The mission of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) is to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of people who produce it. You may notice that no limits are specified in our mission. While we often think of specialty coffees, and almost always think of Arabica coffees in this context, here at CQI we are interested in helping all coffee farmers succeed. We have been able to build a successful program around Arabica coffee that has transformed the way actors in the supply chain talk about quality. To date, we have certified over 1,300 “Q” Graders who are discussing quality coffee in a more systematic and scientific manner. The program has been used for various purposes, but most importantly, it has allowed more people at origin to discover, separate and sell higher quality coffee, and provide insight into those lots that have the potential for higher premiums. With 50 million bags of Robusta produced in 2010, and with millions of farmers dependant on its success, we think it’s well worth a try.
When we started announcing the development of a new program for Robusta coffee, “R” Coffee, there was a lot of disbelief, and even some anger. How could the Coffee Quality Institute be focused on a species of coffee that is associated with lower quality and higher environmental impact? How could we possibly turn to Robusta knowing very well that there is not a space for it in the specialty world? The answer is simple – with the current shape of the market, and with numerous factors affecting supply, it is very likely that higher quality Robusta could relieve some supply shortages for the specialty market. Even though there are some notable flavor characteristics that differentiate it from Arabica (some might say very notable), Fine Robusta coffee may even find a cozy home with consumers who appreciate lower acidity, or with roasters looking for a different quality coffee to complement a blend.
In order to make Robusta palatable for the specialty drinker, a whole lot needs to be improved first. CQI has started to develop Fine Robusta standards, much like those of Arabica, which will help build quality awareness among Robusta producers and lead to a more sustainable supply of high quality Robustas. The Robusta Program, now integrated with our Q Coffee System, has made some significant process in just over a year and a half. We have over 15 certified “R” Graders and will continue to host Fine Robusta workshops in Uganda, Brazil and Indonesia, with the hopes of expanding to Vietnam and India in the near future. Ted Lingle, executive director of CQI, expands, “The success of the Fine Robusta Coffee Workshops cannot be overstated. It clearly identified the potential for huge growth in the market place for this category of coffee; growth based on quality not price. The success also clearly identified the roadblock to improved Robusta prices: DEFECTS. All of the coffees cupped during the Workshops had been cleaned and graded so that the defect counts were comparable to those for specialty Arabica grades, and consequently the flavor improvements in the Robusta coffees were striking. As a by-product of these workshops, the coffee industry now has a set of training materials to use in a systematic approach for quality improvement in the Robusta coffee supply chain.”
Tackling the quality issues inherent in the harvesting and processing of Robusta coffees is the very first step and then it is necessary for Fine Robusta standards to become integrated into the supply chain, just like SCAA’s Arabica standards. Investments, partnerships, and long-term strategies will be vital to cultivating a steady supply of Fine Robustas, and several organizations have also started to focus on Robusta, including Catholic Relief Services, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). While the Fine Robusta standards continue to be adjusted and refined, and as we move forward with the introduction of this program into Robusta-growing regions, we understand the challenge and effort needed to make this successful for everyone. Once the industry is ready to embrace this lesser loved bean, Robusta will be there waiting with open arms.
Alexandra Katona-Carroll is the programs manager for the Coffee Quality Institute. She is responsible for the development and implementation of CQI’s new database, along with marketing and communications. She’s currently a member of SCAA’s Sustainability Council and is fluent in Spanish.