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The Changing Art of

By Donald N. Schoenholt

In the halls where specialty coffee folks meet, and in the blogs and columns where they make their case for good coffee and argue the fine points there is a decade long wrangle that simmers slowly about Arabica vs. Robusta use in espresso coffee.

Because espresso is important to the success of retail specialty coffee beverage sales, I have revisited the case for Robusta in high-end espresso, and why Robusta (sustaining the crema in a growing number of espresso blends) is becoming of interest, as a point of departure for intellectual discussion among a growing number of specialty coffee people.

Though the word “espresso” and the great pressure domes for steam pressure-brewed coffee date from the late 19th Century; espresso, as we now appreciate it is an invention of the mid 20th Century. It is an explosion of coffee sensations for the olfactory and gustatory senses delivering velvety mouth-feel, a strong coffee taste and aroma from a small cup often containing a dose (shot) as small as 1-oz. An important physical characteristic of espresso coffee in the last 60 years is its foamy head of “crema” made up of vegetable oils, proteins and sugars found in roasted coffee. In most of the coffee consuming world, where espresso is not being served as an ingredient in a milk-based beverage as cappuccino, latte or mocha, the volume appearance and longevity of crema is essential to the enjoyment of the beverage. Where the brew is served as a shot, directly from the maker, a weak crema is a harbinger to the patron of a poor quality beverage.

The Science of Selection
Crema is, to oversimplify, CO2 bubbles that are coated with brewed coffee. It is a relative new development, first made and exploited by Giovanni Achille Gaggia when his 1947 patents for an espresso machine produced a beverage different from any other to that date. Ian Bersten described the resulting beverage in his Coffee Floats Tea Sinks, Helian Books, Roseville, Australia, 1993:

“The coffee could be finely ground, the water was forced through, and into the cup came coffee with a ‘cream,’ a light colored mousse, on the top. The coffee was made faster and had a more intense flavor and aroma —everything the market wanted. Gaggia must have been amazed — he could never have expected coffee with mousse on the top. It was if he had been trying for a better hard boiled egg, and instead made a poached egg.”

Freshness of roast and exactitude of grind are essential to produce a fine espresso crema. Using Arabica coffee as the necessary ingredient, CO2 is lost over time from coffee at rest, and at a very fast rate once coffee is ground. The shorter the wait between the roaster, grinder and espresso maker, the better (particularly for pure Arabica blends.) Robusta coffees appear to be more forgiving.

The natural bubbles that make up the crema foam are short lived, in part because the natural oils of brewed coffee break them down quickly. The foam flattens and disappears. Robustas have only about half the natural oils found in Arabica beans, so after extraction they degrade the crema foam at a slower rate than Arabica coffee permitting the foam to live longer.

The coffee material that acts as an agent to coat the bubbles (surfactant) is a melanoidin, a group of compounds that develop naturally during roasting, and natural coffee proteins. Nine bars of pump pressure in the espresso machine helps the hot water from the machine boiler become supersaturated with carbon dioxide, absorbing more Co2 than they would at standard atmospheric pressure creating the micro-foam that Ian Bersten refers to as “mousse.” It doesn’t take long for hot water (dissolving compound) and gravity to pull the coffee from the bubbles leaving them defenseless against the action of air and oil. In moments the foam is gone.

The Root of Robusta
Robustas (Coffea Canephora) have a traditional place in Italian coffee, as do the harsher/wilder Ethiopian (Abyssinian/Eritrean) coffees that have been blend components in Italian coffees since Italy’s early political involvement in East Africa dating from the mid 19th Century. In Southern Europe, France, Spain and Portugal espresso coffee culture thrives, much of it with Robusta components. Robusta coffees were not a factor in Northern European use, where drip coffee making had been preferred. In the U.S., Robustas have been considered below grade due to taste qualities that have been described alternately as pasty, grain-like and having the aromatics of burned rubber. They have been unacceptable in exchange trading for a century. Robustas of Indonesian origin, for instance, may not be imported to the U.S. as “Java” or “Sumatra” but only as Indonesian Robusta, as a caution to the buyer that they are purchasing inferior goods.

