Monday, December 16, 2013

What's Wrong With Robusta?

A sack of Colombian arabica coffee. Why not robusta, as well?
Colombia exports nearly all of the coffee it grows - and imports 80 to 90% of the coffee it drinks.

This paradoxical situation has been the source of much angst and even protests by Colombians, who feel it's wrong for the country to send its best arabica beans to rich countries, and keep only the defective beans and cheaper imports for Colombians to drink.

Freshly roasted Colombian
arabica beans.
Altho exporting that good arabica coffee makes economic sense, since the beans bring high prices internationally, importing even cheap beans does not. Most of Colombia's coffee imports - from Peru and Ecuador - but occasionally from as far away as Vietnam - are the cheaper, bitterer and smaller robusta beans. In contrast to arabica beans, which are grown in small plots at high altitude, generally under tree cover, robusta beans grow in corn-style monocultures at lower altitudes. Arabica is harvested by hand, robusta with machines. Robusta, as its name suggests, is hardier and more resistant to diseases. The beans also contain about twice as much caffeine and have a stronger, harsher taste.

Some other coffee producing nations, particularly Brazil, grow both the arabica and robusta varieties.

Regions of Colombia where arabica
coffee is cultivated.
(Image: Cafe de Colombia)
At a recent national meeting, Colombian coffee growers rejected a proposal for the country to plant robusta beans.

"We're against robusta," Marcelo Salazar, a coffee planters' representative from Caldas Department, told Reuters. "It doesn't require much labor, it's much cheaper in the international market...and doesn't reflect the quality of Colombian coffee."

It's true that Colombia, the world's fourth-largest coffee producer, has built its reputation for good coffee by planting expensive, high-quality beans. And that solid reputation deserves to be protected.

Samples of 'green' and roasted Colombian arabica beans.
The piles on the left are cheap beans for the domestic
market; on the right are export quality beans.
But robusta and arabica beans are so different in how and where they are grown and in their markets and uses, that they might as well be considered different crops.

Chains like Starbucks, which plans to open cafes in Colombia next year, mix arabica beans for their taste and quality with robusta beans for their higher caffeine content. When Starbucks lands in Colombia, it will be importing robusta.
Arabica and robusta coffee beans.
(Photo: Whole Latte Love)

Robusta could be planted on Colombia's Llanos Orientales - the low elevation Eastern Plains region - far from the mountains where arabica grows. To protect Colombian coffee's international image, the robusta could be packaged differently, clearly marked 'robusta' and without the title 'Cafe de Colombia' label. And, the robusta wouldn't even have to be exported. They could plant only enough to replace what's now imported, providing more jobs and income at home.

But this is a great example of vested interests at work. At the recent meeting arabica coffee farmers were eager to denounce the supposed threat of that evil robusta bean. No robusta coffee farmers were there to sing their bean's praises simply because they don't exist in Colombia. And, the way things are going, they probably never will.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Unknown said...

In general, I come down on the side of economic freedom, and my impulse is to agree that the growing of Robusta should be allowed. However, I think we cannot so easily dismiss the concerns of the Arabica growers.

Excellent coffee is Colombia's only positive world brand. I do think that if Robusta was grown here, it is highly likely that it would start to make its way into blends that would be touted as "100% Colombian." I liken this situation to the European makers of wines and cheeses who have laws to protect their brands.

I don't know that the economic gain to be made by growing Robusta would exceed the potential loss.

By the way, I am sympathetic with those who wish the good stuff was available here at a reasonable price. I buy my 100% Colombian Dark Roast at Sam's Club in the US and carry it back here. It's 1/3 the price I would have to pay if I bought the same locally.

Miguel said...

Hi Coolcoil - Don't forget that Colombia does produce lots of bad coffee, just that it happens to be Arabica. I mean those bad beans called 'pasilla.' They are mostly sold domestically, but I don't think they all are. In any case, the existence of those defective pasilla beans hasn't ruined Colombian coffee's reputation.

As for buying Colombian coffee cheaper overseas...that's incredible, if accurate.


Unknown said...

Well, here is the coffee I buy at Sam's Club.

Though it does not say so on the web page, there is a 100% Colombian logo on the back of the bag. It is labelled as fair trade too.

The price is $14.88 for 2.5 lbs, which is about COP 11,500 per pound. I have only ever found one dark roast for sale in my little part of Antioquia that came close on price. The quality difference was huge - enough to make my wife, who is not much of a coffee drinker, insist that I keep importing.

If anybody has any suggestions, I'm all ears. I am always looking for ways to substitute goods I can buy here for US-purchased items.

Does anybody know where to buy Russett potatoes? :-)