On my way to my mom’s house one Christmas, I stopped by Maravonda coffee shop in Minneapolis for a much-needed fortifying espresso. Jim O’Hura, roaster and owner, was working the shop, and we chatted awhile. On my way out, he passed me a bag of Thai robusta. “Tell me what you think,” he said.
There are a few species of coffee, but most often you’ll hear people talking about Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta (Coffea canephora). Arabica beans are what you’ll almost always find in specialty coffee shops, as their flavor is more refined and delicate. They are correspondingly difficult to grow, being sensitive to light, pests, and elevation. Robusta coffees, a hardier plant, are by far more widespread and are the primary component of your typical grocery store canned brands. Robustas taste harsh and rubbery, and have about twice the caffeine that arabicas do. In the world of specialty coffee, at least in the US, to even utter the “R” word is anathema.
Yet they have their uses. Italian roasters are known for including a small percentage of robustas in their espresso, perhaps 10%, to round out the flavor and to add body & mouthfeel that you just cannot get from arabicas alone. Maravonda espresso had a lingering roundness to the mouthfeel that I had tried unsuccessfully to duplicate or even approach in my own arabica-only blends. Someone once told me that Jim had been trained by an Italian roaster, so I had long suspected that he used robustas in his top-secret blend. His pushing a bag of it across the counter confirmed that suspicion for me. Then again, being a coffee roaster affords the opportunity to taste a wide variety of coffees just because you can, so there’s no saying that’s not why he had it on hand.
So what did it taste like? It was wild, harsh, a bit vegetal. Sure enough, it had the characteristic robusta fullness, but without the richness to fill it out that you’ll find in arabicas. The flavor just stopped dead at a certain point instead of fading out. It was like there was a hole dead center in the flavor profile, like a doughnut. Not a pleasant coffee to drink on its own, but it would add character to a blend. Say, an espresso.
All of which means nothing to you. How would I describe the flavor? My friend Adam put it best: “You know when you walk into a room where a lot of pot has just been smoked? You know that smell? That is what this coffee tastes like.”
Thus bringing it full circle for those of you who thought I meant something else entirely by “a bag of Thai robusta.”
30 Jan 2005 Sam comments off