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315. The great (Robusta) debate

2012 November 6
by Michael Sheridan

Over the past few months, a debate over the state of the market has raged between people with very different visions of how that market will evolve into the future.  The tenor of the debate has been respectful, but charged, marked by references to class warfare, crony capitalism, core values and special interests.

I am not talking about the Obama-Romney debates or the bruising campaign for the U.S. presidency.  I am talking about the latest chapter in the great Robusta debate.

A long-standing discussion of the role of Robusta coffees in the U.S. specialty market has intensified in recent weeks, thanks mostly to a pair of pointed and polarizing editorials in Coffee Talk magazine.

Coffee Talk is widely read in specialty coffee circles.  Its publishers, Kerri and Miles Small, are well-known and highly regarded members of the industry.  They are also stridently anti-Robusta.

  • The View from Coffee Talk, take 1

Coffee Talk is a monthly publication.  Each issue features a column authored by the publishers under the title “The View.”  In their September 2012 editorial, the authors roundly reject the idea of specialty Robusta, inviting colleagues to close ranks around the Arabica coffees that have been at the heart of the specialty enterprise for 40 years.  The article closes with this call to arms: “Let’s keep Robusta out of Specialty Coffee.”

The authors defend the Arabica gold standard in a line of argument that has become familiar in specialty coffee.  They suggest that the quality standards specialty coffee has worked to hard to build and defend over the past few decades will be compromised if the specialty community embraces the very Robusta coffees from which it has worked to distance itself.  They further suggest that everyone along the chain, from farmers to cafés, will stand to lose out if the specialty market is breached by Robusta.  And they ascribe lots of unflattering motives to both the authors of the fine Robusta quality standards and the companies that would avail themselves of R-certified coffees.

  • 12 Angry Roasters

The anti-Robusta argument Coffee Talk advances in its September editorial reflects a broad current of opinion in specialty coffee that regards with extreme skepticism — if not outright hostility — the very idea of fine Robusta.  There was, however, at least one prominent and thoughtful rejoinder.  In a piece titled “12 Angry Roasters – The Trial by Media for Fine Robusta,” noted coffee consultant Andrew Hetzel takes issue with the Coffee Talk editorial and speaks up for the fine Robusta project on scientific, market-based and humanitarian grounds.  He argues that Robusta’s genetic composition makes it more adaptive than Arabica and so genetically diverse that we still don’t know what it is capable of in the cup (scientific); he pushes back against the argument that quality-based separation of R-graded Robustas represents a quality compromise that will sink specialty coffee (market); and he argues that Robusta farmers have just as much right to a sustainable livelihood as Arabica growers, pointing out that the line between the two groups may blur over time in the context of climate change — Arabica farmers at lower elevations may be converting to Robusta as both temperatures and the optimal elevations for Arabica production climb (humanitarian).  Andrew frames his argument as an open letter to Coffee Talk’s publishers and invites them to print it in their October issue.  They did, along with an assertive defense of their position.

  • The View from Coffee Talk, take 2

In the October edition of The View, Coffee Talk’s publishers double down on their opposition to specialty Robusta and defend themselves against charges of “class warfare.”  More accurately, they proudly embrace the accusation, provided it refers to relentless pursuit of continuous improvement of quality and differentiation from commercial-grade coffee.

They go on to deconstruct the scientific, market and humanitarian justifications for specialty Robusta that Andrew offers in his “12 Angry Roasters” letter.  Scientific: Turning the point about Robusta genetics against the fine Robusta project, the authors focus less on Robusta’s adaptive capacity than its genetic limitations, citing harsh quality reviews of Robusta issued by some of the leading names in specialty coffee.  Market: the authors suggest there is no market for fine Robusta besides commercial roasters who want cheap access to “specialty” beans for their inventory and “specialty” language for their marketing.  Humanitarian: the authors believe specialty Robusta will not benefit farmers.  In summation, Coffee Talk makes a provocative suggestion: the fine Robusta enterprise is designed by and for a small group of elite quality consultants who will use other people’s money to implement an R project that benefits commercial coffee roasters at the expense of the specialty brand.

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