Robusta

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The journey of a coffee bean

Posted by on 05 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Robusta

Yesterday the Manila Standard Today published a brief, introductory article on the lifecycle of a coffee bean: Philippines News – Manila Standard Today – The journey of a coffee bean – july05_2006.

It’s written from the perspective of Nescafé, which is part of the scary Big Four, and from the perspective of producing the lower grade robusta bean. But Nescafé, and robusta, are big in the Philippines — so you get the idea.

Fair Trade: The coffee connection

Posted by on 14 May 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Robusta

Today’s The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) featured a rather lengthy and balanced story on Fair Trade coffee: The coffee connection.

Many small-market coffee growers face an enormous challenge to earn a living wage in an increasingly competitive world market. To tell this global story, the article presents the issues from the perspective of a coffee farmer in a Guatemalan village, introduces us to predatory middlemen known as “coyotes,” and interviews an American coffee consumer at Louisville’s own Heine Brothers’ Coffee.

Emerging middle classes wake up to coffee

Posted by on 20 Apr 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Robusta

According to an article from Reuters UK, the new middle classes in Brazil, Russia, China, and other emerging economies are driving up the demand for coffee: Emerging middle classes wake up to coffee.

The growing middle class in these emerging economies seems to be looking West to influence their beverage habits and lifestyles (oh, do I hate that word). In response, world stockpiles of coffee have dwindled to keep up with the growing demand.

However, the greatest growth in demand has been for soluble coffees made from robusta beans. Meaning: cheap instant coffee. You can take Boris out of Murmansk, but you can’t take the Murmansk out of Boris.

History of Coffee: Part IV – Commercialisation of Coffee

Posted by on 27 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Robusta

That famous portal for coffee connoisseurs, DailyIndia.com (?!?), keeps the hits on coming. This time it’s the latest installment on the history of coffee: History of Coffee: Part IV – Commercialisation of Coffee.

The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of coffee lasted from the mid-19th Century to the late 20th Century. In that time, roasted coffee went from a neighborhood (dare I say artisan?) product, often roasted at home, to a highly commercialized and industrialized commodity that looked and tasted nothing like coffee — all in the name of convenience and modernization.

Beginning with John Arbuckle in 1865, packages of ground, roasted coffee were marketed and distributed regionally. By glazing the roasted beans like an Easter ham, Arbuckle developed a method for retaining some of the roasted coffee’s freshness while transporting the product over longer and longer distances. This process was later extended to national and international distribution networks.

The pursuit of profit — rather than quality — also lead to heavy use of cheaper robusta bean stocks. Ultimately, the death of coffee culminated in the introduction of coffee’s Orange Tang equivalent, instant coffee, in the 20th Century … where the end product resembled processed grit-in-a-can rather than anything you would call coffee.

The author, James Grierson, has written four other parts in this online series on the history of coffee: Coffee Knowledge.

The dark story of poverty in your coffee cup

Posted by on 05 Feb 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Robusta

Today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on: The dark story of poverty in your coffee cup.

In particular, it discusses the coffee paradox — i.e., how there could be a coffee boom in the consuming countries at the same time as a coffee crisis in the producing countries. Despite citing the impacts of the Vietnamese robusta glut and the Big Four coffee retailing giants, it goes on to suggest that, “One inescapable conclusion is that the coffee paradox exists because what coffee farmers sell and what consumers buy are becoming increasingly ‘different’ coffees. It is not material bean quality that coffee consumers pay for. It is mostly symbolic quality and in-person services.”

It also makes mention of the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia, which has opened retail coffee shops under the Juan Valdez name in a few U.S. locations. The truth is that the only people who believe Colombia grows “the richest coffee in the world” are the Colombians and the brainwashed marketing subjects of years of Juan Valdez TV commercials. But you cannot fault their intentions.

If Juan Valdez says so, it must be true!

UPDATE: April 8, 2010
It may have taken them four years to notice, but someone from Slate finally set foot in Colombia and asked, “Hey — what’s this Juan Valdez thing all about here?”: Remember Colombian coffee-picker Juan Valdez? He has a new job. – By Daniel Gross – Slate Magazine. The same article was regurgitated the next day in Newsweek — but with a misleading, sensationalist headline: Can Colombia’s Juan Valdez Challenge Starbucks? – Daniel Gross – Newsweek.com.

