In Europe, America and Japan, specialty coffee has never been more visible, popular, or touted as a beverage of choice. Fancy bars, boutiques and other points of sales offer an ever growing selection of types, brands and coffee-based drinks. For many educated consumers, coffee has acquired a name, a personality, and it is perceived as a delicacy. Yet, green coffee prices are near their lowest level in history and most producers find themselves in a horrible situation.
In this course of events, no coffee variety has suffered more than Robustas. Producer prices are generally less than half those of Arabicas. The causes are well known: overproduction, generalized dry-processing affecting quality, lack of promotion, usage for soluble or other low-end products, and a resulting poor image. The foreseeable future for standard Robustas, which in earlier days were respected and worthy coffees, is not something to look forward to.
And yet, Robustas were not always an ugly duckling. Up to the 1970s, it was common talk, among people who traveled, that coffee was generally good in Europe and bad in North America. In those days the U.S. imported mostly Arabicas, while Europeans brought the beans from their former African and Asian colonies, chiefly Robustas. It is ironic to see that Italian Espressos, upon which today’s gourmet culture relies so much, were then made with Robustas, and that Arabicas now represent over 99% of specialty imports.
When the London Robusta Futures Market opened, in the 1950s, Robustas did not trade at a discount to milds. The differential appeared later, and for two unrelated reasons: While the coffee tendered in New York was mostly washed, the lots delivered to the London market were dry processed. That washed coffee should trade at a premium to naturals makes sense, but this has nothing to do with the variety of the coffee. Then Brazil had two frosts, in 1955 and 1957, which created a shortage of Arabicas and therefore a premium. Over the years, the situation remained and Robustas became second class coffees.
Robustas have a bad image in the consuming world. They are the coffees everybody loves to hate, and this is the result of several factors. Although they can display excellent characteristics in appearance and cup, the way they are overwhelmingly processed, the unwashed dry method, does very little to reveal and enhance their qualities. Their traditional use over the past 15 years as soluble coffees or fillers for cheaper blends does not help either. Add to this a complete lack of promotion, strong anti-Robusta lobbying by Arabica producers who see them as unwanted competition that lowers prices, and the result is hardly surprising. Finally, Robustas end up caught in a deadly spiral: low prices generate poor self esteem by producers who cannot afford good processing. This makes the coffees even less usable, which generates lower prices, etc. All this of course on a background of lingering overproduction.
The long term perspective for common Robustas is indeed very bleak. Overproduction shows no sign of subsiding, on the contrary. A third Asian Robusta front is appearing, as five smaller countries gradually develop their output and will further pressure prices. Prominent organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere call for the establishment of minimum quality standards, so as to bar entry of the lowest grades into the main consumer markets. This will, by the way, be very difficult and it will create a lot of turmoil. For instance, the worst green beans entering the U.S. today are roasted for solubles, but a substantial part of soluble coffees consumed in America are manufactured elsewhere, in El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and other places. Can you regulate the entry of those processed coffees? and how? And how do you think that U.S soluble manufacturers will react if they find themselves at a disadvantage ? This is a complicated situation, but whatever the outcome, low grade Robusta prices are unlikely to rise.
This is not a rosy forecast, but it does not apply to well picked, washed and carefully processed Robustas. In our coffee world, we have an earlier example of a bonanza coming out of a dramatic situation. Between 1989 and 1992, after the international quota system collapsed, prices plunged roughly 70%. Arabica producers suffered the most, and the more dynamic and visionary started producing and processing “special coffees” which they sold at a premium, giving a tremendous boost to what was to become the gourmet high paying trend.
While most Robustas find themselves in dire straits, their trouble is not caused by the robusta variety per se. Coffea Canephora which is the scientific name of the robusta plant, is in no way “worse” than Coffea Arabica. The latter has just fared better in policies, processing, selection and especially marketing. Gourmet Robustas are already produced, although still almost confidentially, and they prove to be excellent, with appearance and cup qualities different from those of Arabicas, but equally appealing. Just like Arabicas, gourmet Robustas can be produced by a few, but not all, origins. They need to be identified, selected, carefully picked and processed, and finally promoted and sold through specialty channels to dedicated coffee lovers.
