The Quest to Make the Best Worst Cup of Coffee

The Quest to Make the Best Worst Cup of Coffee

My first glass of black, undiluted, pure robusta was a punch in the neck. It was 2,000-proof vodka plus caffeine. I wanted to jump open-mouthed into sweet cream-filled pools. It was not the same as “coffee”, which I had consumed my whole life. I found it difficult to comprehend. But I controlled my expression because Bang Duong, the man who’d grown and roasted and brewed this Thorlike drink, was seated right across from me. It was January 2020, and we were on the second floor of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tractor Coffee, a mecca of reclaimed wood, unfinished steel, and burlap tones that wouldn’t be out of place in Berkeley or Berlin save for one thing: Tractor was one of the only cafes I could find that made seed-to-cup coffee from the world’s least loved variety of bean. It could be the setting for an unlikely culinary revolution.

In the world of elite coffee, promoters of robusta beans–long known as a cheap, low-grade filler crop that goes into instant grounds–are viewed with either condescension or distrust, as though they’re peddling prom corsages made from highway weeds. Indeed, eight years earlier, Duong had been just another farmer in Bao Loc growing the rough stuff–low-grade robusta used in street coffee. He was not as interested in the short-term, like many cash-croppers. He respected robusta and didn’t believe that there was anything inherently bad about its taste. It’s different. He said it was special ,. And then he set himself a goal to “prove robusta can be good.”

“Most robusta in Vietnam is harvested quite green,” Duong told me through a translator. He explained that coffee from unripe beans is not good. However, the price of labor in Vietnam has risen so much, it’s possible for many farmers to only reap one crop. Farmers can avoid theft by harvesting their coffee cherries early.

Duong decided to pick “only the reds”–the ripest cherries. To better manage his drying and process, he built a greenhouse. And he swore off roasting his robusta with rice wine or fish oil or any of the exotic flavorings that street sellers use for micro-branding and to cut their drinks’ astringency. He noticed a noticeable improvement in his taste. Duong followed the example of another Maverick farmer, Toi Nguyen ,, who was able to produce robusta crops that met special-grade standards. Just a few months before I visited the country, he’d had his beans and brew appraised by trained experts at an international coffee conference and received a “cupping score” of 85 (out of 100). It was a new all-time high for robusta.

“A lot of people in the specialty world think robusta is garbage juice,” Will Frith, a specialty-coffee entrepreneur in Ho Chi Minh City, told me. Coffee Review tasters have described the smell and flavor of the beans to “boiling water over an old board,” “salted beef,” or “rotten soil… with a hint sulfur “. But Frith said that because of its fame, the bean was not expensive. Speciality importers weren’t willing to purchase it. “All of the research dollars have gone into arabica,” he said, referring to the other well-known species of bean–the one that is now synonymous with premium coffee.

Frith, who grew up in the U.S. with a Vietnamese mother, spent years in the highest echelons of the coffee priesthood, working as a roaster in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2018 he’s been in Vietnam, as a free-floating, animating force for that country’s domestic specialty-coffee industry. He said that he saw the potential in robusta when he tasted it. “I got excited. The best arabicas remind me of a negroni or vermouth or something on that end, and the best robustas of the smoky scotches.” If the rest of the world is slow to catch on, that has more to do with coffee’s past than its present. He asked, “Where do you place this stuff that has always been perceived as low quality when you want to make the highest-quality one?”

The question is: How do you sell the worst coffee?

A robusta revolution, if it comes, would be a culinary Hail Mary: a way to mitigate the creeping harms of global warming and save the experience of “good coffee” as we know it. But the obstacles it faces, culturally and logistically, are immense.

The two best-known species of coffee beans–Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (robusta)–have developed, over the past 30 years or so, a Manichaean reputation. Kenneth Davids, the editor in chief and “lead cupper” for Coffee Review, summed up the belief system of those he called the “specialty-coffee people” at a coffee conference in El Salvador in October 2013: “Arabicas are godly and right; Robustas are satanic and evil.” Indeed, the specialty-coffee boom of the 1990s–the demand shock that carried Starbucks to global dominance–came in reaction, and revulsion, to instant coffee made from robusta, which had been ubiquitous up until that point. Consumers came to feel that they deserved a better-tasting, less bludgeoning cup.

Davids hinted in his conference presentation that this backlash was itself a bit too strong. Robusta has its own intriguing properties, he said–a universe of tasting notes that had barely been explored. “We will never find out what fine robusta’s potential is,” Davids pleaded, “if we keep it shut up in a conceptual box constructed out of judgments concocted by well-meaning people 40 years ago.” But there was another, far more pressing reason to promote robusta growth, he told his audience: the climate. Even small changes in the air temperature or rainfall can have dramatic effects on arabica’s yield and quality. According to a study published earlier this year in PLOS One, climate change could shrink the regions most suitable for arabica cultivation by more than half within the next three decades. The study shows that rising temperatures could open up new areas for arabica growers, but the market is not even. Many experts believe that by 2050, specialty coffee as we know it could be prohibitively expensive. And even if you are willing to pay $15 for your Kenya Kirinyaga Kamwangi cold brew, there’s reason to expect that it won’t taste as good as it did before.