POLL: Funds, supply worries seen buoying coffee in 2006

Posted by on 18 Jan 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Robusta

A Reuters poll expects coffee prices to remain elevated over worldwide supply concerns. Supplies are generally expected to rebound in the next crop year as regional markets recover from hurricanes and drought and Brazil eases the throttle on production: POLL-Funds, supply worries seen buoying coffee in 2006.

But to give you a sense of just how crude robusta coffee is, note that the industry tracks the price of robusta by the ton … not by the pound, as is the case for arabica.

Vietnamese coffee prices surge on demand

Posted by on 08 Jan 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Robusta

According to the VietNam News, the average price of wholesale coffee in Vietnam has risen up to 80% in the past year due to a regional drought in 2004-5. Coffee supplies are estimated at 30-50% lower than normal: Coffee prices surge on demand.

Given the awful, mass production quality robusta beans that largely come out of Vietnam … who knows? Maybe this will make other specialty coffee growers around the world a little more attractive for the big coffee cartels.

Who am I kidding? You double the price of coffee sold for pennies on the pound and it costs, well, pennies on the pound. At least it hopefully won’t hurt the sustainability of quality bean growers as Vietnamese coffee dumping has in years past.

Nestlé backs coffee-based sustainable farming system

Posted by on 07 Jan 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Robusta

When people talk about The Big Four that are responsible for the proliferation of some of the worst, highest-volume production coffee in the world — that’s choking out the little guy growing better beans — Nestlé is definitely a named co-defendant.

The Philippines’ Sun.Star General Santos reports today that Nestle backs coffee-based sustainable farming system. Nestlé are no dummies. There’s only so much they can do without the growers of mass production crude robusta coffee that sells for pennies on the pound. They need to ensure their suppliers have sustainable crops at these market margins.

Therefore, Nestlé Philippines Inc. is pushing their “Coffee-Based Sustainable Farming System” strategy — encouraging their suppliers to stay afloat by diversifying their cash crops.

Concocting a new brew of coffee

Posted by on 01 Jan 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues, Robusta

You have likely heard about genetically modified foods, such as the (now non-existent) FlavrSavr tomato. You’ve probably also heard of the Human Genome Project, which mapped out the human genetic blueprint for disease research and a variety of other scientific purposes. Regardless of where you stand, both have raised ethical questions and opposition.

What you may not have heard is that there is an international coffee genome project in the works. As reported in today’s Financial Express, India’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) is in the works developing genetic maps of coffee plants, with one goal being to breed better beans in the future: Concocting a new brew of coffee.

For as nasty as the robusta bean can be, it’s often a necessary ingredient in a well-rounded espresso blend. And India grows and refines some of the highest quality robusta in the world.

It remains to be seen whether coffee will undergo controversial genetic manipulation to achieve the right, resilient blends for consumption. For now, it appears their goals are to improve our knowledge about managing coffee plants and how we might cross-breed them to introduce specific characteristics.

Controversy aside, it was only a matter of time before biotech met the coffee cup.

How the French Ruined Coffee

Posted by on 27 Nov 2005 | Filed under: Café Society, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting, Robusta

Vive Le Burnt Tires!

When people think of France, and Paris in particular, they most often think of grand boulevards, beautiful architecture, beautiful people, high French cuisine, and the sidewalk café lifestyle. What they often don’t associate with it is black, bitter coffee made from some of the world’s crudest coffee beans, roasted in the most heinous of ways. But that is just what you get in Paris — much to the cries of “sacrilege!” from many an enamored tourist and Francophile.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the French. They have contributed much to the betterment of food, drink, and the enjoyment of earthly pleasures. But arguably one of the greatest atrocities they have committed against humanity is their mark on the world’s coffee consumption — and how they have systematically brainwashed us into such woefully poor expectations for it.

Comic hyperbole, you might think? Nonsense. The last time I went on an extensive espresso hunt in Paris, one of the best cups I could find was served indoors at a Cuban café. And to be completely serious, I largely fault French restaurants with setting the standard for fine American dining establishments today: a fantastic meal, excellently prepared, that completely falls apart at the coffee.

