It was hard to miss the "100% Arabica" sign at the Molinari Caffè booth during the Specialty Coffee Association of America's (SCAA) conference in Seattle in 2005. But when asked about his all - arabica blend, Fabrizio Mengoli, Molinari's export manager, shrugged his shoulders. "We have more than 100 years in coffee," he said, "and we started to offer 100 percent arabica just this year because of the pressure. Our experience and philosophy is to mix between arabica and robusta. But we are in the market, and people asked to have 100 percent arabica, so we decided to play the game."
Robusta has traditionally been used in Italian espresso blends, though that is changing, especially because of Ernesto Illy's strong stance against its use. But many European roasters show little of the anti-robusta passion expressed by their American counterparts. No one will ever accuse coffee people of lacking opinions, but there are few subjects that will turn up an American roaster's pressurestat more quickly than the mention of robusta.
Its detractors will tell you that the only possible reason anyone would use a robusta in an espresso blend is to save money, and that this is the only basis for the Italians' interest in the stuff. They will dismiss it as a strategy used by roasters who are trying to produce coffee that can sit on the shelf for weeks, if not months. And they will say that any robusta, no matter how carefully selected, inevitably will add a woody/ rubbery/ tarmac/ cat pee-pee/ moldy basement floor/ liquefied brown paper bag taste to the coffee.
There is general, though by no means universal, agreement that robusta will produce a more substantial, long-lasting crema when added to an espresso blend, and that the aromatic compounds captured in the bubbles will cause the taste and aroma to linger in the mouth for a long period of time. But detractors will quickly add that this is merely prolonging the torture of the taste they find so offensive.
The Allure of Robusta
Many of robusta's American defenders point to espresso's Italian roots, arguing that their coffees are true to that tradition. They contend that a stable, long-lasting crema is the defining characteristic of espresso - the delivery device that allows the aroma to last in a way that is not possible with an espresso that lacks a sturdy crema. And they will argue that a discrete amount of a carefully selected robusta, in concert with the right arabicas, will deliver body and crema without being detectable on the palate, while blending the flavors and lowering the acidity in the cup.
Let's be clear that (almost) no one suggests that robustas have a place in brewed coffee, and let's agree that there are Italian and American roasters who use it because it is cheaper than arabicas, produces huge crema and has a long shelf life. But there are a number of American roasters who specialize in espresso and use it because they believe it can deliver a desirable quality they just aren't able to get from arabicas. Among these rebels are David Schomer of Espresso Vivace, Dr. Joseph John of Josuma Coffee, Mauro Cipolla of Caffé D'arte, John di Ruocco of Mr. Espresso and Tony Konecny of Victrola Coffee Roasters, a relative newcomer on the Seattle scene.
Another defender of the practice is writer and Coffee Review editor Kenneth Davids, who says he often uses high-end, wet-processed Indian robustas in his espresso blends and prefers espressos with a 10 percent to 20 percent presence of such coffees. It's important to begin any discussion of this subject by pointing out that the coffees that have given robusta a bad name are extremely poorly processed naturals, Davids observes, and that the robustas he finds attractive are high - end washed robustas from India, Uganda and, recently, Mexico. Davids also is intrigued by the idea of well - processed naturals, but he hasn't yet found one he can recommend.
"Robustas are like a black hole of taste in drip coffee," he observes. "They suck energy out of the blend. But in espresso they just function in a different way. In espresso they seem to knit things together, and smooth, and create a kind of resonance. A really good one can contribute positive flavor notes, too. They have a kind of nutty, spicy taste." He says that when asked to develop an espresso blend for a client, he will present four or five choices, and that almost without fail the client will select a blend that includes robusta.
Davids emphasizes that he is not knocking all-arabica espressos and points in particular to George Howell's Daterra Farm espresso, which he dubs "exquisite." But he adds that for "a good sturdy blend that will stand up to almost anything a consumer does to it, I find it hard to achieve that without some robustas. They are another arrow in your quiver when you're blending for espresso, and a really useful one."
Schomer describes a discussion he had with an Italian roaster during a 1993 trip to Italy. When he asked about the Italian interest in robustas as an ingredient in espresso blends, the roaster explained that Italian gourmet roasters were obsessed with searching out fine robustas that would produce the body and crema associated with them without detracting from the flavor of the arabicas, and that the source of an Italian roaster's robusta was his most closely guarded secret.
