Columbia, South America is a prime producer of coffee beans for coffee brews and is credited with “inventing” the coffee bean snobbery that has led to the milder coffee bean, arabica, being fundamentally favored in Columbia.
From the time the country began producing their beans, they settled on the milder, more expensive arabica bean as the choice for growing on their coffee plantations. And, consequently, they refused to produce robusta, the variety most often found in instant coffee and blends of coffee. Robusta is said to taste like tires – so now you know why instant coffee is less than satisfying. Arabica beans make up 65% of the world’s coffee bean production, according to a recent article in the WSJ. However, global demand for less expensive beans is becoming pronounced, particularly in Asia. Thus, Guatemala and Nicaragua are working hard to expand their robusta plantations. And Costa Rica lifted a 30-year ban on growing the bean in February of this year. Even some “pioneers” in Columbia are breaking with tradition and planting the trees on their plantations. And coffee connoisseurs are beginning to proclaim the bean satisfactory “if produced in the right conditions.” Nestle SA buys about 5% of Columbia’s coffee bean production and has recently revealed that “the big roasters want more and more of robusta.” Consequently, Nestle has shipped in 3,000 robusta seedlings from their farms in France and Mexico. The seedlings are currently in a protected growing environment that requires visitors to the facility to go through sanitary processes designed to prevent the introduction of insects and microbes to the young plants. The person in charge of the robusta growing operation caresses the plants, having marked each sprout with a tag and number. Sounds like Nestle is serious about beginning the robusta production in Columbia. The bean has recently been selling for an average of 87 cents a pound as compared to the $1.39 per pound for the Columbian arabica. Coffee bean sales in Asia, where robusta is favored, are expected to rise 3.1 percent this year, compared to a 0.5% percent increase in Europe and a 2.6% increase in North America. Coffee bean farmers in South America proclaim that robusta is actually more “robust” than arabica – better able to fend off diseases, is easier to grow and produces better yields. A coffee importer in Portland, Oregon has said that robusta doesn’t actually have to taste like tar – “it’s just that coffee growers haven’t had the financial incentives to put the same amount of care into the bean’s production, as they have been accustomed to doing with arabica. ” He indicates that good robusta beans produce a creamy and intense brew – which makes them useful for espressos. And, in a humorous quip, he states, “If robusta and arabica walked into a bar, arabica would blend in but robusta would be bigger, louder, funny and charismatic – getting a lot of attention.” Columbia has eschewed the production of the robusta bean over the years, fearing that its production would damage the country’s carefully crafted reputation for fine coffee beans. It sounds like those brew battles are in the process of heating up.