I’m here in El Salvador for “Let’s Talk Coffee,” a yearly meeting of mostly small-holding coffee producers, roasters, importer and exporters, and development agencies. It’s sponsored by Sustainable Harvest, a long-time pioneering American importer of cooperative and small-producer coffees.
I came here in part to deliver a presentation on Robusta coffees. It was part of a string of presentations and cuppings focused on exploring Robusta in a specialty coffee context. Conversations on Robusta are increasingly urgent in specialty coffee events for several reasons, all of them at bottom pushed by anxiety about the impact of global warming on Arabica production, particularly production of lower elevation Arabicas. Arabica is a very fussy plant in respect to temperatures, and as global temperatures rise more and more regions of Arabica production are being stressed by changes in rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and intensified pest infestations like the latest leaf rust outbreak here in Central America. Robusta, of course, grows at a much wider range of elevations (though it cups best when grown at higher elevations) and is much hardier than Arabica.
So some specialty roasters, in fact, quite a few, are asking – can Robusta truly be developed as a viable fine coffee? They want to know more about Robusta, understand it better, and perhaps support its development as a complement to the best Arabicas. The very best Robusta producers, like those in India, feel that they have achieved that goal of making Robusta specialty. Others of us, like me, feel that, although some producers in India have done very well, in order for Robusta to truly contribute to specialty a new attitude is necessary, an attitude of interest, openness, and experiment.
Which was the focus of my talk. I don’t want to rebrand Robusta; I want to unbrand it so we in specialty can finally find out what it is and can be. The Arabica world is not static – look at the development of new varieties, like Gesha, the successful experiments with unorthodox processing methods – the new naturals, honey-processing, etc. We don’t really know what Robusta is from a potential specialty perspective, only what it is now, as represented by the dispiriting output of the current relentlessly quality-destructive industrialized Robusta supply chain.