"Thus began my search for a mild, inoffensive robusta," says Schomer, "and my discovery of an 'estate robusta,' hand-cultivated, washed and graded with all the care of a fine arabica." He now considers high-quality robustas an indispensable element in his espresso blends. "Robusta," he offers, "increases the viscosity and life span of the crema, which cradles your arabical flavors in a protective foam to allow them to be enjoyed by your customer. Selection is very critical to avoid woody, astringent or oily flavors. I am looking for monster crema from a robusta with a mild, neutral flavor."
Cipolla sees himself as the guardian of an espresso tradition that he believes is being lost even in Italy. A true espresso, he argues, is a dark roast using "the right type of robusta, roasted at different temperature/time curves than arabicas and blended at proper percentages with proper nonconflicting arabica beans." An all-arabica espresso blend, he observes, may produce crema, but without the density and viscosity that can be achieved with robusta. The experience in the cup, he says, is not only about the amount of crema, but the characteristics associated with it. Robusta, he argues, is much harder to work with than arabica, "but if one knows what to do, robustas can add to arabicas, and vice versa."
John says that he came to the coffee world with no biases. He was interested in producing an espresso blend in the Italian tradition with the Indian beans he was importing to the United States, and he realized that Indian robustas were remarkable for their softness. Looking at what they could bring to his blend, he saw more pluses than minuses and thought, "Why wouldn't I use it if it has no other liability other than the fact that there is a big campaign against it?"
The unique thing about an espresso machine, says John, is that it has the ability to force the water molecules into the interior of the coffee particles and drive out the oils. "And if you don't emulsify the oil," he adds, "you're not producing espresso." Like Cipolla, he argues that most North American espresso is not true espresso. In most cases, he says, only the solubles have been extracted, as with brewed coffee, and there is little or no crema. And without crema, he asks, "What is going to capture the aroma and deliver it to the consumer?"
With the discrete use of a "mute" robusta that will deliver long-lasting crema without adversely affecting the taste, says John, you can capture the aromatic compounds (along with carbon dioxide) in tiny bubbles of oil film. You want the bubbles to last, he says, and to burst in the back of the mouth so that the aroma is released into the nose, and you want those bubbles to attach themselves to the taste buds and continue to deliver their aroma for a couple of hours. "The persistence of crema is a
measurable quality, and that is lacking in North American espresso," argues John. "Even the arabica blends that produce crema, it doesn't last very long."
One of the most outspoken opponents of robustas over the years has been Don Schoenholt, "founding father" of the SCAA and president of Gillies Coffee in New York. Schoenholt recalls a time many years ago when Pete McLaughlin of Royal Coffee in Emeryville, Calif., asked him to taste an unusual coffee. "The coffee was heavy and smooth, no aroma to speak of and no acidity. It had a neutral aspect on the palate. It was all body - a deep, swirling, dark, heavy, lingering mouth - feel." The mystery coffee was a washed Thai robusta, roasted to second crack, and McLaughlin suggested it might be useful in an espresso. Schoenholt experimented with it but ultimately decided against using it in his espresso blends. As he puts it, he found that "there was an effect on cup quality that is undesirable, and even though I love foam on espresso, ice cream sodas and beer, I choose in my own coffees not to trade taste for the esoteric choice of little bubbles."
One theory about strong anti-robusta feelings in the American specialty coffee world is that the founders of the SCAA were, by and large, brewed coffee people rather than espresso people. Asked about this, Schoenholt argues that they were not coffee beverage people at all, but "bean people. Starbucks did not sell cups of coffee. Gillies did not sell cups of coffee. M.E. Swing did not sell cups of coffee. Al Peet put an urn in his store later. And even then he was alone." Of course, one might counter that the beans specialty coffee pioneers were selling were intended for brewed coffee, not espresso. Indeed, Peet's did not offer an espresso blend until the introduction of Espresso Forte in 2002.
But Schoenholt does seem to leave the door open, even a crack. "It is true that a sword-line in the sand was drawn (on the robusta question)," he remarks. "It is also true that things change. With the unmitigated success of specialty coffee in the land, we can afford the luxury of relaxing our grip on the sword hilt - not on standards, but on dogma."
