By: Ted R. Lingle
During the past five years there has been a growing price disparity between Arabica and Robusta coffees. In November of 2007, the average ICO indicator price for Other Mild Arabica coffees was $1.31, while the same indicator price for Robusta coffees stood at $0.92, a differential of $0.39. In November of 2010, the average ICO indicator price for Other Mild Arabica coffee had risen to $2.33, a gain of $1.01, but the same indicator price of Robusta coffees remained at $0.92, showing no gain at all and increasing the differential to $1.41, three and a half times higher. Today that gap has narrowed somewhat with the Other Mild Arabica price in November of 2012 standing at $1.64 but with the Robusta price still down at $0.99, a differential of $0.65. Why do Robusta coffees have such difficulty breaking out of the $1.00/lb range?
This large and persistent gap in price differentials between Arabica and Robusta coffees during the past five years strongly suggests that programs aimed at establishing benchmarks for top Arabica qualities, such as the Q Coffee System established by CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) and the Cup of Excellence program developed by ACE (Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Inc.), have enjoyed considerable success and have given the Arabica growers a tremendous push toward sustainable economic viability. Unquestionably these programs have led to improved qualities across the entire Arabica production chain, pulled by the success of Guatemala, Costa Rica and the other Central American coffee producers, which other Arabica producing countries are now seeking to emulate. The other significant impact from these activities has been a general heightening of the awareness of the importance of quality among coffee consumers, as evidenced by the movement of major foodservice chains, such as McDonalds and Burger King to high quality coffee programs and by the continued rapid expansion of the specialty coffee industry in new markets in Asia and Eastern Europe. The unintended consequence of the success of this effort has left the Robusta producers “in the lurch,” a vulnerable and unsupportable position as indicated by the disparity in price levels between Arabica and Robusta coffees.
“Standards – Education – Ethics” have been the driving force behind the success of the Arabica producers’ efforts. It is now time to apply this same formula for success to the Robusta coffee market. As a starting point, there is a critical need to address quality issues across a broad range of processing standards for Robusta coffees. The establishment of a bona fide standard for “Fine Robusta Coffees” to meet the marketplace requirements for this category of coffee will build quality awareness among all Robusta producers. More important, the establishment of a reliable Robusta supply chain that makes available regular and consistent supplies of high quality Robusta coffees will encourage roasters to offer this category of coffee to their consumers, thereby creating the consumer base needed to make the Robusta market economically viable. This connectivity is particularly important in Asia and Eastern Europe where Robusta type coffees are often in the greatest demand.
For the past 10 years during the time of coffee oversupply, USAID and other international governmental agencies invested heavily in quality and processing improvements for washed Arabica coffees. By enhancing the value-add attributes of the top Arabica qualities, the marketing capacity and connectivity for these coffees were measurably strengthened, particularly the premium prices paid by consumers as reflected in the 2010 price levels. Projects like the RATES/Chemonics program in East Africa that supported the East Africa Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA), and the CADR/Coffee Quality Institute program in Central America that supported CQI are good examples of the success of increasing producer incomes through quality improvement programs. A similar quality improvement program was desperately needed for Robusta producers.
Recognizing this need, USAID, through the LEAD program in Uganda (Susan Corning) supported by the COMPETE program in East Africa (Steve Walls), took the first and essential step. Beginning in 2009, four Robusta Fine Coffee Workshops were held in Kampala (August 2009, March 2010, and June 2010) and Ghana (November 2009) with the primary objective of establishing high quality standards for Robusta coffees that would be universally recognized and accepted by the coffee trade. This work was led by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) and was based on the lessons learned from building the Q Coffee System in Arabica producing countries. The program also received invaluable support from the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (Henry Ngabirano).
Sixty-three (63) coffee professionals representing eighteen (18) different countries, including Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, and Mexico participated in one or all of the four workshops over the 24 month long program, totaling over 3,500 man-hours of effort. Samples from all of the major Robusta producing countries were cupped, graded and evaluated. And seven different testing methodologies for evaluating Robusta cuppers were studied, evaluated, and perfected.
During this process a number of key objectives were met: 1) a protocol and cupping form for Fine Robusta Coffee were developed; 2) standards for physical grading of Robusta coffees were established along with a Robusta Green Coffee Defect Classification System; 3) roasting profile methodologies for Robusta coffees were determined; 4) an extensive cupping flavor vocabulary for Robusta coffees was created; and 5) the first eight Fine Robusta “R” Graders in Uganda were certified.
There were a number of significant lessons learned during this process. The first and most important was that Fine Robusta coffees can in fact be differentiated by their country of origin, just like Arabica coffees. The second and most surprising was that Fine Robusta coffees can have appealing cup characteristics that yield cupping scores above 80+ points on a 100 point scale. The third and most appealing was that Fine Robusta coffees have a complexity in their taste profiles that far surpasses Arabica coffees due to their “Bitter/Sweet” and “Salt/Acid” taste attributes. And the fourth and most interesting was that Fine Robusta coffees are more difficult to roast properly due to the need to develop a wider color spread between the whole bean and ground color measurements in order to bring out the full potential of their flavors.
