Postcards and the History of Coffee Cultivation

Coffee pickers on East Java.

Coffee pickers, East Java, early twentieth century. Postcards also show the prominent role of women (and children) in coffee picking. Often, the images show people in idealized poses, wearing formal, traditional garb. While this image is clearly posed, otherwise it looks like the photographer simply found some people picking coffee and asked them to pose where they were. This group appears to be a mother with her three daughters.

The coffee plants in the photograph are also of interest. Another card from this series indicates that this is Quillou coffee. This is another variety of C. canephora; the best-known variety of this species is Robusta coffee. My source books disagree on the origin of this variety; some have it coming from Uganda, while others suggest the Gabon or Cameroon. It was introduced to the Dutch East Indies around 1900; breeders there developed improved selections. The Quillou variety was not as widely planted in the Dutch East Indies as the better-known robusta. But it was later introduced to Brazil, where it is known as Conilon.

Coffee Maps — Global Distribution of Coffee Rust, 1952

Coffee Areas of the World In Relation to Rust DiseaseThis is a lovely map published in 1952, by the United States Office of Foreign Agricultural Relations. At the most basic level, it is a snapshot of a slow-moving global crop epidemic. The coffee leaf rust (caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix) had first appeared in epidemic form in Ceylon in 1869. From there, it had spread through the Indian Ocean Basin and the Pacific. In the face of the Coffee Leaf Rust, coffee planters in Ceylon abandoned coffee cultivation in favour of tea, for which the island is now famous. The disease also devastated the coffee farms of Java, then another of the world’s major exporters of arabica coffee. Planters there switched to other crops, or (in some places) began cultivating robusta coffee (C. canephora, var. Robusta), a rust-resistant coffee that had recently been discovered in the Belgian Congo. Robusta helped in the recovery of many rust-wracked coffee zones, especially in the humid lowlands of the Indian Ocean Basin and Africa. But this rust-resistance came at the expense of quality; robustas did not have the same cupping quality as arabica. Robustas were usually used as cheap fillers in blended coffees. So this map shows not only the distribution of the rust, but also (approximately) the global distribution of arabica and robusta coffee in the mid-twentieth century. A few enclaves of arabica production in the Eastern Hemisphere did survive — especially in Kenya, Ethiopia, India, and Sumatra. But virtually everywhere else in the East, robusta prevailed.

In the early twentieth century, the rust gradually began to move across Africa, from east to west. And it became apparent that the vast fields of arabica coffee in the Americas were at risk from the coffee rust. It is also a warning to the coffee growers of the americas. The rust finally did appear in Brazil in 1970; by 1985 it had reached almost every coffee-growing region in the Americas. While it was seldom as catastrophic in the Americas as it had been in Ceylon or Java, it has been a chronic problem for coffee farmers in the Americas ever since.

Let’s talk about Robusta

There are two main commercial species of coffee: Arabica (the one everyone has heard of), and Robusta (botanically, Coffea canephora). People have probably consumed Robusta coffee for as long as they have consumed Arabica coffee, although Arabica coffee was the first species to go global. Societies in East Africa cultivated Robusta coffee and used it in rituals for centuries before European empires began to carve up Africa in the late nineteenth century.[2] European botanists encountered it the late nineteenth century; in the early twentieth century Robusta seeds and seedlings were quickly disseminated through European colonies in the tropics. At first, it was little more than a botanical curiosity, until planters realized that Robusta was resistant to the coffee rust (caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix that was then devastating Arabica coffee farms across the Indian Ocean basin). Robusta coffee was first taken up on a large scale by coffee planters in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and was also widely adopted in places were the coffee rust had ravaged Arabica plantations – especially the humid lowlands of the Indian Ocean Basin and the Pacific. In the mid-20th century, some African countries especially Uganda and the Ivory Coast, also began producing large quantities of Robusta.  More recently Brazil and – above all Viet Nam – have expanded Robusta production. Viet Nam, which produces Robusta coffee almost exclusively, is now the world’s second largest coffee producer. In total, Robusta’s share of the global coffee market has increased from 0% in 1900 to around 35% in 2012. In contrast, according to recent figures, certified Arabica coffees (which garner far more attention in the academic and popular literature) account for around 17% of coffee production (although not consumption).

