Dr Ahmad Jazayeri
Not from what my recent two cupping sessions in Uganda, one at UCDA in Kampala and the other in a coffee factory near Mbale. Both cuppings included the minor season robusta variety which is native to Southern Uganda (the sample was from an area in Bushenyi) as well as the highest grades of AA and PB Arabica from the Bugisu region known for its ideal conditions for premium Arabica coffees. We prepared both dark and medium roasts for each coffee. Although the AA Bugisu and PB were splendid on their own and received high marks from the cuppers, everyone was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful qualities of the robusta dark roast and everyone agreed that indeed the best cup was the blend of 50% AA Arabica dark roast or the PB dark roast together with 50% robusta dark roast. The blend was superior in terms of a floral aroma, heaviness on the mouth, the thick and deep crema, and the bitter but pleasant chocolate after taste which took you to St Eustachio which has the best coffee in Rome. The robusta gave the Arabicas the thick body and bitterness which matched perfectly with their velvety acidity making the coffee absolutely heavenly.
So is the best coffee 100% Arabica? Probably not. Making the best coffee starts from a careful blend of coffees that enrich each other and must include both Arabicas and Robustas. The blender is a chef who is making magic from the best ingredients he can find without being prejudiced in terms of the size, the origin, and the type of coffee. In my recent discussions with some of the Canadian roasters, I noticed that the word Robusta is synonymous with “bad”, even though few of them have ever tasted or experimented with blends that include good quality Robustas, especially those from Uganda. Even if the taste of most espressos in many Canadian specialty coffee shops are well below the European standards and people wonder why the espresso or the cappuccino in Toronto or Vancouver is often flat, has superficial crema, it is sour and not bitter, and does not taste as the one they tasted during their last holiday in Rome, Florence or Barcelona, still few people seem to be asking the question of why this is so. The secret is in the blending of Arabicas with good quality, clean and fresh robusta coffees especially those from East Africa.
So where does the myth of the superiority of 100% Arabica or “Arabica is king” comes from? The only answer I can think of is advertisements and marketing of the Arabica producers like Juan Valdez which have invested billions in marketing their coffees and have created a psychological or a mental illusion as to the superiority of the 100% Arabica. A myth usually has a life of its own and becomes deeply ingrained in people’s psychology. To get rid of it would needs therapy and repeated experience that can challenge the myth. I believe is now up to the quality Robusta producers to start challenging this myth and show the world that a good quality cup of coffee usually needs a good percentage of Robusta. I am aware of some of the processing issues of the natural Robustas especially those related to strip picking and the mixing of the ripe and the unripe cherries. This obviously can greatly affect the bitterness and the body of the Robusta. The newly developed semi-dry method for Robustas in Brazil can be an answer to some of these quality issues.
With the current prices of Arabica parchment passing Ush 8000/kg ($6/kg) and AA bagged and cleaned green beans FOT passing the USh. 14,000/kg (US$6/kg), it is probably time that Robustas took their rightful place as great and affordable coffees. The current price of FAQ Robusta is about (US$2.5-3.0/kg) for clean bagged coffee. Arabica is currently approaching 3 times the price of Robusta. A 50% blend would clearly reduce the price of the final cup by more than 50% and this is surely a further plus for Robusta.