then they’ll need to be supported by scientific research to discover best practices for specialty production. That research will need to be funded and there’s little hope that producers (and consequently consumers) won’t have to bear part of that burden.

Will specialty Robustas help increase the amount of available specialty coffee?

While the simple answer is “yes” – more of any specialty coffee will add to supply – the hope is a false one since increasing the supply of specialty Arabica can be solved just as easily as adding specialty Robusta to the mix. Better farming practices (more nutrient and water input along with better pruning, processing, and storage) could probably increase specialty Arabica yields 2-5 times their current levels!  Yet, this hasn’t been done nor is it widely advocated. To suspect that appreciable amounts of specialty Robusta will be produced and discovered without appreciably increasing their cost while having substantially equivalent quality to Arabica is unlikely. A new species is not the immediate solution, better farming is.

Can Robustas be marketed successfully after so many years of negative publicity?

Convincing specialty coffee roasters and consumers that Robustas are now worth drinking is a difficult and tricky venture. Poor marketing will lead to all Robustas being hijacked and celebrated by the large coffee conglomerates, much as “100% Arabica” has been. Selling a consumer on a more expensive Robusta will be a huge challenge: you need to quickly and easily teach people why and how Robustas are now drinkable when yesterday they were not while differentiating them from their cheaper counterparts sold by the conglomerates and still coming across as having integrity. It is not that it cannot be done, only that it will not be easy.

The establishment of the “R-Grading System” might have already jeopardized the promotion of specialty Robustas. The R-Grader System’s very existence says that Robutas are not substantially equivalent to Arabicas. If the Q- Grader System – whose purpose is to define specialty coffee – cannot grade Robustas, then either they are not specialty or the Q- Grader System is dysfunctional (a very real possibility, but one not to be discussed here). The R-Grader System appears to be a smoke- and-mirror trick to convince everyone that Robustas are specialty without making them succeed-by-trial in the Q-Grading System.

I cannot predict whether specialty Robustas will be adopted by the specialty coffee industry as a whole but I think the attempt to get them adopted will be, forgive the pun, robust. Personally, I support the search for them. I celebrate the diversity of the coffee taste spectrum and I delight in the discovery of new, interesting cup profiles. There is no reason Robustas have to be equivalent in any way to Arabicas.

That said, we must be honest with ourselves and consumers about what we are discovering and promoting, and why. It is ok to change our preferences and widen our horizons. However, we should admit that we are exploring something we’ve spent decades decrying and recognize it is going to be a bumpy road we journey upon. Not everyone has to embrace specialty Robustas. Those that do, however, should do so in a way that doesn’t diminish the creditability specialty coffee has worked so hard to gain nor in a way that will damage someone else.

12_12 12-AShawn Steiman, PhD, is a coffee scientist and consultant.  He has authored numerous books and articles on a range of coffee related topics. He specializes in coffee production, quality, and education.  He can be reached at steiman@coffeaconsulting.com.

This modified version is reprinted with permission from The Coffee Store (www.mauicoffee.com).

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