For Good Espresso, Insist on Arabica

baldwin apr13 robusta.jpg

Photo by Greencolander/FlickrCC

On a trip to Italy in the early '80s, I visited a roaster in Pavia, near Milan. I accepted the offer of an espresso, but declined sugar. My host was surprised. After one sip I understood his surprise, and I asked for double sugar--to defeat the vile, rubbery, bitter, fermented fruit taste of the Zaire robusta he had blended [Curator's note: Coffea canephora, or robusta, the low-growing, cheaper, and commoner kind than high-growing Coffea arabica]. When I asked why he included this coffee in his blend, his reply was, "to make better crema." I didn't understand.

A few specialty roasters in the US have begun to experiment with putting robusta into their espresso blends. The typical reasons are to make it more like Italian blends or make a thicker crema. I do understand the preference for the texture of a good crema, but I don't understand sacrificing flavor to achieve it.

I try to keep an open mind, but I have yet to taste the espresso that is better for having robusta of any quality selected over a well-chosen arabica.

In Seattle recently, I visited a small roaster on First Avenue downtown. I ordered an espresso, which was very well prepared. Then I tasted. As noted, the coffee was well made, and it was decently roasted, but why go to that trouble if you are using robusta or some low-grown, unwashed arabica in the blend? Crema? Not necessary. Authenticity?

Why try to make espresso "more Italian" when specialty roasters in Italy are either abandoning robusta completely or have developed 100 percent arabica blends at the top of their product range? Torrefazione Mexico in Milan, Illycaffe in Trieste, and Caffe Kimbo in Naples are just a few of countless roasters who are 100 percent arabica or, "prefer the excellence of a 100 % arabica blend," as Kimbo says on its website. Even Lavazza, the Folgers of Italy, has 100 percent arabica blends that are at the high end of their offerings.

Whenever we have tried blends with robusta, even those cited as "good robusta" (such as India, Papua New Guinea, and Flores), we have strongly preferred the 100 percent arabica. I only want my coffee to taste good; all other attributes are secondary. I try to keep an open mind about other points of view, but I have yet to taste the espresso that is better for having robusta of any quality selected over a well-chosen arabica.

Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and into the '80s, we specialty coffee roasters, along with other members of the new American food movement, used French and Italian references to borrow credibility and authenticity to what we were doing.

By the late '80s, French and Italian coffee roasters, to name only two countries of many, were examining the success of American specialty roasters in establishing a customer relationship based on flavor instead of price, while their vintner colleagues were adopting winemaking and growing techniques from America. We had established our own credibility. We may have been inspired by the Old Country, but our coffee was as good and authentic as any. And in Peet's case (among many roasters) it did not--and does not--include robusta in any blend.

Today the coffee in many European countries is improved (not Germany, alas). [Curator's note: More cross-European comparisons, please! And wasn't Germany a pre-Japan leader in snapping up supplies of great beans, by which I of course mean arabica? What happened??] A few roasters are leading the way in making flavor more important than price or crema thickness. And, as many of us know, many excellent arabica coffees, including washed coffees, make superb espresso with a good crema.

These things I understand.

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Jerry Baldwin is co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. More

Gerald Baldwin purchased Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1984, and worked diligently to sustain the vision of the founder, Alfred Peet. He remains involved as a member of the board of directors. Jerry was a co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. He remained involved until 1987 when he sold the company of eight stores. He accepts no credit (or blame) for the ensuing twenty-odd years. He also serves as a member of the board of TechnoServe a non-profit NGO working to alleviate poverty in Africa and Latin America. He has also been Chairman and Trustee of Coffee Quality Institute and President and Director of Association Scientific Internationale du Café (ASIC). Baldwin is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where he served as a director of the SCAA, and the the founding chairman of its Technical Standards Committee. Jerry was honored as Coffeeman of the Year for North America by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, and he is an honorary member of the Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffee Growers Association, known as Kilicafe. Baldwin was a founding director of Red Hook Ale Brewery and a founding contributor of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He writes in Sonoma County, California, a few miles from M.F.K. Fisher's home in Glen Ellen, looking over his small vineyard. Jerry and his wife, Jane, produce small crops of olive oil and Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon.

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