Last July, I was invited to Ecuador to judge a new cupping competition, the Taza Dorada Robusta. The Taza Dorada, or “Gold Cup” program, was created to improve the quality and brand of Ecuadorian coffees, and has been judging and scoring Ecuadorian arabica from specialty coffee producers for 10 years. But this year, 2016, was the first in which they’ve had a Taza Dorada program for specialty robusta coffees.
The much maligned coffee species Coffea canephora, commonly called robusta coffee, comprises nearly 40% of the world's coffee production. Yet most of these millions of growers have been provided very few outlets for their coffees beyond the instant coffee factories and for local market consumption. Nor have they been provided the tools, training and incentive to produce coffee that is any better than the appallingly defective level the market will pay for.
For decades specialty coffee enthusiasts have repeated the misguided line that all robusta coffee is bad, period. Some base their opinion on one or two experiences with it, without tasting it in multiple expressions (regions or varieties). Most without ever exploring what they might taste like when handled as specialty arabicas generally are.
Fifteen years ago I recall green coffee merchants telling me that removing the defects from Sumatran coffee would eliminate the ‘character,’ and that people prized the inconsistency in Harrar natural coffees - that every bag tasted different. This, apparently, was part of the charm. I didn't buy into that then, and luckily there were people in those origins who didn't either. Those same people sought to introduce better quality controls, which developed into some of the amazing specialty coffees we have access to today.
Improving Robusta Coffee
By the same token, I’ve never bought into claims that all robusta coffee was inherently bad. And you shouldn’t either. My experience with it over more than a decade indicates that when we start applying more quality controls - actively experimenting and trying to improve it rather than accepting that what is now is all it can be - we start seeing some startlingly good coffees. Specialty coffee is a process. It's not a species, nor an elevation, nor a particular growing location.
The coffees at the Taza Dorada Robusta were startlingly good, especially for first time producers of specialty coffee. They showed a greater range of flavor and complexity than almost any robusta coffees I have tasted before. In very good, fresh specialty robusta coffees, a little vanilla, chocolate and wisps of citrus aren't uncommon. Most of the coffees we tasted in the competition had this plus notes of molasses, jackfruit, flowers, banana, and berries, with more sweetness and acidity than other robusta coffees I’ve come across. Whether this is because of environmental factors or genetics is hard to say.
I ended up purchasing the winning coffee from Mr. Javier Calixto Rivera for Paradise Coffee Roasters, and while his coffee was exemplary, the vast majority of coffees in the Top 10 weren't far off.
This isn't the first competition-winning specialty robusta we’ve carried at Paradise. Ten years ago we offered award winning coffees from The Flavour of India Competition from Hartley Estate, and multiple award winning coffees from Sethuraman estates. As recently as 2016 we offered Paradise customers the winning coffee from Thailand's first specialty robusta cupping competition.
The best robusta coffees still have a very different profile from arabica. We think that's okay. Sometimes you want white wine, sometimes you want red, sometimes you want port. You may enjoy only one of these styles, but we hope you will enjoy trying several of these species and origins, brewing them in several different ways, and deciding for yourself. Above all else, keep tasting. These are the beginning of future development with specialty robusta coffees.
[Photo by Hacienda Denise in Ecuador, a specialty robusta coffee coming to Paradise January 2017]