Acknowledging Robusta at the SCA Expo

The 2024 Specialty Coffee Expo ended on Sunday and this year’s event had many ‘firsts’. For example, it was the first time the expo, organised annually by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), was held in Chicago (taking place 12-14 April). More than 17,000 coffee and tea professionals – from 85 countries – attended the show, a 23% increase from 2019 — the previous largest SCA Expo. There were 602 exhibitors this year, the most to ever participate in the Expo, per the SCA.

The 2024 Specialty Coffee Expo also debuted the Green Coffee Connect programme, which provided interactive programming for anyone selling or buying green coffee, and the Retail Buyers Lounge, which offered coffee retail buyers an area to network, conduct meetings, and cultivate potential business partnerships with exhibitors.

The Specialty Coffee Expo always offers a dynamic roster of lectures and workshops, and this year was no different. However, I was, perhaps, most impressed by the session on Robusta. Although specialty Robusta cuppings have taken place at the SCA Expo, as well as other lectures, I believe ‘Exploring Quality Focused Robusta: A Conversation with Producers and Roasters’ was the first panel discussion focused on Robusta featuring leading specialty coffee roasters.

Moderated by David Pohl of Pohl Consulting, panellists included: Shaun Puklavitz, coffee sourcing and relationship manager, Blue Bottle Coffee; Amaris Gutierrez-Ray, senior director of coffee and roasting, Joe Coffee/founder of the Women in Coffee Project; Sahra Nguyen, founder and CEO Nguyen Coffee Supply (a specialty Robusta coffee roaster); Lucus Venturim, a fifth generation coffee producer from Espirito Santo, Brazil and a Q processing/Robusta instructor; Luis Carlos Sotillo, head of quality control and experimental processing at the Kiva Estate in Cocie, Panama; and Nafessa Esmail, and conservationist and coffee producer from the Asisi Estate in Uganda.

The panellists agreed that nature has played a huge role in the growth of Robusta, but there is untapped potential.

“Most people never gave Robusta a second thought and would treat it poorly,” said Luis Carlos Sotillo, “but there is a great opportunity to innovate.”

Amaris Gutierrez-Ray said Joe Coffee first started to experiment with Robusta in 2018 when a wholesale customer requested a “nostalgic, traditional Roman style expresso.” She explained that when roasting to a dark level, characteristics of the coffee are removed, Robusta worked best because it didn’t lose those qualities. “We need to get over this prejudice with Robusta because it’s old.”

Sahra Nguyen has been championing Robusta coffee since she founded Nguyen Coffee Supply in 2018. The brand’s products are 100% Robusta and clearly labelled as such from the beginning. T&CTJ’s associate editor, Kathryn Brand, spoke with Nguyen for her feature, “Redefined Prospects for Robusta” (T&CTJ’s January/February 2024 issue), and when discussing the long-standing stigma surrounding Robusta, said, “there’s been an entire community in the coffee world that has been told you don’t deserve investment. You don’t deserve care. You don’t deserve to improve or advance your livelihoods, and that’s what we are ultimately trying to lift when we talk about Robusta.”

Nguyen is even pioneering a Robusta Pledge, which encourages producers, importers, roasters, coffee shops, etc., to sign a commitment to advance opportunities for Robusta farming communities, and for a fair and transparent Robusta market.

Even World Coffee Research, which has been actively researching, studying  and experimenting to preserve the Arabica plant by combatting threats against it (climate change, disease, pest infestation), has acknowledged Robusta by providing similar resources to its Arabica offerings. For example, in 2023, WCR introduced its Robusta Variety Catalogue along with other resources such as a Grafting Manual and Nursery videos.

I remember cupping my first ‘specialty Robustas’ at a pre-Covid SCA Expo (in Seattle I believe). In 2022, while attending International Coffee Week in Brazil, I cupped some truly lovely specialty Robustas, predominantly from the Amazon region. These Robustas were all processed with the care, concern and attention to detail that is given to Arabica, and the effort was manifested in the taste. With Arabica continually under threat, the coffee industry does need to give Robusta ‘a second look’, as well as Coffea liberica and Coffea stynophylla (T&CTJs January/February issue, “Climate Proof Coffee Species Recultivated in Sierra Leone”).

“We are still learning the potential for quality Robusta,” said Blue Bottle’s Shaun Puklavitz. “As we continue to find those coffees, we will [incorporate them into our product line].”

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