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Gourmet Robustas:
The Awakening of Specialty Coffees

By Pierre Leblanch

The concept of “gourmet coffees”, it is commonly admitted, was born around 1985. At that time the American public considered coffee to be a generic, homogenous commodity - a dark brew to be consumed at breakfast, with meals or in offices, out of habit more than to satisfy one’s tastebuds. If one wanted a different taste, cream and sugar were the regular condiments, and no particular pleasure was expected. Just the way you brushed your teeth in the morning, you drank coffee several times a day. What one really wanted from a coffee break was the break, not the coffee. Dullness was the norm.

Since then, the number of premium coffee consumers has reached several tens of millions. The gourmet market has exploded, over 20 origins partake in it - some with a few hundred bags, some with over a million - and over 150 types or brands command premiums of 100% or more over bulk coffees at the exporter level. At the consumer level, the brands are in the hundreds.

Up to the year 2000, the coffees involved were exclusively Arabicas. The causes are well known and simple: better timing, better processing and better marketing than those of robusta origins. In the 15 years between 1985 and 2000, there was not a single attempt to define any robusta as a premium type deserving exclusivity or even recognition. Very few Robustas were processed as washed coffees. Their appearance was therefore unappealing, a major obstacle to being considered worthy. A few countries did produce washed Robustas, such as India and Uganda, but since they were exporters of Arabicas as well, they considered Robustas to be the poor sibling and upgrading them was usually not a priority.

Then the Elk Hill Estate of Bombay Burmah, in south India created Raigode, a washed blue-green coffee with bold beans and zero defect, and became the pioneer gourmet robusta producer. Raigode was marketed as a specialty coffee, among much skepticism by the consuming sector and an understandable reluctance by importers to pay any premium over a standard Kaapi Royale. Nonetheless, it succeeded and quickly commanded prices close to those of Indian Arabicas. The lots were very small but the action was duly noted and repeated by several Indian producers. Quantities remain minimal, but this is no obstacle in the trade of gourmet coffees. High-end consumers want exclusivity, not mass market ng, and types consisting of a few hundred, or even tens of bags can be successfully channeled at top prices through small specialty roasters as is the case in Italy and the United States.

Specialty Robustas are being created and marketed from origins around the world...
In the past two years, similar initiatives to create and market quality washed Robustas as premium coffees have been seized in Ecuador, Madagascar and Brazil, while more are being planned in Uganda, Cameroon, Mexico and even Guatemala. Now, the case of those two countries is particularly interesting: In Mexico, Robustas represent maybe 8 to 10% of the total crop, and their export was, until recently, completely forbidden. In Guatemala, Robustas account for less than 1% of the production and their existence is generally not even acknowledged. But these countries have a tradition of savoir faire and good washing, and quantity is not an issue: If just 2,000 bags of good washed Guatemalan Robustas go to the specialty market instead of the soluble market or domestic consumption, it represents a bonus of over $60,000 for the seller and a windfall for the producer.

Now, one may ask, why would the specialty market need Robustas when so many Arabicas are offered as gourmet? The answers are simple: diversity, and the fact that a good, well-processed robusta will always be superior to a mediocre Arabica unevenly prepared. Fifteen years ago, the specialty market involved only the very best coffees, carefully picked and processed. As the market grew, it attracted a lot of greed, and many coffees, which would barely pass the exchange or sell without a discount are now offered as “gourmet,” as long as they include the magic word “Arabica.” This makes no sense and it drives the roaster towards using lower qualities. Not every coffee lover looks for acidity and there is nothing wrong or inferior in a zero defect carefully prepared, washed Robusta, which was after all the original basis for Italian espresso. The only problem is that, in these last ten years, there have been so few of them…

Another reason for quality Robustas to partake in the specialty market is their price competitiveness. As the consumer base expands, it looks for diversity not only in flavor, body or aroma, but also in price. Because of the huge differential between both varieties, gourmet Robustas can be priced at a large discount to their mild brothers and therefore contribute to the sector’s awareness and demand.

The World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas was created in 2002, the first coffee group and forum exclusively dedicated to Robustas and to all members of the Robusta coffee chain. Its chief objectives are to promote the exchange of ideas, the improvement of quality and the added value of those selected coffees, which deserve a premium. The Alliance is located in New York and exhibits fine Robustas at industry events. By doing so, it pushes the awareness that they constitute a credible alternative.

Making an inventory of the market and the source-finding of Robustas is a completely different endeavor from doing the same for Arabicas: The specialty market for mild coffees has been in full swing for 15 years, is well established and has reached its cruising speed. Its evolution rarely involves additional origins but mostly deals with more numerous exporters, new types and names, changes in marketing and channels, both on the producing and consuming sides. Its quantitative development often means, regrettably, that more mediocre coffees attempt to pass as “gourmet” in order to satisfy a growing demand and a change in consumer perception.

The overall picture for gourmet Robustas could not be more opposite: The concept and implementation remain newborn, existing types are very few, quantities are extremely limited, distribution circuits are just being established in the best of cases, notoriety is still confidential and prices, though commanding a substantial premium, remain negotiable and do not carry a fixed differential. Just as an island after a volcanic eruption, the market can best be described as “in formation”.

In all cases, further information can be obtained from the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas, By phone at (1)(212) 737-2548, by fax at (1)(212) 570-5947, and by email at info@wagro.org. The Alliance’s website is www.wagro.org.

Tea & Coffee - December/January, 2005
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