The R-Word

2010 January 8
by Joe Johnston
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There is a word that can never be spoken of, except with complete derision, in the specialty coffee world. I can’t believe I am even typing this word. It is Robusta.

We learn very early in our quest for coffee that there are two main species of coffee: arabica and robusta. Arabica is typically higher grown, possessing desirable flavor (including fine acidity), lower yield, more fragile and more expensive. Robusta is lower grown, hardy, possessing undesirable flavor (including burning rubber) and is cheap. While it is well known that there are great, good, lousy, and undrinkable arabica coffees, hardly anyone has a good word to say about robusta.

However, a lot of robusta is grown. Most of it is grown in Asia and Africa with Vietnam being the largest producer (and second largest producer of coffee, right after Brazil). Most of it ends up in cheap blends that are marketed for the cheapness rather than fine flavor. There is a contingent in Italy that believes you must add some robusta to an espresso blend to improve the crema and body. I have tasted some of these (like Lavazza and Mokarabia) and have been able to detect the burnt rubber flavor. Furthermore, well crafted pure arabica espressos have great crema and body, so the need for robusta seems spurious.

So why even bring up such a distasteful subject? In my current endeavor of creating and building a coffee roaster, I am trying to be open-minded and not jump to obvious conclusions. I was, therefore, quite shocked when Jason Casale (a local coffee cognoscenti whom I respect greatly) told me that he often created espresso blends with up to 15% robusta in them. He didn’t do it to improve crema or body, but to enhance overall flavor. Jason described it as pulling together the other flavors into a cohesive whole. Could I be wrong that there is no respectable use for “quality” robusta? This is another area for me to examine to challenge my assumptions.

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7 Responses
  1. January 10, 2010

    Hey mate,

    There are few things in life as precious as the feeling of exhilaration that occurs when a basic pillar of ones understanding is challenged in a totally un-precedented way. I think in those moments we can experience such illumination, that it can trigger a compulsion in us to challenge our beliefs constantly and without nostalgia.

    Not to suggest that the dreaded ‘R word’ is unfairly viewed by specialty coffee types though, I think there is very little to be gained by the inclusion of robusta in a blend. The old adage that stipulates that the overall quality of a product can only be as good as the least of it’s ingredients comes to mind – it comes down to the simple fact that no matter how good the robusta in a blend may be, it will contribute typical robusta-esque notes to the cup and compromise the clarity of the other beans in the blend. Whilst this approach can yield a rounder, more homogenized result in regards to overall flavor, if one is interested in experiencing the subtleties of the arabica beans in the blend, the results can be disappointing.

    Nice post here man, keep asking the big questions.

    Cheers

    Nic W

    • January 10, 2010

      Thanks, Nic. I would ordinarily not waste my time on pursuing a new perspective on robusta. However, my friend Jason Casale has impeccable taste in coffee and his challenge to check out quality robusta deserves a response. I don’t know if have read Joe Coffee’s comments (under the “Trepidation” post) vigorously defending the oft defamed robusta (from an Italian perspective), but he would certainly press me to have an open mind. Thanks for your comments and I will report back on robusta after some experimentation. I think I am going to have a hard time finding a broker to get me samples of top quality robusta, but I could be wrong.

      • Jason Casale permalink
        January 10, 2010

        I am Jason Casale the person referred to in the article for the record I spent to years perfecting a quality italian blend of espresso coffee considered by many the best espresso they have had since the coffee they experienced in Italy. My preference has always been to use high quality washed robusta from Josuma coffee sourced by the famous Doctor Joesph John. Doctor John is a espresso and coffee expert in his own right and a nuclear physicist.

        Often I would pay very close to the same premiums as quality speciality grade arabicas and had no problem doing so. I questioned most people that bought coffee from me if they thought there was robusta in my espresso I never got a yes answer from anyone.

        Clearly indicating to me high quality robusta in 10 to 15 percent total volume is undetectable to regular coffee lovers and coffee experts as well. I prefer robusta in a espresso blend for several reasons it combines the arabica flavors together in a cohesive unit that makes the blend very distinctive taste wise from other arabica only espress coffees.
        Think of an orange the skin of the orange keeps all the little sections of the orange together in one cohesive unit. the robusta to me is like the peel of the arabicas.

        The second reason is I find that robusta adds overall balance and structure to a blend
        that uses some brighter acidic sometimes thinner less structured coffee in blends. Columbians Panamas Costaicans Guatamalans fruity natural processed africans idido misty valley yirgacheffe comes to mind.

        Robusta can add that structure that off sets the acidity fruit and sometimes even sour flavors from these coffees. I love to use a classic italian combination of 4 parts sumatra 3 parts brazil 2 parts guat african or costa 1 part panama then 10 to 15 percent robusta based upon combined total volume of arabicas.

        Brazils are neutral and sweet in the cup nutty sweet cinnamon hazelnut Sumatra adds some structure to a blend earthy soil centrals and africans are bright crisp then clean clear defined transparent think sweet fruit tart cherries hints of chocolate nutmeg floral aromas and flavors pineapples.