What Did French Coffee Ever Do To You, Greg?

What’s wrong with Parisian coffee? As a general rule it is bitter, burnt, ashy, a little watery, and lacking real body — much like the bad wannabe Starbucks espresso you can get on Mainstreet, USA. And there are social and scientific reasons for this.

If we set our Way Back Machine to colonial France of the 18th century, France derived much of its coffee supply from its colonies in Southeast Asia. The predominant coffee plant variety in places like Vietnam (“French Indochina”, anyone?) is the robusta plant, as opposed to the higher-quality (and more expensive) arabica plant species. French coffee tastes are still steeped in this robusta tradition to this day. (While high-quality robusta coffees do exist, they are very rare and come from very un-French countries such as India.)

Today, this very Vietnamese robusta is at the heart of a coffee quality war going on in the world. Companies like Starbucks created consumer demand for better, almost exclusively arabica, coffee. Given this threat in profit margin and market share, the world’s established multinational coffee giants — Nestle, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee — responded by seeking fatter profit margins through cheaper and cheaper coffee that could be used in their cans of Folgers and Sanka.

The Big Four (as they are sometimes called) turned to Vietnamese robusta production as one of their key solutions. By proliferating these supplies of inferior coffee, they could produce the equivalent amount of beans at as little as a tenth of the price of arabica coffee. But there was one critical problem — these crude robusta beans roast into coffee blends that taste grassy at best, like bitter “burnt tires” (as often quoted by experts) at worst. So the Big Four developed chemical processing plants to refine the robusta into tasting something closer to, well, coffee.

There’s a lot more to be said about the proliferation of low-quality, predominantly Vietnamese robusta coffees in the world — emulating the standards set by the French centuries ago (and being the primary engine that created the Fair Trade movement to combat its ill effects). But I will say this much about robusta coffee. As a home roaster, I can sometimes buy some from Sweet Maria’s, who offers samples of this stock in limited supply for “scientific purposes” only. Meanwhile, the beans have earned the nickname “disgusta” from many home roasters.

And because the French have historically dealt with such crude bean stocks, they also had to invent the French roast — a long, dark roast that, not coincidentally, helps hide any impurities in the coffee. While there are certainly good applications of dark roasts, doing so is the equivalent of ordering your chateaubriand well done. You can get by with a really poor cut of meat if you prepare it by “burning the evidence”. (Commercial coffee buyers typically roast prospective stocks twice: once with a normal roast to gauge its ‘retail’ flavor, and once with a light roast to detect defects and impurities.) The dark roast also has a tendency to impart a burnt, ashy flavor to inferior coffee stocks.

Paris in a Paper Cup

Parisians do a fantastic job of, “Look, there goes Elvis!” to keep you from noticing just how poor their coffee is. And I can’t blame them. If I were a savvy Parisian businessman, you bet I would charge five Euros a cup for the garbage blend popular everywhere. By surrounding my customers on the beautiful Parisian boulevards with beautiful people, I could serve cups of 10w40 and hardly anyone would think to stop raving about the stuff.

So it goes without saying that American establishments that try to appeal to a French ethic in the quality of their coffee are unwittingly doing themselves a disservice. What they want to be emulating is the experience of drinking a French coffee on a sidewalk café along a tree-lined Parisian boulevard. Because they certainly don’t want to be emulating their coffee.

I came across an old blog entry on this subject that stirred a lot of controversy: Chez Pim’s How not to drink black tar in Paris?. The most poignant reply among the controversial follow-up posts came from one blogger who casually mentioned, “I’ve never heard anything bad about the coffee in Paris, aside from the complaint of some Americans that you can rarely get it to go.”

How ironic that the most valuable thing that Parisians have to offer the coffee drinking experience is the one thing that some Americans can do without.

UPDATE: April 8, 2010
Nearly five years after our post, the New York Times finally asks the same question: Ristretto | Why Is Coffee in Paris So Bad? – T Magazine Blog – NYTimes.com.

UPDATE: Jan. 24, 2014
And if you thought the New York Times was bad, Slate took over eight years to jump on this journalistic bandwagon: Coffee in France is terrible: Why can’t the French brew a good cup of coffee?

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