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Gourmet Robustas:
The Quest Goes On

By Pierre Leblache

A presentation by Pierre E. Leblache, World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas Delivered in Hamburg at the Tea & Coffee World Cup, September 11 - 13, 2005.

In the years 1990 to 2000, specialty coffees confirmed themselves as the only sector in the coffee trade that is profitable to all participants. For a number of reasons Arabicas alone, or at most, enjoyed the windfall, as they acquired an image and a specific status. High prices were generated which benefited retailers, roasters, importers, exporters and producers alike. Yet, a few Robusta types, mostly from India, managed to acquire or retain the same status, thus proving that there is no “Robusta Fatality.”

Producers and consumers need premium Robustas. Compared to milds, twice as many Robustas have a production cost higher than their market value. Over 20 years, Robusta grower prices have sunk 60% more than those of Arabicas. In spite of increased production, to export, market share of Robustas has decreased 10% in volume and 40% in net worth. The World Bank estimates that 30% of today’s Robusta origins will have disappeared in 2020.

At the same time, coffee drinkers look for diversity. No coffee type or brand can be marketed in large volumes, and what consumers look for is a wide variety of offerings covering vastly different tastes. As demand expands, mediocre Arabicas are increasingly brought and absurdly called “Gourmet.” Carefully selected and very well processed Robustas, however, will always be superior to mediocre milds, and the exclusive availability of Arabicas as specialty coffees is slowing the growth of the gourmet sector in traditional Robusta consuming countries. On top of this, a wider price range will be needed to accommodate and fulfill the needs of coffee lovers of more modest means.

Several reasons can explain why high value Robustas are so few: The processing of Robustas has remained mostly natural (unwashed), hampering both their aspect and their cup; Many Robusta origins have undergone chaotic situations, politically and economically, which adversely impacted their reliability. With the exception of India, not a single Robusta origin noticed the start of the gourmet trend around 1990, nor its opportunities. As a result, the promotion of Robusta coffees has been almost nonexistent, and their image remains mostly dismal. Dual producers, of both varieties, have neglected the care and promotion of their Robustas.

On the consuming side, their market is still mostly driven by price, not quality. Big volume importers have rushed to take advantage of the very low prices ushered by the new major origin, and to restrict the role of these coffees to solubles and fillers. They feel no incentive to change this. Specialty roasters still lack any awareness of the Robustas’ potential, and they have taken no action to promote them. As deserving Robusta types increasingly come into the market, they are still regarded as token stock lots and niche players. At the same time, Arabica producers make considerable efforts to build up their image and to keep Robustas in low esteem.

Robustas and Arabicas have the same potential. “Coffea Canephora” is no underdog to “Coffea Arabica”. Its aspect and organoleptic traits, though different, can be just as good. Homogeneity, regularity and reliability depend on good processing, quality control and seriousness. Its opportunities are similar. Claims of “Arabica superiority” such as “acidity” or “less caffeine” are clichés: Many consumers enjoy less acidy coffees, and many Robustas have a low caffeine content, some even are naturally decaffeinated. The key to quality Robustas is threefold: Catching up with a 15 year late start, dedicating the same efforts which milds producers initiated years ago, and marketing them as worthy alternatives.

Robustas grow in America, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, in west and central Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, also in China and Sri Lanka. Today, 60% of the world’s Robustas are produced in Asia, a drastic change from only 20 years ago.

Adding Robustas to the gourmet diversity will require drastic action, which is to select the few best washed Robustas with distinguished features, as it started for other coffees, and to aim for “Zero Defect.” To develop more, using available experience and potential in select origins, as well as re-create the old prestigious Robusta types of the past and to give them back their image. Guarantee homogeneity and regularity with faultless processing, and market them exclusively through high paying channels.

Many origins hold trump cards and assets for this: Dual producers of Arabicas and Robustas know how to wash and to sell in the gourmet sector. Several origins produced and sold premium washed Robustas in the past. Some countries even grow with special desirable features, such as natural decaffeination. New origins like Vietnam need high value coffees to shed their image of mediocre quality flooders. And then there is the ultimate incentive applyied to all: to upgrade or lose hope of ever returning to profitability.