The U.S., touched by the human casualties but not the physical destruction of WWII, emerged in the decade following VJ Day as an economic dynamo and consumer society. Europe, devastated by the war, struggled to rebuild. African and Pacific coffee producers gained political independence, lost European trading partners and turned to the U.S. as a new market for their coffee produce. U.S. coffee producers, less interested in being a “good neighbor” (President Roosevelt’s initiative to keep Central and South America free from the Nazi influence during the 30s & 40s) and more interested in sourcing cheaper raw materials were happy to receive their goods. Robustas from Africa and Indonesia became a staple in the new U.S. instant coffee industry, which emerged at this time from pre-war obscurity. Robustas held up better under the spray drying soluble technology of the day than did Arabicas, and offered a price advantage too. Robustas found their way into the blends of most U.S. commercial coffees, as Folgers (which had built its brand on high grown Central American beans after emerging as the primary Western roaster from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire), Red Circle (a nationally distributed A&P brand), Maxwell House (the only true nationally distributed canned brand) and many regional branded products.

In the 1950s Robustas were a growing part of most U.S. blended coffees for both home consumption and out of home use. Large institutional roasters as Farmer Bros., Torrance CA, Continental Coffee, Chicago IL and Wechsler Coffee Corp, Bronx, NY, Greenwich Mills, Secaucus NJ, found placement for Robusta coffees in their product mix. Roast & ground coffee for coin operated vending machines was big business at this time and Robustas were used in large proportion in the vending blends of large roasters of the day as General Foods (Hoboken, NJ), Huggins-Young (Los Angeles), Continental (Chicago) and La Tourraine (Boston). Espresso was still considered a novelty beverage found in bohemian communities as New York’s Greenwich Village, and an ethnic specialty brewed in Neapolitana (flip/drip) coffeemakers and Macchinettas (moka pots) in Italian American homes. In the late 1970s the lobby bar of New York’s Drake Hotel was one of the few espresso oases in midtown Manhattan. With the exception of the awareness created by the Juan Valdez campaign launched in 1959, by Doyle Dane Bernbach, for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia there was little U.S. domestic interest in either origin labeling or pure Arabica products. This was in part due to the completion of the creative destruction of small family operated coffee businesses, that began with the success of Arbuckle’s Ariosa, the first successful U.S. packaged coffee brand, in the post Civil War era. In the 1950s, U.S. consumers did not know the words Arabica and Robusta. They only knew the word coffee, and by 1960 they knew it didn’t taste good.

For many years the only national U.S. brand of Italian, “black roasted” coffee was Medaglia D’Oro, originally manufactured in 1924 by S.A. Schonbrunn & Co. Inc. in New York (you can still see Sam Schonbrunns initials in the shield on the cans “gold medal”), it is now a label of Rowland Coffee Roasters, Inc. Miami, FL. Gregorio Bustelo’s Café Bustelo (c.1920) dark roasted coffee was developed as a product to serve New York’s Spanish speaking communities. It is also a current label of Rowland Foods, who claim it is, “America’s favorite espresso coffee.”

The U.S. specialty trade, emerged from the market suffocating Robusta laden commercial U.S. coffee products of the post WWII 1950s. The successful U.S. specialty coffee pioneer beverage retailers separated themselves from their competition by making a point of using only pure Arabica blends, as this was the European standard (World standard) of best quality in that generation. With only some exceptions, many of the retailers considered by their peers to be in the top tier of U.S. coffee beverage service quality today continue to herald the specialty coffee pure-Arabica ideal.

Robusta Round the World
An industry leader in introducing espresso to North America was Starbucks, who translated the little Italian cuppa into the American idiom. The Starbucks espresso beverages were all Arabica, produced from very dark roast blends, mixed with hot and often frothed milk, sweeteners and served in large portions. The translation from a mere demitasse on the Mediterranean to a stout hot coffee milkshake in Seattle was successful, and in the space of a generation a new coffee specialty beverage menu took hold in the U.S. consumer mind.

