• Robusta in espresso and other coffee beverages

    Until very recently, the Western hemisphere and many South and Central American countries have been the producers and exporters of specialty coffees. While 75%-80% of specialty coffee exports originate in Central or South America, the Caribbean and Hawaii, and over half the remaining 20%-25% are produced in Africa, Asia's contribution barely exceeds 10%.

    Historically, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Kenya, which are considered as producers of gourmet coffees, produce only arabica. The North American consumer market, where the specialty phenomenon was born, has so far mostly bought robusta for use only as a filler or for soluble coffee preparation.

    Robusta coffees are strong in body and can be neutral and buttery in the cup. There are robusta varieties in Africa, India and Indonesia whose cup quality, when washed, is supremely soft and buttery. This taste profile, with the added attributes of high altitude and fairly low caffeine content, could help in creating designer and premium robusta coffees. (Liquor requirements and the liquoring of coffees for use in espresso blends are different from those used for traditional preparation. See Traditional versus espresso, in chapter 12, topic 12.09.04.)

    Using only arabicas limits the diversity of coffees available for consumption. Robusta origins, and the special acceptable tastes inherent to robusta beans, could provide a solution. Price could be an additional reason for creating exemplary and specialty robustas. Robustas are traditionally cheaper than arabicas, so there is an opportunity to develop premium robustas that are less expensive than premium arabicas, thus catering to a new group of consumers.

    A point worth mentioning is that on the consumer side there has been no rejection of quality robusta. Even before the birth of the gourmet and specialty coffee phenomenon, select food stores all over the world were offering roasted coffees by origin: monsooned robustas from India, washed robustas from Papua New Guinea, and from Indonesia the famous well washed robusta (originally called in Dutch 'West Indische bereiding' or WIB = West Indian preparation, or pulped), have been very popular. Some have earned the status of being described as exemplary coffees. Increasing consumer awareness of the attractions of top quality robustas will in itself also help to promote such coffees.

    Quality robusta can be used in the preparation of today's coffee beverages.

    Clean and fresh, strong bodied, neutral, with hardly any acidity and with an undercurrent of chocolate and malt notes, unwashed robustas can be used in the making of espresso, canned or liquid coffee, and regular or filter coffees.

    Well washed, soft robustas provide the aromatic crema for strong espresso, provided they do not show fresh or fruity tastes that can be unpleasantly accentuated by the espresso extraction process. High quality washed robusta coffees are excellent for fortification of milk-based drinks such as cappuccino or café au lait (latte), and as a component of high caffeine blends.

    However, there are different tasting requirements when using arabica or robusta in espresso. The concentrated espresso cup exaggerates certain sensory aspects, not always positively. Only well matured and absolutely clean cupping coffees can be considered, and their suitability can only definitively be established by submitting the sample to actual espresso extraction. See 12.09.00 Coffee tasting.

    Robusta, espresso and specialty…

    Global consumption of Espresso today is such that it has become a separate, stand-alone market alongside the market for Whole Bean, and that for Roast and Ground coffee. But, also in the Espresso market one finds blends* that consist of commonplace, if not ordinary coffees alongside really good quality. Basically an entire range of qualities that are all sold as Espresso. So the the fact is that Espresso can be both mainstream and specialty…

    Views on this tend to differ between the United States and Europe. The US view is that, mostly, it ranks as specialty. This is probably due to the fact that for many in this market Espresso is a relatively new consumer product and, one that is 'different'. But Europe has known Espresso for many, many decades and consumers there definitely look at it as a separate life style product. But one whose quality, as is the case with traditional coffee, can range from ordinary to truly exceptional.

    But, what is beyond dispute is that the strong growth in the espresso segment has resulted in increased and new interest in robusta coffee, with the most recent shifts in opinion accepting not only that specialty (or gourmet) robustas do exist, but that there is also a market for them. As such, starting with the 2008 World Championship for Cup Tasters, held by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (www.scae.com), the tasting line up for this event now includes premium robustas. Additionally the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI – www.coffeeinstitute.org) has since early 2010 been working on the profiling of specialty robusta coffee, thus providing further proof of the renewed interest in quality robusta coffees.

    *The vast majority of Espresso brands are blends.
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