        Although this blend could possibly be sufficient on its own robusta counter acts the brightness of the centrals and africans and and smooths out that acidity and combines all the flavors together think balance counter balance.

        Blends roasted light at the beginning of second crack or slightly before can be complex in the cup but sometimes really tart tangy and sour even if you have a small amount of centrals or africans in the blend.

        Robusta significantly helps harmonize balance and cohesiveness in a blend this is especially valuable in blends Italians call normale or medio referring to the roast level. This a light to medium light roast no oil coming out on the beans which range in light brown in color satin or dull no sheen or shine to to slightly darker brown and I do mean slightly darker brown to a semi gloss beans still dry no oil but barely a shimer or shine reflecting off them.

        This literally is the difference between right at second crack and just a tad before second crack in a roaster that cools very quickly.

        Sadly in America we fear what we do not know or understand I have invested a great deal of my life investing in learning about espresso culture and coffee roasting in Italy and the traditional coffee regions included in there best espresso blends. I know costa rican columbian Guatamala Brazil panama Ethiopian Africans Indian and robustas like I know my hand.
        Why because these are the coffees used in traditional Italian espressos.

        Most of our coffee in america is roasted dark for espresso we think it taste fine we don’t need robusta it taste like burnt tires. Sadly even a good local roaster in tempe arizona that uses single origin coffee light roasted brazil fails predicate to sour espresso how sad.

        While I have had excellent all arabica blends Inteligentsia chicago black cat comes to mind Stumptown Hair bender, I prefer the high quality Italian robusta blends caffe umbria seattle cafe darte seattle victrola seattle all use robusta in there blends.

        This is just my personal preference however there is alot of evidence that seems to back up my experiences as well. The Robusta contention perhaps the most fierce argument in speciality coffee existence today. while cheap steamed vietnamese robusta taste like crap so does cheap steam dried arabica folgers maxwell house.

        Robusta can be an enhancement in dark or light roast coffees however it seems light roast has alot to gain from robusta it offsets acidity and cohesive flavour direction and overall structure and enhancement.

        My theory is that a great deal of espresso is roasted to dark in america italian roast and roasters may see or taste no direct result that it provides or the quality and processing of the sourced arabica is in question. This is just a guess or hunch or they still think it will make there coffee taste like rubber tires which is just largely ignorant. There is nothing I can do to charcoal roast to enhance it ie millstone espresso roast really italian roast how sad.

        I with bias admit to liking light to medium roast way better than most dark there is exceptions cafe darte and some others how ever few they may have been. I really do not like crazy roast flavours in my espresso if they are blended and complimentary to the other flavours they can be very pleasant to me but not usually. Or I should say not to my palette.

        I also believe my Italian ancestors used robusta for the above stated reasons that I have discovered and not because it was cheap filler. I also feel it is no coincidence that alot of medium to light roast espressos in italy and some here in america use high quality robusta.

        Would I drink it straight as drip or espresso no the flavor alone even the best of the best robusta is not a flavour I care for on its own all though not horrible definitely not drinkable on its own. But for the above reasons it works well in espresso.

        Here are my statements and compelling reasons for using robusta in an espresso blend however as stated I have had very good all arabica espresso I just prefer the robusta blends. That is an opinion not a statement of fact.

        Take this all for what it is worth try some high quality washed robusta in your next espresso blend if you don’t like it fine it isn’t the end of the world. Some will prefer others wont. Better yet try some high quality washed and natural or dry processed robusta and see what you think as I have yet myself to try dry processed or natural processed robusta of high quality and would be very open to doing so.

        I tend to get alot of baloney reasons why barista’s coffee roasters say they don’t like robusta or don’t use it.I have never had one dissenter say to me I do not really care for the the unique flavour enhancement it adds to espresso or what it does to the flavour profile of my arabicas. I perfect legit reason not to like it.

        Okay I have done it I have said my peace.

        P.S. and yes espresso can be good either way with our robusta

        • February 11, 2010

          Hey Jason, I just found out last night that the Mr. Espresso Neapolitan Espresso includes 5% – 10% robusta! I think it goes to prove your point. Carlo diRuocco uses it exactly for the cohesiveness and balance you mentioned.

    • Jason Casale permalink
      January 10, 2010

      Bravo to you some one finally who has a legit reason for not liking robusta he does not like what it does to the arabica flavor profiles and does not care for the unique flavour enhancement robusta can bring nothing wrong with that. That is an opinion of what you like and what I like is all.

    • Jason Casale permalink
      January 10, 2010

      That bravo was for Nick W comment

      • January 12, 2010

        Thanks gents, what a great discussion – incidentally I’d be very interested in trying some high grade robusta at some stage too, I’ll keep my ear to the ground! I did read Joe Coffee’s comment after I wrote mine, didn’t think too much of it really, disproportionately aggressive.
        Bravo to Jason Casale for his insight too.

        Cheers,
        NicW

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