In spite of this spectacular growth, Robusta coffee is the ugly duckling of the global coffee industry, often disdained for its taste. Most popular and academic writing on coffee has little to say about Robusta coffee, reflecting the fact that the story of coffee these days (at least those stories written in English) are usually told from the perspective of the specialty coffee industry, which prizes high-quality Arabica coffee. If Robusta coffee appears at all in these stories, it is usually as an exemplar of “bad” coffee – both bad for the environment and bad-tasting. Nor is Robusta coffee visible in the places where consumers buy coffee, although it is often present, lurking in instant coffees or pre-ground blends, or blended with some Arabica in Italian espressos. Coffees made of 100% Arabica beans will usually trumpet that fact; those that are blends of Arabica and Robusta will often coyly describe themselves as “100% coffee,” without specifying the species. The stigma attached to Robusta coffee (at least in the North American markets) can be extreme – the coffee roaster Donald Schoenholt once expressed his disdain in intensely moral language, writing that he “discouraged the acceptance of C. canephora because… to my mind the specie [sic] is incompatible with the spirit of virtue that our coffee should represent to the world.”[1]

I’m particularly interested in the issue of Robusta’s taste. While its taste is often excoriated by (some) coffee aficionados, millions of people consume it nonetheless. In places where Robusta is cultivated, people often come to prefer the taste of Robusta to that of Arabica. It’s an important reminder that, while taste has a physiological dimension, it also has a cultural dimension. Taste is not wholly innate; it is also learned and acquired. Over the past several centuries, consumers in the major countries have learned to like Arabica coffee, but it could have been otherwise. “Since Arabica was the first variety introduced to the consumer,” wrote the coffee trader C.F. Marshall in 1983, “it set the standard in taste for the others, which have since been thought to be inferior. It is interesting to wonder what the situation would have been had Robusta been the first.” [3]

I’m intrigued by the notion that our tastes are constructed, and decided to conduct some experiments myself. It is, however, fairly difficult to find pure robusta beans to sample. Friends have brought me back samples of ground robusta from the Western Ghats of India, and from Togo (via Nigeria). In both cases, it was not clear how the beans had been processed, nor how long it had been since they were roasted. In both cases, these Robustas tasted powerfully grassy, and not particularly pleasant. I could imagine myself coming to like them over time, but it would have been an effort.

Recently, my friend the food blogger Matthew Kayahara has taken to roasting his own coffee, and offered roast a small batch of Robusta beans for a taste test. He discovered that the Green Beanery in Toronto sells some Robustas, and bought some Ugandan SC 15. Robusta coffee is native to Uganda, and the country has a long tradition of producing some of the world’s best Robustas. For much of the 20th century, these Robustas were wet-processed, just like many of the finest Arabicas. Now, however, most Ugandan Robustas are dry-processed.

Our Robusta tasting was held last Saturday night with spouses and friends.[4] For the taste test I suggested that the drinkers not think of this drink as “coffee” since this would skew expectations. It’s best not to compare Robusta with Arabica, but rather to think of it as a drink in a category of its own (although comparisons with Arabica are inevitable). Matt and I both found the Robusta coffee to taste pleasantly “woody,” and certainly quite drinkable. If you are interested in reading Matt’s evaluation of Robusta (and you should, since his palate is much more highly attuned than mine), check out his blog. As far as I was concerned, the Uganda robusta lived up to the “mild soft sweet and neutral” description as advertised on the Green Beanery website. I should add that I was drinking the coffee black, which I rarely do. With a bit of milk and sugar, I could imagine it being even more pleasant. In short, my experience of Robusta in this instance was similar to the early European impressions of Arabica, which I have discussed in an earlier entry. These can be summarized as “it tastes a bit funny, but I could get used to it.” In short, it’s like many of the other caffeinated beverages that millions of people around the world drink — Arabica coffee, tea, maté — all of which vary in aroma, taste, and body, and all of which have their devotees. I look forward to trying other Robustas in the future, for a comparison.

Let me be clear; this post is not a criticism of the specialty coffee industry, or of certified coffees, or of Arabica coffee more generally. Nor am I arguing that Robusta coffee is somehow inherently virtuous. In fact, I’m arguing that these pre-emptively moral discourses about Robusta are unhelpful. They become an obstacle to understanding an economically important crop that provides many people across the tropics with a livelihood, and is consumed just as widely as Arabica. Even a cursory look at the world of Robusta coffee shows that its life as a commodity is every bit as complex as that of Arabica coffee. It deserves much more attention than it has received to date.

  1. Donald N. Schoenholt, “Coffea Canephora: The ‘R’ Word,” Tea & Coffee Trade Journal 164.3 (March 1992), 40.  ↩
  2. Brad Weiss. Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests: Globalizing Coffee in Northwest Tanzania. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.  ↩
  3. C.F. Marshall, The World Coffee Trade (1983), 30.  ↩
  4. Our taste test, incidentally, followed the best meal I have had, or will have, in 2012, accompanied by some fabulous wines and excellent company.  ↩