George Howell, Tim Castle and Mane Alves give little ground to robusta. "I've tried some of the famous espressos with robusta in them, and I don't care for them," says Castle. "In my opinion, it's a form-over-function approach. I think the goal of the thick, rubbery crema is to seal in the aroma. But once you add the robusta, you've defeated the purpose." Howell remembers being somewhat surprised by an Indian robusta he tasted at the SCAA conference in Boston in 2003, but quicky adds, "The dramatic un-sweetness of robusta precludes me from using it. I find that even the most neutral robusta takes away what I'm after, which is sweetness."
Coffee Lab International owner Alves' opposition is particularly striking because he once conducted a series of tests for a client who asked him how much robusta could be used in a blend without the taste being detectable. Using a mild Angolan robusta, Alves found that the robusta was not detectable until he went up to 10 percent or 15 percent. Still, he argues that there is no reason to use it in an espresso blend, as the main factor in getting crema is the freshness of the roast, not the type of beans.
Alves also argues that a café owner who uses a robusta blend is acting against his or her own self-interest. When one drinks an all-arabica espresso, he says, "Your body will ask you for more in a couple of hours," while an espresso containing robusta will satisfy the customer for the rest of the day. "I'm in a business where I'd like the customer to come back and get more coffee," he says.
Still, many roasters with a strong interest in espresso continue to buck the anti-robusta trend. A fairly new arrival on the espresso scene is Seattle's Victrola Coffee Roasters, which created quite a stir during April's SCAA conference, even though they did not have a booth and were not included on the official conference tours of Seattle coffeehouses. As word spread, more and more conference attendees and World Barista Championship (WBC) finalists made the trip over to Victrola's comfortable East 15th Avenue headquarters for a taste of Victrola's Streamline Espresso blend, a rich, smooth coffee in which the blueberry notes from the Harrar sang out with the purity of a Roberta Peters aria.
When Jen Strogin and Chris Sharp opened Victrola five years ago, they tried different coffees and settled on Schomer's Espresso Vivace blends. But two years ago, with Schomer's support, they began to experiment with roasting their own. Roaster Konecny says that they initially included robusta because Schomer uses it in his blends, and they didn't want to make a major change.
Konecny says he doesn't use robusta for crema, but because "a good robusta, roasted well, provides a middle flavor note that glues some top - note flavors to some middle-note flavors. At a small percentage, it has a space to occupy that's unique." He also finds that the robusta brings down the overall acidity of the blend and helps maintain the caramel and chocolate tones while allowing the top notes to come out without being overly bright.
At the same time, Konecny isn't joining John, Schomer and Cipolla on the robusta pulpit, and he says that removing the robusta from the blend is always an option. His attitude reflects openness to considering all the options and a willingness to cross the line in the sand over robusta.
WBC certified judge Andrew Barnett, owner of Ecco Caffé in Santa Rosa, Calif., is another serious espresso roaster who has kept an open mind on the robusta question. He isn't currently using robusta because, as he puts it, "the flavor profile that I am attempting to express is not served by the addition of a premium robusta." Still, he has experimented with robustas, doesn't rule out using it in the future and adds, "There are a plethora of possibilities in creating a stellar espresso blend with robusta."
As Barnett mentally surveys the best espressos he has tasted in the last year, he includes Schomer's Dolce blend, Caffé D'arte's Parioli, Dr. John's Malabar Gold and Victrola's Streamline, alongside all-arabica blends like Stumptown's Hair Bender, Hines Public Market Coffee's espresso, George Howell's Daterra Farm North Italian Style Espresso and 2004 World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe's Stockfleth's blend.
The debate over the appropriateness of using robusta in espresso blends is not likely to dissipate soon, but as the serious espresso culture that started in the Pacific Northwest continues to expand around the country, with the opening of roastery/cafés run by quality - driven roasters and staffed by passionate and well - trained baristas, it seems likely that more roasters will explore the use of robustas in their drive to create distinctive espressos.
About this Article
This article was reprinted with permission from Fresh Cup Magazine. It originally appeared in the June 2005 Coffee Almanac edition of the magazine.
About the Author
Richard Reynolds is communications director of Mother Jones Magazine and has written about coffee for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. Comments on this article may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.