"There is no way I would ever have that crap coffee in my shop!" If this reflects your feeling on the subject of Robusta, you need to read on!
Don't be a species hater! Maybe you just don't understand Robusta coffee. Its also very common to poo-poo what we don't know. However, you will be adding Robusta coffee to your roasting room eventually, so you might as well get ahead of the curve!
What do we associate with Robusta coffee? If you answer, "Commercial, mass-produced, high-caffeine, and tastes like rotting bark," then it is possible you have a little way to go before acceptance! Every journey starts with a step, so let's get started.
Robusta coffee was discovered on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda. It is a hearty plant that has a better ability to adapt for survival compared to its cousin Arabica. It still grows wild there today.
The yield is higher with Robusta.
The caffeine content is higher, but the sugars and acids are lower.
It is more resistant to bugs and other plant diseases.
It grows in warmer climates.
It is easier to maintain a crop.
So what about this species makes us so hesitant? In a word: FLAVOR.
The most significant NATURAL difference in Robusta pertaining to flavor is that it has double the amount of Chlorogenic Acid and detectable amounts of potassium.
You may ask, "What flavor does Chlorogenic acid have?" The answer is, "It tastes like coffee!" If you take any hot beverage, put it to your lips and say, "Hey! That's coffee!" then you have identified Chlorogenic acid.
It is that base coffee flavor. One of the downsides of Chlorogenic acid is that when you add heat, it breaks down into Quinic and Caffeic Acids, which taste bitter and sour respectively.
The potassium in the coffee can turn it brackish and salty-tasting. At its best it becomes savory. At its worst it can be like sea water. It is a flavor component we just don't run across as much in Arabica.
It also affects mouthfeel in both positive and negative ways based on intensity. How could this POSSIBLY be a good thing to add to my Roastery?!?
A good and fair question. To answer the question, we need to look back about 30 years. Back then, there was this new-fangled concept of 'specialty coffee'.
Some hippie taste-freaks were going to take individual lots of coffee, carefully control the processing and clean the coffee to zero defects in order to celebrate the natural flavors of coffee.
This was instead of just taking the whole harvest and putting it into a nice commercial pile that would eventually end up in a can on the grocery store shelf.
What they realized is that Specialty Coffee is not GROWN, it is MANUFACTURED. If it is manufactured well, then people will pay an appropriately greater price for the quality.
Fast forward 30 years - Robusta coffee is currently being mixed into a big commercial pile and ending up in a can on the grocery store shelf. It stands to reason that if attempts were made to MANUFACTURE a 'Specialty Robusta,' it could be done with some simple processing changes that already exist for Arabica.
Selectively pick the red, ripe cherries. Wash the coffee to get a nice uniform flavor. Clean it to zero defects. Sort it by density to find the beans that grew higher on the mountain, where some acidity could form. This is actually being done and the results have been pretty amazing.
How cool would you be if you were offering one of these new-fangled Robusta lots at your slow bar? You would be an innovator and be rewarded appropriately!
Maybe the slow bar is a little premature! But if you understand some of the key flavor components of a Fine Robusta coffee, there are plenty of ways to use it For years now, several companies have been adding Robusta to espresso blends for two reasons.
First is to beef up the body and crema. Second is to reduce the overall cost of the blend. Both are good reasons. However, it does not fully exploit the possibilities of Fine Robusta coffee.
You may have noticed that some lots of Arabica coffee are getting harder and/or more expensive to replace. Robusta coffee offers an alternative best used for replacing some lower-acid components like a Sumatra or a Brazil.
A good, washed Robusta beans will have similar qualities. Also it could also be lower the cost of the blend. You can also get it in larger lots, thereby having to replace it less often.
Robusta coffee can have some nice, dciicate flavors. In rare instances, a slow bar application could be really nice. This will be more common as time goes on, but for now there have only been a handful of really nice 87+ Robustas.
In contrast, a nice batch-brew as an occasional 'house coffee' can yield a completely adequate cup, and even start a conversation about how you are an early adopter of this 'new' species.
Give yourself some time to practice and explore your profiling of these different Robustas. Many are of higher density, so it takes longer to get the heat inside the bean. Using a typical Arabica profile will often get the whole bean color right, but the coffee can be way too light when it is ground.
This will result in the grassy taste that won't make anyone happy! Give Robusta coffee a little more time to develop. Even if you end with a slightly darker surface color, when you grind it you might be really happy with the result.
Even the Robusta Sample Roast Protocol is different for this reason. When roasted correctly you can bring out the acidity it has without breaking down a lot of the Chlorogenic Acid.
So don't be a hater; be a current day 'hippie taste-freak' and figure out how to manufacture this new 'Specialty Coffee' into something wonderful. Thirty years from now we will look back and think about how smart you were! You can change the industry if you take that first step.
Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at rocky® INTLcoffeeConsulting.com.