Today I grab the third rail of coffee quality: the R word. After nearly eight years of working for CRS on high-value Arabica coffee in Central America, I have relocated to Ecuador to direct the Borderlands Coffee Project, which will be helping to reactivate a Robusta coffee culture in decline in the Amazon. We are betting on a strategy of quality-based differentiation to keep family farmers in coffee even when the market is less than favorable — an approach that many fine coffee enthusiasts might consider incoherent.
COFFEE CULTURE IN THE ECUADORAN AMAZON.
I started visiting the Ecuadoran Amazon earlier this year in connection with the Borderlands project, and met with lots of farmers. While the names and faces changed from one farm to the next, the story was the same everywhere I went.
As these folks told it, they lived — and lived well — just off of what they made from coffee. More than one farmer told me he was able to buy late-model cars with what he made from coffee sales. And there was always money to spend during the weekend.
THE COFFEE CRISIS.
When coffee prices tanked in 2001, all that changed. Now cacao is king in these parts of Ecuador. Most people cut have cut down their coffee and planted cacao or other crops in its place. Some have kept a half a hectare (less than an acre) for tradition’s sake, but in most cases coffee has been neglected and is not a significant contributor to family income anymore. On one farm, a farmer showed me where he used to grow coffee. After walking across a field of taro root, we came to a green wall more than 20 feet high.
“This was our coffee,” he said. After 2001, the family just stopped tending to it altogether, and nature reclaimed the area with the kind of vengeance that you can only see in a place like the Amazon.
REVIVING COFFEE CULTURE (WITH A QUALITY FOCUS).
But for all this, many farmers are still interested in reviving the local coffee culture, which they consider their primary vocation. We are eager to help. Only this time, we are not going to get them back into the volume game, which leaves them as exposed as ever to market volatility. Another crash like we saw in 2001, and the coffee we help to plant will give way again to cacao or whatever other crop is paying well at the time. This time, we want to help Ecuadoran Robusta farmers position themselves to participate in the emerging market for fine Robusta coffees.
I confess, this is still a challenging idea for me, mostly because my idea of quality coffee is tethered tightly to quality Arabica cultivars grown at high elevations. And furthermore, I feel like I have been hearing about the “specialty Robusta” concept since my first trip to SCAA in 2004, and have yet to taste my first cup.
But fine Robusta’s time may have finally arrived. CQI last year published Robusta quality protocols and has already certified 15 “R-graders” in Uganda. CQI director and specialty coffee pioneer Ted Lingle told EAFCA he thinks the Robusta protocols and R-grader program can do for Robusta what the SCAA protocols and the Q-grader program have done for specialty Arabica. And he sounded a note of optimism about the Robusta cup profile in a recent interview with Fresh Cup.
And with the GCQRI’s underlying assumption of a “looming supply crunch” for specialty Arabica cultivars, there is lots of speculation that roasters could fill gaps in their inventory with — here’s that phrase again — fine Robustas.
It won’t happen overnight. Lingle told Fresh Cup it could take 10 years or more.
We look forward to getting started in Ecuador. I will report back in early 2012 on our progress.