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314. Robusta on the cupping table

2012-10-24 Comments Off on 314. Robusta on the cupping table

Earlier this month in Colombia, we worked with Sustainable Harvest to stage an event-within-an-event during its annual Let’s Talk Coffee gathering.  Our event, which focused on “the other coffee,” was a three-part program called  “Let’s Talk Robusta” that culminated in a fine Robusta cupping led by the great Sunalini Menon.

Video coverage of the cupping courtesy of the crew from Sprudge:

As I reflected on the cupping session in the days after it ended, I thought of the old adage “Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget.”  And I wondered whether that is always a good thing.

  • WHO?

We worked with Sustainable Harvest to create the Robusta program at this year’s Let’s Talk Coffee primarily for the benefit of farmers we brought from Ecuador, who are working to access the emerging market for fine Robustas.  It was not clear how much interest other LTC participants would have in Robusta, which has been a source of some curiosity and plenty of skepticism in specialty coffee.  But the excellent intro to Robusta on day two of the event — and Sprudge’s equally superlative Twitter coverage of that session — helped to pique the interest of others in the fine Robusta cupping.  By the time the cupping session started on day three, the room was crowded with at least one national barista champion, one roaster of the year and other notables from the coffee communities of Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and New York.

  • WHAT?

The event featured a seven coffees designed to show the range of fine Robusta based on different origins, elevations and post-harvest processes. The samples came from Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda and Tanzania.  They included washed coffees, naturals and even one sample that had gone through the fantastically complicated monsoon process.

  • HOW do you learn to ride a bike all over again?

There was generally little enthusiasm in the room for the coffees presented.  People seemed to be trying hard to be diplomatic in their feedback.  The phrase “damnation by faint praise” came to mind more than once.

Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso seemed to be speaking for a number of roasters when he issued this verdict via Twitter:

For the record: Though some of these samples are indeed comparable to C-grade arabica, I remain unconvinced by fine robustas.
Sam Lewontin

In my mind, the way he formulated his judgment illustrates the challenge ahead in introducing fine Robustas into the U.S. specialty market: he used the sensory experience of Arabica as a point of reference and a point of departure in his evaluation of fine Robustas.

I think many of us did.

For me, there was only one coffee on the table I was excited about: one whose berry notes, bright acidity and sweetness gave it away immediately as a natural-process coffee.  But I didn’t like it because it was a good example of fine Robusta.  I have no idea what the characteristics of a fine Robusta are.  Neither did most of the other people in the room.  In fact, the only people there actually qualified to conduct a sensory evaluation of the coffees on the table were the three instructors.

The coffee I liked — a coffee from Tanzania grown at 1000 m and processed naturally — appealed to me because it presented some of the cup characteristics I seek in Arabica coffees.  At least one of the specialty coffee celebrities in the room agreed with me, singling it out as his favorite coffee on the table for the same reasons I did.

The curators of our Let’s Talk Robusta experience emphasized that Robustas are different than Arabica genetically, botanically, phenologically and organoleptically.  There are similarities to what it takes to produce a quality cup for both coffees — elevation, harvesting, sorting, processing, etc. — but they express themselves in different ways in the cup.  Looking for an Arabica experience from a Robusta, as I think many of us did at Let’s Talk Coffee, is bound to be a frustrating exercise.

Robusta has its own quality standards for a reason.  It should be held to those standards, and not to the quality standards for fine Arabica.  The R-grader program will help in that process.  It will be gradual.  For many people in specialty coffee, it will be challenging.