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Coffea Canephora: the "R" word.

In the U.S., it appears that the more restricted the consumer is from finding competitive products, the poorer will be the taste of the available coffee. Among the gravest offenders are: sports complexes, common carriers and their terminals, health-care facilities, and workplace cafeteria/dining facilities. Customers, in all these settings, are among the sad victims of Robustamania. The existence of an ocean of bad tasting coffee reflects a continuing and alarming arrogance as well as a lack of old fashioned common sense among many of the executives that make America's coffee decisions. It is sobering to realize just how little impact a generation of specialty coffee has had on the buyers and manufacturers in foodservice, a major sector of the American trade.

In February 1991; I took Amtrack's Silver Meteor from Penn. Station to Miami. For one day it was 1946 again. The East Coast slid by the picture window in our drawing room. My son, David, and I played Steal-The-Old-Man's-Bundle and my wife, Helene read. There was no radio, TV, or telephone. It was true togetherness: private, luxurious, and peaceful. It was delightful really, until my first cup of coffee. The steward said it was 100% Colombian. There was no such claim on the roaster's package. Robusta coffees were the base of the blend and it was awful stuff, just awful. Why is it that whenever Americans find themselves confined in situations where our choice of catering facilities is limited to one, we are inevitably victimized by evil coffee and worse? Give us a break! Next time I'll take the plane and a thermos.

A similar circumstance met the specialty coffee folks in Orlando in May 1991. Thanks to Conference attendees; Escogido, S.E. (Cafe Yauco Selecto), Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, Flavor Technology, Indonesian Coffee Exporters Association, and Superior Coffee, the coffee served at Conference functions was meritorious. The coffee served throughout the resort's own facilities however was of poor quality; it being a blend heavy in Robusta coffee.

The caring merchant recognizes that unblended varietal coffees are special when they possess the extraordinary qualities of character that permit them to stand alone, that is unblended, in the cup. As with unblended scotch, wine and tobacco these unblended coffees are individual in character, each bringing its personal character and long "memory" to its liquor.

Most coffees, even good sound Arabica coffees, benefit from blending. The skillful specialty roaster brings out the best in each of his coffees with judicious blending. The goal in blending in the specialty trade is always and only that of improving cup quality.

The Pure Food Act of 1906 was the beginning of the end of mislabeled varietal coffees and varietal blends (i.e. Mocha Java). Roasters moved more and more to the development of proprietary branded blends which were not subject to regulation. The desire of roasters to produce a proprietary blend whose taste is consistent month after month, year after year, is worthy. The problem is that uniformity of quality is often, to these fellows, more important than "quality" as an objective value. Too often we see tons and tons of uniform quality coffee whose quality level is wretched, and the reason is in part the use of Robusta coffees in the blend.

There are ample commercial reasons for roasters to blend coffees. Coffee is subject to the vicissitudes of nature. The bean remembers all its trials from seedling to cup. Low acid faded coffees need be balanced with higher acid newer crop beans. Off tasting beans, due to mishandling, must be blended to beneath a 10-15% level to obscure any negative tastes that might otherwise turn up in the cup. Bean quality variances in appearance can be obscured by blending them into products that will be presented pre-ground, greener (new crop) coffees which tend toward thinness in body are blended with faded (old crop) coffees which have developed heavier body while losing acidity. Additionally, blending helps man overcome the unavailability of coffee from a particular district or region where Acts-of-God such as earthquake, flood, volcanic eruption, frost or draught may have interdicted the farming cycle or the bringing of coffee to market. Dislocations of population due to war, famine, and political upheaval also withdraw coffees from circulation.

The commercial and institutional roaster has been motivated to produce blends for sale at different price points. On the upscale end of the price spectrum are the Arabica specialties. Often, on the low end of the spectrum avarice replaces judgment, and there is no price point for the blender to work with at all; simply an admonishment to produce an "acceptable" cup at the lowest cost. The quality objective here is a product which will not engender consumer complaint. Robusta coffees fit into this approach admirably except that a little leads to more and more until the beverage passes below the level of minimal acceptability. Over the course of 40 years, quality standards that do not represent quality combined with aggressive sales promotions have lowered the consumer expectation level.

Ted Lingle (TRL & Associates, Long Beach CA and now SCAA executive director) educated us to consumer preferences in the Los Angeles market almost a decade ago. In a study conducted in cooperation with the Alpha Beta supermarket chain, consumers were asked to choose a preference between beverages made from unblended beans of International Coffee Organization's coffee groups. Approximately 1,000 consumers, chosen at random, contributed their opinions to the tastings. While 82% preferred brews from Arabica beans (39% Other Mild Arabica Type [Peru], 32% Colombia Mild Arabica Type [Kenya], and 11% Brazil Unwashed Arabica Type) fully 11% showed a preference for Robusta Type [Uganda] coffee.

In referring to the sampling results, Lingle said, in another trade publication, "Unfortunately the coffee industry has a tendency to lapse into |Think set,' with such tried and true comments emerging as |Arabicas are better than Robustas,' |Stronger is better than weaker,' |Filter drip is better than perk.' While these premises may be true for many, they are not true for all."

This phenomenon is not localized on the consumer level. In 1985, Dan Cox (Green Mt. Coffee, Waterbury, VT), Joel Schapira (Schapira Tea & Coffee Company, Pine Plains, NY) and I presented a full-day seminar on coffee to the chef-instructors at the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY). We began with a blind cup testing of various coffee blends. The professional chef's chose Robusta/Arabica blends as their favorites over pure Arabica specialty blends. They were unable to recognize good from evil tasting coffee. They had never been taught the qualities to value in a cup of good coffee.
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Title Annotation:Robusta coffee; part 3
Author:Schoenholt, Donald
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Packaging and environmental concerns.
Next Article:International Coffee Agreement: rest in peace.

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