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.  ↩

“The Moon of its Cup:” Coffee Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Yemen

I have a couple of goals for this blog. As the blog’s name suggests, I’m interested in talking about the multiple cultures of coffee, both production and consumption, past and present. I would also like to use the blog as a way to explore new writing on coffee, be it produced by academics, journalists, or aficionados.

It is easy (particularly for Westerners) to see coffee primarily as a crop that is produced in the global South and consumed in the global North (Europe, North America, Japan). This vision of global coffee production and consumption can obscure the long (and continuing) history of coffee consumption within the global South itself. Histories of coffee written in European languages often begin with a brief chapter on the discovery of coffee, and its consumption in Africa and the Middle East. But once the drink makes its way into Europe and North America, consumers in those places become the centre of the story, and consumers in other parts of the world largely disappear from it. But coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has continued to the present, and in many cases has grown significantly in the past few decades. We can talk more about this in other posts.

One of the challenges for Westerners interested in studying the history of coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is that many of the primary documents on coffee are not written in European languages. For this reason, translations of key primary texts on coffee are particularly welcome and help shed light on the traditions of coffee production and consumption for readers who do not speak the language. One document that has recently appeared in translation is Murtada az-Zabidi’s Epistle on Coffee, translated by Heather Marie Sweetser as part of an MA project in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University. It’s worth reading Sweetser’s introductory text, which makes some of the same points I discuss above.

Az-Zabidi’s document, whose full title is “A Masterpiece of the Fellows of the Age in Explaining the Legality of the Coffee in Yemen,” was published in 1758 (C.E.), as a defence of the legality of coffee according to Islamic law. Sweetser points out that coffee had “a place of uncertain legality under Islam… and had been alternately banned and blessed pending on the tastes of the ruling government” (3). These debates had been particularly vigorous when coffee first appeared in the Islamic world, but as Sweetser points out the date of this document suggests that the debate persisted long into the eighteenth century. For you chocolate fans out there, Christians had similar debates about the legality of chocolate, eloquently described in Sophie and Michael Coes’ True History of Chocolate.

az-Zabidi cites (and refutes) three main objections to coffee:

  1. “That coffee is intoxicating, inciting pleasure,” and therefore prohibited, to which he responds that “its ability to make one drunk is completely invalid,” by discussing in detail what, exactly, constituted drunkenness.
  2. “That coffee is cold and dry, harming the body.” This objection is based on the humoral medicine common in both the Islamic and Christian worlds of the time, which ascribed qualities of heat and coldness, wetness and dryness to foods and medicines. az-Zabidi refutes this while remaining in the humoral tradition, arguing that “coffee is bitter, and everything bitter is hot.” In any case, he continues “Islamic law does not prohibit having permissible things, even if they are harmful to an extent.”
  3. “That coffee is administered in councils like alcohol, and is like it in its being legally prohibited,” to which he responds that “it passing around as alcohol is passed around it not a reason for it to be made legally prohibited. This is because it returns to the intention, which is an affair of the heart.”

az-Zabidi’s epistle contains descriptions of the origins, uses, and properties of coffee. He quotes, among other sources, the Arab physician Dawud (Umar al-Darir al-Antaki), whose essay on coffee notes that “some people drink it with milk, and this is wrong. It may cause leprosy.” So, modern-day latte-lovers, be careful. Like early European documents on coffee, this one has relatively little to say about its taste. It suggests that people in the Middle East consumed coffee with things like sugar, pistachio butter, and ghee. The latter two modes of preparing coffee are certainly not common in the West I’d like to encourage my foodie friends to prepare some coffee this way and see what it tastes like. I may have to conduct this experiment myself at some point.

We get a few glimpses of what coffee’s taste meant when az-Zabidi quotes a poem,

A little coffee of the pot is highly valued, the moon of its cup appeared at dark night as beautiful

Oh what goodness! Like melted jet

It’s red, it captivates minds with the black of its eyes.

Like music in view and in fragrance

Melted aroma surrendered to it, and a magic stick of incense suckled its love like a child.

How lovely is a glass of coffee without bubbles on top.

These passionate words suggest that some early coffee consumers were as taken with the sensory experience of drinking it as they were with any of its medicinal properties.

This is just one glimpse into one particular coffee culture, and a particular moment in time. But it provides a tantalizing taste of the diverse coffee cultures, past and present, that we need to learn much more about.

When did people start to like the taste of coffee?

While most of my work is on the history of coffee cultivation, I’m finding that this is inevitably drawing me into questions of coffee consumption. Two issues that keeps coming up are taste and quality. While a lot of current writing on coffee (especially specialty coffee) treats taste and quality as if they are essentially innate, almost physiological properties, a look to the past suggests that they are much more complicated than that.

Let’s look back to the moment when Europeans first encountered coffee. What interested them about it? What, if anything, did they have to say about coffee’s taste? Given our contemporary obsession with taste and quality, we might assume that early Europeans would do the same. We would be wrong.

One typical seventeenth-century description of coffee, a coffee ad from 1652 has recently been circulating on the blogosphere. This is one of the earliest print ads for coffee in the English language. The text reads:

It supresseth Fumes exceedingly, and therefore good against the Head-ach, and will very much stop any Defluxion of Rheumas, that distil from the Head upon the Stomach, and so prevent and help Consumptions and the Cough of the Lungs.

It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout, and Scurvy.

It is known by experience to be better then any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors upon them, as the Kings Evil. &c.

It is very good to prevent Mis-carryings in Child-bearing Women.

It is a most excellent Remedy against the Spleen, Hypocondriack Winds, or the like.

It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for Busines, if one have occasion to Watch, and therefore you are not to drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours.

This document is at least as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does say. Like many early documents on coffee, speaks extensively about coffee’s medicinal properties, and says nothing about its taste. It reads more like a modern ad for Red Bull than it does for Starbucks or Peets.

Other seventeenth-century writings on coffee also have little to say about taste. Sylvestre Dufour’s The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, (1685) which has an extensive overview of coffee, makes just two brief mentions of taste, quoting other travellers:

For the taste, in drinking thereof once or twice, one may easily accustom oneself to it, and it will no longer seem unpleasant; there be some that mix therewith Cloves and a few grains of Cardamome… others put thereto sugar, but this mixture which makes it more pleasant renders it less wholesome and profitable…

In short, coffee tastes unpleasant, but you can get used to it if you drink it often and if you mix it with other things. Another of the travellers Dufour quoted concurred:

Though this liquor (coffee) has not an agreeable taste, but rather bitter, yet it is much esteemed of by those people for the good effects they find therein.

Again, it doesn’t taste good, but it makes you feel good.

Another 1674, the classic Women’s Petition Against Coffee had much to say about coffee and sex, but little to say about taste. What it did say was not complimentary, describing coffee as “base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous Puddle-Watter.” This satirical political pamphlet is a political tract rather than a dispassionate food critique, but even so the pamphleteers referred to coffee as “bitter,” echoing the traveller’s opinions quoted by Dufour.

Taste, it would seem, ranked fairly low on the list of reasons Europeans became addicted to coffee. In fact, if these and other documents are to be believed, they seem to have become addicted to coffee almost in spite of its taste. They were more attracted by coffee’s many purported health benefits – medical, sexual, and otherwise. They were also attracted by the social space offered by the coffeehouse – a new institution imported along with the drink. Over the coming years and decades, Europeans did – both individually and collectively – develop a taste for coffee. But this taste was learned, not innate.