For bulk industrial Robustas, the outlook is sad. Few Robustas are washed or even semi-washed. Thus, they remain overwhelmingly dry-processed. For those naturals, there is no sign of improvement in usage, image or price . Overproduction will not subside, as another Asian front of five new origins already fuels surpluses. Initiatives, such as the SCAA “minimum quality” proposal, even unimplemented remains a threat. As production costs and market value drift apart, the disappearance of 5-10 origins is unavoidable. Since 1980, 10 have vanished.

Since 1990, only India has had a grasp of “respected Robustas” but it never managed to achieve specialty-level premiums. Advice and offers to help re-establish ancient washed types found little producer interest or efforts, in spite of the potential profits. The Common Fund / ICO project on specialty coffees, which did include Robusta origins, achieved few results.

In view of that unsatisfactory situation, a few producers, importers, experts and consumers decided to act and created the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas (WAGRO) in order to develop and promote Robustas in the Gourmet sector.

The Alliance was created in September 2002 and is located in New York City. Its purpose is to work as a forum, which unites producers and consumers of quality Robustas. It links over 50 members on four continents, growers and exporters, distributors and retailers. Its membership grows steadily and it exhibits quality Robustas at major trade events. Its three ambitions are to elevate the name “Robusta” to the honorable place that some types deserve in the Gourmet coffee world, to develop the trade of quality Robustas earning deserved premiums and holding the upper hand over mediocre Arabicas, and to benefit all the links of the specialty Robusta chain, i.e. producers, exporters, importers, distributors, roasters, retailers and consumers.

The alliance aims to creates an awareness of the Robusta alternative and promotes it in the trade, it advocates increasing the proportion of washed coffees among Robustas and advertises the advantages of producing and selling another variety, which generates good premiums while remaining affordable. It also helps develop more specialty Robusta types in the origins already producing them, and upgrade the standard of the most promising coffees in others. Finally, the Alliance encourages Robusta improvement programs by government agencies, NGOs and private firms.

In the last three years, many origins and producers have understood that upgrading quality constitutes the only option to escape low prices and to become profitable again. In countries where washing techniques are known, there is now a growing trend to apply them to Robustas. Semi-washing and polishing sometimes constitutes an intermediary step. More Robusta origins have been displaying improved types at major trade shows such as the SCAA or the Tea & Coffee World Cup. Sales have followed, volume has been small. Specialty importers and roasters remain reluctant to offer well-prepared Robustas, which tends to discourage producers and exporters. Hostile lobbying by milds producers and one very large Gourmet roaster is on the rise, which can be construed as encouraging.

As regional assessments go, India receives the highest existing premiums for some among the best-washed Robustas. It can improve its performance by focusing its marketing towards specialty importers. Vietnam and Indonesia are getting improved prices with semi-washed and polished types. The breakthrough should come within two years, when those coffees are fully washed; This will improve their image immensely.

Guatemala recently stopped hiding its small Robusta production and sells it confidentially at top prices. Mexico needs to organize itself as it has a comparable potential, for much higher volumes, mostly in the co-op sector. Brazil and Ecuador have the washing know-how. As in the time of quotas, their Robustas are still dismissed as second class coffees. If the cultural approach were changed, many washed Robustas would outprice natural Arabicas. Africa, although it has suffered in value and market share, has much unused potential. Uganda is among the most obvious candidates: The old “Crane” and “Impala” types should be re-established, as their premium would soar. All that is needed is planning and implementation. In smaller volumes, this can also be said of Tanzania. Ivory Coast and Cameroon can also do well, and have recently presented impressive samples. As they lack washing experience, they plan to use the Vietnamese intermediary approach of semi washed and polished. The outcome will depend on stability and steadfastness.

Additional origins are working on gourmet Robustas as their only chance to exist on the specialty coffee map. Deserving Robusta types have increasingly been offered these past three years, not as fast as they could have. Image problems have placed the burden of proof on origins. However, the global gourmet sector is in constant need of new types and diversification. Washing is the key, with semi-washing and polishing an acceptable initial step. Robustas continues the largest untapped pool for such diversified types. They can command premiums and still remain competitive against Milds. More involvement is needed throughout the coffee chain, and the signs are positive.

Pierre Leblache became a coffee trader 23 years ago with a large, now defunct, U.S. importer. He then created his own coffee advising company, ConsultAbroad. Since 1987, he has consulted and developed coffee projects for all international organizations, as well as for exporters in various origins. In 2002, he created the World Alliance of Gourmet Robutas, a focus group and association, which specializes in improving opportunities for Robusta coffees.


Tea & Coffee - December/January, 2006
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