Coffee Conversation with Stanley Chien
Soon enough, Robusta may no longer be the dark and bitter breakfast coffee we have come to know. With the climate change radically impacting coffee-growing regions, coffee experts have turned to the robust Fine Robusta beans to meet the ever growing consumption in this specialty market. We’re chatting with Stanley Chien, multi-year Taiwan Barista Champion, about Fine Robusta, from farming to brewing.
With most of the world’s attention still on specialty Arabica or rare varieties, what motivates you to experiment with Robusta?
The climate change in recent years is very huge, and the environment for the growth of animals and plants has been affected. The coffee I love is also affected. Many of the high-altitude grown Arabica coffee is much reduced in the yields, and some people even start to have problems with pests and diseases.
Looking for a coffee variety of high-resistance has become the subject of the entire industry chain. Many agronomists have begun to study Arabica and the CQI R- certified specialty Robusta, and the results have greatly subverted my impression of Robusta coffee. There is a lot less of flavor like leather or rubber. When such negative tastes are reduced, Robusta has more floral and malty sweetness.
After tasting it, there is a thought coming to my mind. This is the kind of coffee the consumers would like to enjoy– strong floral malty sweetness, less acid that many consumers do not love, and strong body that is very suitable for milk coffee.
Since then, I was looking at other Robusta production areas. While visiting the Robusta production areas, I tried to convey the value of Robusta coffee to these farmers and producers through my own experience. I want them to know the value of the coffee they produce; making them more motivated through the sales, so they are willing to produce refined Robusta coffee. As long as it is pushing the industry towards a right direction and introducing good things to the consumers, I am more than happy to do it.
How does Fine Robusta differ from Specialty Arabica? Do you think there’s a good international market for Fine Robusta?
New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) already had the prices of Robusta coffee, but this is for the commercial grade and the future’s market. What I want to do is specialty grade coffee, which can show the unique origin flavors and characteristics.
Each region has the varieties suitable for farming, that is, the varieties that are most conducive to the growth and production yet balancing between quality and yield. Robusta coffee has less geographical limitations, so it is more suitable for farming in different areas. If it is processed with a more refined method, the character of the origin flavors will be revealed.
In the international market, specialty coffee has been dominated by Arabica. If Robusta can be processed delicately, coffee drinkers will be able to taste the kind of coffee different from the fruity Arabica so that they know coffee has many different faces and unlimited possibilities.
There’s a lot of centuries-old conventions for Robusta farming that farmers still practice, while processing fine Robusta is a whole new world. Where do they really differ? What are the main Robusta bean flavours notes processors can develop?
I think the first condition of good Robusta is that it must be clean. Only in the clean and clear state that is possible to show the intricate flavors. But to make it clean, it involves every procedure including farming, harvesting, processing, roasting and brewing.
In terms of farming, it needs to reduce pests and diseases so that the coffee trees grow stronger with more nutrition and the coffee cherries will be sweeter; in terms of harvesting, workers should be well trained to pick cherries of the right ripeness as possible to reduce the influence of over-ripened and unripe on the flavor; in terms of processing, it should avoid the negative flavors caused by over-fermentation during the fermenting process; in terms of roasting, it should avoid over-roasting as possible so that Robusta does not produce the bitter taste; in terms of brewing, it requires special attention- not necessary to brew it too strong as we try to get rid of the general
impression of bitterness.
Robusta cherries have way more flesh. During the fermenting process, the flesh can also play some effects, so I would try to bring out the different flavors through the fermentation of the flesh. For example, we can make different levels of honey-process or even natural process under shades. Try to utilize the characteristics of the fruit to
create unique flavors.
Do you roast Robusta very differently to Arabica?
Robusta is very different from Arabica in their characters. In early days, everyone roasted Robusta quite dark in order to present a richer and bitter taste. From my experiences, if we roast the Robusta lighter it brings out more floral fragrance as well as different levels of malty and grainy aroma, and the sweetness will become more obvious.
Robusta’s density is also different from Arabica, so most people use high heat when roasting Robusta. This may well be the cause of the burnt taste. I think that through a more scientific way by using instruments to well control the density and moist content of the coffee will make the roasting more logical and understandable.
Is farming and processing Fine Robusta very different than Arabica?
I don’t think that Robusta and Arabica are much different in farming nor processing. Compared to Arabica that can only be planted at high altitude areas, Robusta has got more flexibility in its growing areas. I believe that the taste will be better when the Robusta is farmed in the same way as the Arabica variety.
What’s the common misconceptions on Robusta beans?
Robusta coffee indeed is not as elegant as the Arabica in the flavors which is of more sophisticated fruitiness. However the pleasant Robusta has a very fresh floral and malty sweetness. Generally most people will roast Robusta very dark to increase the bitterness and body of the coffee. Therefore, it is convinced that Robusta is bitter, strong and unpleasant. We forgot that if the Arabica were roasted to the same level, the same strong bitterness would appear as well. Therefore I think that the processing of coffee is the key influence on the flavors, not so much of the variety.
What’s your thoughts about Robusta in Indonesia versus the rest of the world? What sort of challenges do you think Indonesian farmers have to grow or process fine Robusta?
We often hear that Indonesia is the country of “Thousand Islands”. I felt excited when I hear such a title, because each island has its own terroir micro-climate. Under such conditions, the coffee of Indonesia will have so many different characteristics. With refined processing methods, they will create a micro-lot of its own on each island. In the world of coffee tasting, they can fully express the terroir of the growing areas to the tasters to understand Indonesia deeper through the coffee in their hands. However, for the commercial coffee market, this means the coffee has many unstable factors.
Photo from Nantou County Government