Here’s the hypothesis: Robusta isn’t inherently crap. If grown and processed with the same level of care and attention typical of speciality coffees, you can arrive at a superior robusta, one that could be drank on its own, without revulsion. I know that in some quarters, Kenneth Davids of CoffeeReview.com has lost credibility in recent times, awarding high scores to espresso pods and favouring stale Italian espresso blends over high end US ones. Nonetheless, when he awarded a score of 94 to India Sitara, a single origin Robusta espresso from Paradise Roasters, I took notice. Even if you discount the hyperbole in the review, and don’t expect the fruit and flowers, even if you accuse him of exaggerating, I wondered could you still be left with a palatable Robusta? Paradise Roasters no longer offer the India Sitara, but it has been replaced by another coffee from the same estate, Indian CxR. The name CxR denotes a hybrid species, a cross between Congo coffee (Coffea congensis) and Robusta cofee (Coffea canephora), and again is offered as a single origin espresso (this time, however, scoring a measly 90 on CR).
I took the plunge, ordering the CxR along with another espresso blend, the HomeBarista.com 2009 MVP Blend (this has its own backstory), and an Ethiopian natural – Awassa Special Prep. They arrived to me, in Ireland, 6 days post-roast, which is pretty good (especially as I took advantage of a free shipping offer which has subsequently been limited to domestic orders).
Curiosity won, so the CxR went straight into the hopper. The grind that emerged was kind of sandy, in both colour and granularity. There was much less clumping than I’d normally find with this grinder, and the grinds settled evenly and densely in the portafilter. I had to set the grind somewhat finer than typical espresso blends I use, but not extraordinarily so. The smell of the dry grinds was slightly offensive, having something ashtray / onion / celery / vegetal in there. The first shot that emerged looking drinkable looked incredible in the cup. The crema was reminiscent of the stuff I’d seen in Caffe Sant Eustachio in Rome (is that the “secret”? 100% Robusta?), like stiff peak beaten egg whites. The initial pour receded quickly from 1.5oz to a scant 1oz.
Then came the taste. It wasn’t bad, enormous body unsurprisingly, but there was also some chocolate in there, a sweetness, some resinous woody notes, and a growing but acceptable, lingering bitterness. I wasn’t in love, but it was certainly far nicer than my only prior experience of a shot of 100% robusta, and it was also nicer than some pretty average espresso blends I’d had. In milk it wasn’t as nice, still drinkable, but I think the pleasing impact of the body in the espresso, and also some of the pleasant flavours, kind of diminished. The reisnous, woody flavour shone through, but it’s not a taste I like in milk. Also worth noting was that pouring latte art into this crema gave peculiar results (see the rudimentary video for an example). The crema seems to have pockets of varying densities around which the milk distorts.
*Having some issues with Vimeo at the moment, so this is temporarily hosted elsewhere* Resolved
The HomeBarista.com MVP Espresso 2009 is the product of a competition held on that very fine forum (details here). The winner (sweaner) got to collaborate with Paradise Roasters to create a blend profile, which would go through a few iterations before a final one was picked. In keeping with the brew suggestions, I held off tasting the HB MVP blend till day 7 post-roast.
First impressions with the MVP, (pulled a bit tight): sticky, upfront sweet, fading into a pronounced bitterness, roasty notes, earthy, a little muddy, fruit very much in the background, little acidity. The beans looked maybe a hair darker than the Robusta, and there were also some ugly beans in there. Loosening the grind a little, the acidity emerged, I still wouldn’t call it bright, but it brought some balance to the cup, it became somewhat jammier, though still for me, a little dirty / dusty. I suspected the Sumatran was making it’s presence felt, pushing leather / tobacco type flavours to the fore, or perhaps the Ethiopians weren’t the cleanest. It was these flavours, along with a little milk choc, and toasted nut that seemed to carry through in milk. I wouldn’t say it was great in milk, but it was reasonably pleasant.
On to the Awassa. A similar, perhaps slightly lighter roast to the espresso blends, like the MVP there were a few ugly beans in here too, though not as many. It strikes me as odd that the Robusta seems to have been the one with the highest level of quality control / sorting. Dry grinds didn’t smell of much. As soon as they were wetted though, a huge rush of sweet fruit, peach, strawberry burst out, as well as something a bit oaty too. In the cup those flavours carried through, the sweetness was somewhat abated by a bitter choc, and a winey, slightly wild element. Lots of yellow fruit though, peaches, apricots, heading in the direction of perfumed. Not quite as good as some of the Aricha / Beloya / Wellega lots of the last year, but it’s in that ball-park.
How to wrap this up then? The robusta was as good as I could have realistically hoped, it was drinkable. Perhaps it’s a bit of a novelty, a bit of a gimmick. I probably wouldn’t rush to have a regular supply of it, but I can see a point in using a robusta like this as a blend component for espresso (as opposed to the typical burnt rubber stinky robusta). The MVP blend disappointed a little, though I still think it was a fun project, and hope it continues to evolve. The Awassa, I’d have no hesitations in drinking again. Of course, I am a sucker for fruity Ethiopian Naturals, so that was always a likely outcome.
Over and out.