Consumers need them, and so does the specialty market. One thing that we have learnt with gourmet coffees, all those years, is that they need to remain individual and exclusive, in order to cater to an extremely wide range of tastes. Each type can only be sold in small quantities, therefore the constant need for new ones. What bulk coffee traders contract in thousands of tons, specialty importers buy in hundreds, sometimes tens, of bags. Gourmet Robustas represent today the largest untapped source of new aromas, flavors and individual types. In the global gourmet landscape, they have a place to fill alongside the best milds, well ahead of certain mediocre Arabicas which are increasingly being used only to meet a growing demand. Price-wise, they can and will draw the same premiums as today’s existing quality coffees. But because they are Robustas, they will always have a competitive edge which will open the price range of specialty coffees to more consumers.
Now, you may ask, can we put our finger on what went wrong for robusta coffees, when their mild brothers have been faring well in the specialty field? Firstly, there are a couple of structural causes: the U.S.’s closest coffee source, Latin America, almost exclusively exports Arabicas. Also, the proportion of washed coffees is much lower among Robustas than among milds. After all, even today, there is not a single unwashed Arabica among gourmet coffees. However, it is certain that one main reason behind the poor showing of robustas has been the lack of a specific forum to address their problems, to promote their qualities, and to bring the best ones into the specialty world. This is a void which we intend to fill with the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas.
Our group is an alliance. Its chief ambition will be to benefit each and every link of the specialty Robusta coffee chain, namely producers, exporters, importers, distributors, roasters, retailers, and consumers. To achieve this goal, the coffees with the potential to succeed must be identified and upgraded, they must be promoted in gourmet coffee markets, and an information flow must be established between origins and importing countries as well as within the respective consumer areas.
More specifically, our aims will be the following: to create, throughout the gourmet sector, an awareness of the existence of another variety of specialty coffee with different, although equally distinguished qualities and characteristics, and to actively promote the few robusta Gourmet coffees already in existence.
To advertise to every link of the specialty coffee chain the advantages of producing and selling new types that can generate substantial premiums at all levels, while maintaining a competitive price advantage.
To develop more types in the origins which can produce them, upgrading to Gourmet standard the best washed Robustas, and increasing the proportion of washed processing where feasible.
To have as quickly as possible a significant number of specialty Robusta types in workable quantities, and to exhibit them at gourmet coffee events.
By the year 2006, to be able to hold a first event dedicated primarily to gourmet Robustas.
To identify other producing countries capable of creating washed specialty robustas.
To facilitate the development of robusta improvement programs through consulting in the areas of production, processing and marketing, and to publicize the consulting resources available through government agencies, NGOs, and private firms.
To provide links between buyers and sellers in order to quickly identify sources and outlets and to accelerate a meaningful presence of robustas in the specialty market.
To reach these goals, we plan to work closely with all those dedicated to quality robustas, with the gourmet trade, with our members, and with existing specialty organizations. Everybody’s experience and support will prove, we hope, invaluable.
We have started to carry out some of our activities, and others are still in the planning stage. They can be found on our website which is www.wagro.org. In French, our alliance is named l’Alliance Mondiale des Robustas Gourmets, and the website is www.amrog.org. The contents are the same, in two different languages.
To carry out these tasks, we need more members.
It is only natural that the Alliance’s birth should be announced here. Being home to 3 of the 5 largest Robusta exporters and producing about two thirds of their total, Asia is the continent with the most to lose or win with their fate. While the world’s biggest and most recent robusta origin is often decried, rather simplistically, as the villain who caused the present crisis, I cannot help thinking of a potentially different image, in a situation where only 1, 2 or 3% of those 15 million Vietnam bags would be sold as Gourmet coffees, fetching a 100% premium as is common with Central American milds. I imagine Indonesia achieving with its Robustas just part of what it has accomplished with other coffees, I can think of Uganda, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Thailand and others, and I know this is achievable, since India has already done it with its Raigode, and Ecuador is just showing out its Château Quinsaloma. Let us just hope that my list is too short, and that it gets longer in the next few years.
Pierre Leblache is the founder of the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas and announced the birth of this organization at The Tea & Coffee World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 27, 2002.