It seems to me that most prejudices are learned behavior. They were taught to us by our parents. Or our mentors. Or “conventional wisdom”. So I suppose the reason I don’t hate robusta is that nobody taught me that I was supposed to hate it.
Coffea canephora, or robusta, is the low-growing, less-expensive coffee than the high-growing Coffea arabica that anchors the specialty coffee world. It has an entirely different flavor profile than arabica. At its worst, robusta is harsh, with words like “rubber” and “pine tar” used to describe its flavor. At its best, it’s powerful, complex and distinctive. And completely unlike arabica coffee (though to be completely fair, the worst arabicas are not as good as a good robusta).
Like most Americans, I grew up drinking bad coffee. When Folgers from a can is brewed in a percolator, I don’t think it much matters whether it’s arabica, robusta, or powdered mushrooms. It just tastes like crap. The first good coffee I ever had was in Europe (Scandinavia, technically) in my early 20′s. It’s safe to say that coffee changed my life, literally and figuratively. It was quintessential European espresso. My worldwide travels accelerated rapidly at that point in my life, and before I knew it I had been to 40+ countries before I was 30 years old. Just about all of the EU. Most of Asia. And I personally favored the coffee in Western Europe.
When I started roasting coffee around age 30, those influences drove my personal style of blending, roasting and brewing. I copied, which is how most of us learn initially, whether it’s cooking, beer making, or any other artistic pursuit. One of the things I copied was the Italian style of blending and roasting, which included using robusta coffee in small proportions, and a relatively light roasting style (compared to American roasting at the time, or more specifically the dark styles that Peet’s and Starbucks made popular at the time).
How was I to know I was supposed to hate the coffee I had come to love?
I shot this photo in an alley in Rome around 2005. This is classic Italian espresso, which includes robusta.
When we started our roasting business, quite naturally I favored things I liked myself. Our Classic Italian Espresso is the coffee I’ve been roasting for myself since about 1999, and true to its roots, it’s about 15% robusta, albeit a really, really nice single-estate robusta. It’s the only espresso on our menu that’s been there since Day One, and will stay there until they pry my cold, dead hands from the portafilter. Or until somebody buys the keys to the door from me, whichever comes first.
And in the beginning, which was 2006, we found it difficult to sell espresso. We had only a few on the menu – literally, three – and two of them contained robusta (the other robusta-containing blend was an all-India espresso inspired by coffees sold by Dr. John). “Third Wave”, all-arabica espressos were all the rage. About that time, I read a trade rag article on the use of robustas, which quoted George Howell (one of the Godfathers of specialty coffee) as saying, ”The dramatic un-sweetness of robusta precludes me from using it. I find that even the most neutral robusta takes away what I’m after, which is sweetness.” Robusta, apparently, was for people trying to make cheap blends. And people with bad taste. And me, apparently, since I have never tried to make cheap blends, nor have I ever had bad taste.
As fate would have it, the Great Recession steered our business away from wholesale, and into retail. Most home coffee is not espresso. So we offered mostly standard coffees, and did a small espresso business for ourselves and the few people who liked the same things I like. I did what I wanted to do, and ignored the haters. Because I wasn’t doing enough espresso business to matter, really.
But lately, a funny thing has started to happen. In the past two years, our espresso business has taken a sharp (no pun intended) upturn. In fact, we now have a respectable espresso business. At least it’s big enough that we no longer worry the way we used to about the inventory turns when we get a small order and fill the roaster with it. (Our goal is to sell espresso within seven days of roasting.). And while we now offer more espresso-oriented blends, including many all-arabica blends, it’s the blends that contain robusta that are selling best.
I’ve made it a point to start talking to these customers directly. In a lot of cases, I immediately noticed thick accents. European accents. My conclusion was that somehow European coffee drinkers were starting to find us, not that there was some fundamental shift in the market.
But this year, I noticed that brokers were offering me more, and more interesting robusta choices. Including brokers who had never before stocked robustas. And some broker conversations confirmed that they, too, are seeing more interest in robustas. I’m pleased to say that this year I will experiment with no less that 5 different robustas, which include three processing methods and four origins. This is unprecedented, and would scarcely have been possible just five years ago. Happy times.
All of which shouldn’t surprise me. Some of it is cyclic, of course. The all-arabica trend has run its course, and everything old is new again. But more likely is that people are awakening from this kind of perma-nap the American public has been experiencing for like the last 50 years. The uniform, white-bread mentality is finally being shaken.
Rapini – the robusta of the mustard family
Think about the Howell quote. What makes “sweet” the “right” attribute of coffee? Sure, some people prefer sweet coffee. George Howell is apparently one of them. And sadly, guys like him have an undue amount of influence among a bunch of impressionable coffee people apparently incapable of forming their own opinions. Relate this to other foods. Think about the difference between broccoli, and rapini (aka broccoli raab). Both are members of the mustard family. Broccoli is sweet. Rapini is bitter, some would say harsh. So is broccoli “right”, and rapini “wrong”? Of course not. It’s a matter of taste. They’re both right. It depends on the person and the circumstances. I’m proud to say that my parents were both rapini lovers long before rapini was the hipster member of the Brassicaceae family.
All these years later, I’m happy to be that independent-minded coffee roaster that customers are discovering wasn’t wrong for all time. Look forward to some new espresso blends that celebrate the robusta renaissance.