Today, espresso based beverages are part of U.S. coffee culture. In the coffee trade, the issue of consequence right now is if Robustas, which continue to be accepted as inferior goods in many specialty coffee applications, have a legitimate place in specialty espresso beverages. It is easy to dismiss them where the beverage is milk based, and no crema is required of them. Where a strait shot is the object, Robustas, by virtue of their unusual properties may bring something good, even extraordinary to the strait espresso shot, when used judiciously.

The Canephora species of coffee, with origins in Africa is cultivated also in India, Indonesia, The Philippians and Southeast Asia. Vietnam, where the product was introduced by 19th Century French colonial interests, became the world’s largest Robusta coffee producer in the 1990. About 30-33% of the world’s coffee is Robusta. In the Americas, Robustas are grown in several countries including Brazil (a major Robusta producer) where the product is called Conillon. They are also produced in Guatemala and Mexico. There is a back-push from other coffee lands. Concerns about the perceived high quality of Costa Rican coffee has energized the government there to prohibit the cultivation of any Robusta plants in that high profile coffee producing country.

Canephora is easier to care for than Arabica plants, they grow well at low altitudes and in warmer climactic conditions, they are less vulnerable to disease and temperature changes and produce a higher yield, higher caffeine content fruit. Since the accepted wisdom has been that Arabica beans are better beans, Robustas have been used primarily as filler in low-end blends, in instant coffee and in commercial espresso in Europe and the U.S. where darker roasting is believed to hammer out some of the species unfortunate taste qualities, and where it’s heavy caffeine punch and ability to crema is considered a plus.

To Blend or Not To Blend?
Some of the best selling espressos in the world are blends. Some are pure Arabica, while others are Arabica/Robusta. Virtually every Italian roaster’s top espresso product is pure Arabica, including that of Lavazza (Qualita Oro) which holds a greater than 50% market share of coffee in Italy, and is also a blender of Robusta/Arabica beans. illy, perhaps the best known premium Italian coffee in the U.S. is a pure Arabica product. Massimo Zanetti, makers of Segafredo Espresso and La San Marco espresso machines in Italy and Choc Full O’ Nuts, Hills Bros and Chase & Sanborn in the U.S. crosses back and forth across the Robusta/Arabica line depending on market.

The question for U.S. roasters, espresso bar operators, café owners and chefs is whether the trade-off between crema and taste is worthwhile. Does the addition of Robustas in an espresso blend significantly help the mouth feel and eye-appeal in greater proportion than it degrades taste characteristics? If the blend-maker believes that the judicious use of Robusta is worth it, then the next question asked should be at what point is a little Robusta a little too much?

U.S. consumers’ opinion is still out on the issue of Robusta blended espresso coffees. As consumers have more experience recognizing the differences between pure Arabica, and Arabica/Robusta blended brewed espresso products in cafes and coffee bars they will decide for themselves what they like. As with most goods available where there are discernable taste differences, there will be those who appreciate an all Arabica product, and those who will appreciate an Arabica/Robusta blended product. The average espresso consumer may not understand the differences between the goods offered, or why they prefer one over the other, but they will make market choices. There will be those who choose, where a price difference is apparent, by price point alone, and those who choose to frequent a particular retailer because of the perceived cache of a brand, or the convenience of an individual retail outlet and there will be those who will be indifferent.

For further reading James Hoffman, 2007 World Barista Champion, wrote an excellent piece for coffeegeek.com the espresso coffee blog which was posted in 2006. www.coffeegeek.com/opinions/barista/10-14-2006, which has helped me to understand the architecture of crema. If espresso is important to your livelihood you should have copies of Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality, Ed. by Andrea Illy, and Rinantonio Viani, Academi Press Inc., San Diego, 1995 and Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques, By David C. Schomer, Peanut Butter Publishing, Seattle, 1995. in your personal business library.

Tea and Coffee gourmet specialty editor, and original member of the SCAA Green Coffee Contract Committee, Donald Schoenholt’s Coffea Canephora: The “R” Word appeared as a three-part series in T&CTJ in 2005. Mr. Schoenholt can be found at coffeeman@gilliescoffee.com.

Tea & Coffee - May, 2009

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