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Letters to the Editor

Categories: 2012, OctoberTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

Robusta

Last month The View focused on the move­ment to cer­tify some Robusta cof­fees as Specialty and to develop a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum for train­ing “R Graders.” The edi­to­r­ial gen­er­ated quite a lot of inter­est and con­ver­sa­tion. Here are a cou­ple of let­ters we received on the sub­ject. We are glad the con­ver­sa­tion is started and continuing.

It was with great inter­est and an “amen” that I read Miles recent edi­to­r­ial “Specialty Robustas” now being cat­e­go­rized within the cof­fee indus­try. It was with even greater amaze­ment I read the let­ters to the edi­tor rebut­ting his posi­tion or sup­port­ing this new category.

I believe the first 30 years of the new spe­cialty cof­fee rev­o­lu­tion 1980–2010 the indus­try was able to slowly con­vince con­sumers that there were sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between these two species of cof­fees. Robustas stayed in the arena of low qual­ity filler cof­fees used in com­mer­cial blends & in sol­u­ble cof­fees while 100% Arabicas were being ele­vated as hav­ing finer more del­i­cate and com­plex fla­vors and thus could be sold as straights or in cre­at­ing high end blends. Arabicas are worth the addi­tional price. As this new cat­e­gory grew at the expense of the com­mer­cial roast­ers some big guys actu­ally started switch­ing to 100% Arabicas even if they were of low quality.

Now the intro­duc­tion of  Specialty  Robustas?   What’s the point?  The con­sumer is going to be more con­fused as the big guys have all the adver­tis­ing dol­lars and  what do you think the mes­sage will be? Specialty Robustas have finally arrived! The def­i­n­i­tion of being a spe­cialty Robusta is cen­tered around the num­ber of DEFECTS allowed whereas spe­cialty cof­fee allows NONE. End of dis­cus­sion. It is about the taste folks, that’s what we’re selling!

If the real issue is how as an indus­try do we assist Robusta farm­ers I’ll par­tic­i­pate in this dis­cus­sion. All cof­fee farm­ers  are at the mercy of forces out­side their con­trol. Trying to con­vince the con­sumer of this new cat­e­gory based on the num­ber of defects is not the way however.

I believe for every truly accept­able tast­ing Robusta there are 100 foul tast­ing ones…is this worth the effort or risk to our industry?

Let’s have com­pas­sion for the farmer but not piss up a rope at the same time!

Old guy Dan Cox

Dear Miles,

Dr. Steiman (Shawn Steinam, PhD) just pointed out the arti­cle to me that you wrote in the last issue of CoffeeTalk about Robusta. You have one of the sharpest wits in our indus­try, I value your opin­ion and our friend­ship, which is why I was so sur­prised to read your whole­sale dis­missal of CQI’s R Coffee sys­tem. I share your same con­cerns about over­sup­ply and sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity for price dis­count­ing, but I believe a move­ment to improve Robusta farm­ing and sep­a­rate a Fine Robusta class of cof­fee will make con­di­tions bet­ter for all, not worse. Please accept this mes­sage as my rebut­tal, which you are wel­come to pub­lish in your magazine.

So strong are my con­vic­tions about Robusta’s place in the future of spe­cialty cof­fee that the Symposium pre­sen­ta­tion pro­posal I sub­mit­ted this year is titled, “Why Specialty Coffee Needs Robusta to Survive,” — melo­dra­matic, I know, but I also hap­pen to believe it to be true. My argu­ment sup­port­ing Fine Robusta is in three areas:

Scientific:  You already know that Robusta is a heartier species than Arabica (weather, pest resis­tance, dis­ease, higher pro­duc­tion yield), but the hid­den advan­tage is in its genetic diver­sity. Robusta is a cross pol­li­nat­ing species, which unlike Arabica means that it has the abil­ity to evolve and adapt on its own to a wide range of con­di­tions and develop highly local­ized gene pools. In addi­tion to being able to recover from what­ever plagues and eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters are thrown at them in future gen­er­a­tions, this also means that unique char­ac­ter­is­tics exist among small plant pop­u­la­tions some­where in the world that we have never tasted.

For exam­ple, in Uganda ear­lier this year I cupped Robusta cof­fee col­lected from a remote area of for­est floor that had, with­out exag­ger­a­tion, sweet­ness on-par or higher than the sweet­est Arabica sam­ple I have cupped. The sam­ple was hor­ri­bly defec­tive because of its pro­cess­ing but the sweet­ness was unde­ni­able; these trees had so well adapted to their undis­turbed grow­ing con­di­tions that they had become com­pletely har­mo­nious with the sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment. Ever see the “good milk comes from happy cows,” com­mer­cials for the California Milk Advisory Board? There is some truth in advertising.

Characteristics like these are almost com­pletely uncat­e­go­rized in Robusta fam­i­lies around the globe. I stum­bled upon this vac­uum of cof­fee infor­ma­tion a few years ago when research­ing what cul­ti­vars pro­duced the cof­fee a client of mine was pur­chas­ing from the Island of Flores in Indonesia. The answer: “we don’t know.”  It’s all labeled Robusta and nobody has ever taken the time to cat­a­log the sub­species of plants and their char­ac­ter­is­tics on Flores — and that’s just one island. We really have no idea of what’s out there or what it can do for us tomorrow.