The success of the Fine Robusta Coffee Workshops cannot be overstated. It clearly identified the potential for huge growth in the market place for this category of coffee; growth based on quality not price. The success also clearly identified the roadblock to improved Robusta prices: DEFECTS. All of the coffees cupped during the Workshops had been cleaned and graded so that the defect counts were comparable to those for specialty Arabica grades, and consequently the flavor improvements in the Robusta coffees were striking. As a by-product of these Workshops, the coffee industry now has a set of training materials to use in a systematic approach for quality improvement in the Robusta coffee supply chain. So where did we go from here?
The second major step was to expand the R Grader training program outside of East Africa. This was accomplished through private sector programs in Brazil and Indonesia. To date, through Conilon Brazil, three R Grader Workshops were conducted in Brazil, two in 2011 and one in 2012. In the process, 28 R Graders have been trained and certified in Brazil, and this year Conilon Brazil will be conducting the first ever Robusta cupping competition in Brazil. Their vision is to create a viable export market for high quality, Conilon Robusta coffees for Brazil’s Robusta producers. Robusta R Grader Workshops have also been conducted in Indonesia, one in 2011 and one again in 2012. The result was the training and certification of 21 R Graders in Indonesia. The highlight of this effort was the cupping competition and auction conducted in October 2012 in Surabaya that included “Fine” Robusta coffees for the first time. The high scoring Robusta coffee was a washed coffee from Flores and received an “R” score of 84.05 and sold for a record price of $7.00/kg.
The third major step was in building “trials and awareness” for high quality – high value Robusta coffees. This has been accomplished across a number of different fronts. In June 2012 Brazil hosted the world’s first International Conference on Robusta coffees with more than 200 people participating. It was a great opportunity for Brazil to showcase the tremendous advancement it has made in the technology of farming Robusta coffees. CQI held its first R Grader Robusta Workshop at SCAA Headquarters in Long Beach in September 2012. The class was taught by one of CQI’s new R Grader Instructors, Andrew Hetzel. Six people participated in the course and three became licensed R Graders. September 2012 also saw Miles Small in a Coffee Talk Magazine editorial begin a lively debate on the merits of bringing Robusta coffees in the “specialty coffee arena,” as if there should be some unwritten prohibition against them. In October 2012 Let’s Talk Coffee conducted their first Robusta workshop and attracted participants from around the world to meet, discuss, and cup “Fine” Robusta coffees. The high point for CQI was posting our first certified Robusta coffee on our Website, which was a very high quality India Robusta coffee, Kappi Royale from Sethuraman Estate RKR, which is now selling for $2.50/lb FOB India.
“Will Fine Robusta Coffee Measure Up in the Cup?” From the very beginning of the project, the cuppers involved were committed to holding the standards for “Fine” Robusta coffees to the same standards established for “Specialty” Arabica coffees. This was true for both cupping scores and defect counts – “Fine” Robusta coffees must score 80 or more points in their cupping score and contain 8 or fewer full defects per 350 gram sample. As anticipated, the greatest problem in conducting the Workshops was finding a large selection of high quality Robusta coffees. However, many good tasting Robusta coffees were found, particularly in Brazil, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania, and Uganda. And more surprisingly, most of these coffees have already found their way to South Korea, whose large community of small roasters have discovered their quality and variety appeals to a large segment of their “specialty coffee consumers,” which means CQI has found a source of “Fine” Robusta coffees for our workshops, thanks to Steven Kil of the Specialty Coffee Appraisers Institute of Asia.
“Is building a market for high Robusta coffees possible?” YES, but it won’t be easy. Cooperation is needed from the private sector exporters in Uganda, Brazil, India, and Indonesia in order to develop the volumes of high quality Robusta coffees needed to establish a market niche. And just like the early beginnings of the Specialty Arabica market, it will take time to develop the appropriate supply chains. Fortunately, the steps will be similar:
#1 Establish High Quality Standards
#2 Identify Existing Value-Added Robusta Coffees
#3 Make Technology Assessment of Current Production Schemes
#4 Offer Producer Technical Assistance
#5 Develop Competition/Programs to Recognize Excellence
#6 Provide Market Access through Internet Based Trading
The time is right to take this step and the process is now underway. Congratulations to everyone involved in the program. Like the advent of the specialty coffee industry was for the Arabica coffee farmer, the ultimate success of this program will be a “Game Changer” for the Robusta coffee growers.
(Ted Lingle is the Senior Advisor of the Coffee Quality Institute, a non-profit foundation whose mission is “to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it.”)