Market:  Ask any­one what they know about Robusta and they’ll tell you “it’s bad.” They’re gen­er­ally right, but mostly because of the num­ber of defects allowed in a typ­i­cal LIFFE con­tract. Commercial Robusta con­tracts allow some­where between 400 to 500 defects per sam­ple, roughly 10 times the allow­able num­ber for an Arabica ‘C’ con­tract. Can you imag­ine what com­mer­cial grade cof­fee would taste like with 10 times its cur­rent defects?  I’ll give you a hint: it tastes like what we think of aver­age Robusta.

Market stan­dards aside, with­out a spe­cialty cof­fee mar­ket for Robusta, there is no incen­tive for farm­ers to improve or even to employ rea­son­able stan­dards for cul­ti­va­tion and pro­cess­ing care beyond those that enhance quan­tity of pro­duc­tion. In fact, Robusta farm­ers today are caught in a race to the bot­tom of qual­ity, where those who pro­duce their prod­ucts cheap­est receive the high­est prof­its, those who improve qual­ity lose money.

Your arti­cle asserts that increased use of Robusta cof­fees by large-scale roast­ers will lead to increased plant­ing and an over­sup­ply of cof­fee that will cause a crash of all cof­fee com­mod­ity value but I sim­ply do not see how sep­a­rat­ing a new spe­cialty or Fine Robusta mar­ket, as the R Coffee sys­tem is intended, will cause this to hap­pen. Could your same argu­ment not also be used for spe­cialty Arabica cof­fee?  Why haven’t sell­ing prices from El Injerto cof­fee led to over­plant­ing and an over­sup­ply of Arabica cof­fee and con­se­quent mar­ket crash?  How is what CQI is doing with Robusta any dif­fer­ent than what was done a few decades ago with Arabica?

Our real­ity is that qual­ity improves value, which leads to increased con­sump­tion and sub­se­quent demand. Sure, there will no doubt be extremes on both ends as the pen­du­lum of sup­ply and demand makes is unpre­dictable orbit, but I see the emer­gence of Fine Robusta as a sta­bi­liz­ing force rather than a destruc­tive one.

Take for exam­ple the sit­u­a­tion we saw in Colombia just a few years back, where price dif­fer­en­tials spiked to his­toric lev­els on low pro­duc­tion of com­mod­ity Arabica cof­fee. Rather than homog­e­niz­ing spe­cialty cof­fee lots for the sole pur­pose of meet­ing futures con­tract oblig­a­tions, would it not have been bet­ter to offer a suit­able alter­na­tive of good qual­ity Fine Robusta (per­haps even an improve­ment to com­mod­ity Arabica) to the phys­i­cal mar­ket to relieve price pres­sure? Right now there is no such sub­sti­tute, so the entire indus­try and its spe­cialty cof­fee remain at risk.

Humanity:  Robusta farm­ers are the most impov­er­ished in the cof­fee world because their cof­fees have not enjoyed the same price pre­mi­ums as their Arabica coun­ter­parts due to the mar­ket issues addressed above. As we have seen in Arabica cul­ti­va­tion, improve­ments in Robusta qual­ity and value will lead to higher income, improved liv­ing con­di­tions and polit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in cof­fee farm­ing areas, though with its same chal­lenges. Furthermore, we must not for­get about the impact of cli­mate change and pop­u­la­tion growth on all cof­fee farm­ing that is rob­bing com­mu­ni­ties of their cash crop. As weather pat­terns change and land avail­able for Arabica farm­ing shrinks, Robusta farm­ing is some­times the only fea­si­ble way for cof­fee farm­ers to con­tinue doing what they know and have done for gen­er­a­tions. With world­wide con­sump­tion pro­jected to con­tinue increas­ing, I believe that it is far bet­ter to keep cof­fee farm­ers farm­ing cof­fee rather than see them aban­don a way of life in favor of, for exam­ple, grow­ing rub­ber trees.

You are absolutely cor­rect that there has been a sub­stan­tial inter­est by cof­fee buy­ers in Robusta this year and I agree that inter­est is being sparked by finan­cial motives, but unlike the posi­tion of your arti­cle, I do not believe that the spe­cialty cof­fee indus­try is tee­ter­ing atop a slip­pery slope of qual­ity com­pro­mises. Quite the oppo­site, I see that the sus­tained surge in Arabica ‘C’ mar­ket pric­ing is just the cat­a­lyst that we need for the spe­cialty cof­fee roast­ers of North America and else­where to rec­og­nize that there is another area of cof­fee with vast poten­tial that is com­pletely unex­plored and another pop­u­la­tion of cof­fee work­ers largely ignored. We can pre­tend that our asso­ci­a­tion is called the Specialty Arabica Association of America, but by doing so, we will be lim­it­ing our own poten­tial to evolve.

I’d like you to expe­ri­ence these cof­fees your­self in per­son and am pleased to offer you or Kerri a seat at the upcom­ing R Grader course in Long Beach (Sept. 24–28) at no charge. Understanding that this is short notice and also may con­flict with plans at the Coffee Fest show in Seattle the prior week­end, I’m happy to let the offer stand for any of my future R Grader courses where we have avail­abil­ity. Again, I deeply respect your opin­ion and look for­ward to your response. Please write back or call me any­time to discuss.

Sincerely,  Andrew Hetzel

What about the other 50 million? Achieving sustainability through Robusta

Categories: 2011, DecemberTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

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.