Davids, along with many other coffee experts, now believes that robusta could be part of the solution. It’s a significantly hardier plant than arabica: It grows at lower elevations, and its coffee cherry’s extra-high caffeine content may enhance the tree’s natural protection against bugs. The robusta is more resilient to temperature changes than the arabica and produces more beans per acre. Given all these benefits and the rate at which global warming is increasing, robusta might be mainstreamed. This could allow us to enjoy a few more decades worth of macchiatos.

That embrace might well begin in Vietnam: the world’s largest coffee producer after Brazil and, more important, the world’s prime source of robusta. For decades, these beans have been reviled, yet robusta has remained deeply ingrained in the local coffee-drinking culture, where people are familiar with its smoky bitterness, its flaws and additives, its double dose of caffeine. Sweetened condensed milk is a Vietnamese custom that masks the astringency of robusta.

If anyone knows how best to reinvent robusta, it would be the coffee farmers, roasters, and brewers who have provided the world with the bulk of it for decades, and whose domestic customers have never stopped enjoying it.

Vietnam has become, in recent years, a hotbed of coffee innovation. When I arrived there, reporting for a glossy travel magazine just before the start of the pandemic, I found a vibrant, artisanal coffee scene: Appointment-only speakeasies served cherry-to-cup Vietnamese arabica; garnering an invitation required following the right Instagram account or catching word of mouth in the basement of an aspiring nano-roaster. At experimental coffee labs, auteur roasters washed their beans with fresh pineapple juice and other local ingredients to create tropical riffs on a centuries-old drink. And–most notable–at storefronts like Bang Duong’s in Ho Chi Minh City, a new generation of brewers were doing everything they could to flip the legacy of robusta coffee.

Newfangled robusta-based coffee brands have popped up elsewhere in the world, but these are pitched less to connoisseurs than to masochists and tweakers–they have names like Black Insomnia and Death Wish, and they offer a one-cup dose of caffeine that exceeds the FDA-suggested maximum daily allowance of 400 milligrams. A mug of Brooklyn-based Biohazard coffee will give you a boost equivalent to about four cups of the conventional stuff. The U.S. has also seen a rise in Vietnamese strong coffee, which is known for its emphasis on taste over speed. This past summer, a 100 percent Vietnamese robusta coffee called Truegrit, made by Nguyen Coffee Supply, hit the shelves of Whole Foods in New York City.

Truegrit is the brainchild of Sahra Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American whose own quest to make robusta a thing had seemed far-fetched when I first met her back in 2019. At the time, Nguyen Coffee Supply was little more than a year old, and its only retail outlet was a four-month pop-up at Cafe Phin, a Vietnamese restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. Fast-forward three years and Nguyen Coffee is being sold or served in more than 60 outlets throughout New York and 11 other states, as well as at a mini-mart in downtown Toronto. Nguyen told me that she’s spent the pandemic years trying to break down the specialty-coffee industry’s resistance to robusta, often with dispiriting results. (“Sadly, we don’t feel the world is ready for Robusta beans just yet,” read one typical rejection.) But she continued to extol improvements in bean-growing-and-processing techniques, and to “frame it as this larger conversation about economic justice and sustainability for growing communities as it relates to what we like to drink.” It helps that Nguyen’s robusta comes in a beautifully designed package with sleek, sans-serif fonts: the unSanka.

Chris Manca, the Whole Foods buyer who made the decision to carry Nguyen’s coffee, told me that he’d been glad to have the chance “to educate people about robusta coffee and to give customers the opportunity to try something they had maybe never fully understood.” But given how specialty coffee has traditionally been marketed–i.e., If it’s not arabica, it’s crap! –Manca will have to do a fair amount of reeducation too. Back in 2013, during his robusta-semiotics talk, Kenneth Davids had pointed out that “No Robusta” was a common boast among specialty-coffee producers, and a signal to consumers that the impurities in their coffee had been carefully culled. When we spoke last month, he was wary of coming off as Pollyannaish about the bean. Nguyen Coffee Supply, which is concerned about sustainability and climate change at an unprecedented level, could be able to find other adopters of robusta. But its flavor limitations are very real, he said, pointing me to a passage from his recent book, 21st Century Coffee: A Guide, where he wrote that robusta will never have as attractive a taste, overall, as arabica. It stated that the famous Kaapi Royale wet-processed Robusta grade from India has an impressive 0% degree of physical imperfections. “Yet even such squeaky clean Robustas are too bitter, with too much grainy nut and not enough chocolate and fruit to make an attractive single-origin beverage.”

Others in the specialty-coffee industry were more blunt. Arno Holschuh from Bellwether Coffee, Berkeley said that robusta is a case of “kind of like Soylent Green”: “It’s almost like Will Frith’s argument that robusta is best when it’s smoky and rich. It can be a bit harsh initially but then you find a lot of complexity and depth. That’s not how 100 percent robusta struck me two years ago when I had a cup in Vietnam. It wasn’t smoky; it was ash. It was not smoky, it was ash. I couldn’t drink it no matter how hard I tried.

I visited Nguyen Coffee Supply at the New York Coffee Festival in October. The company was the only booth that represented robusta coffee, but it made up for this with sheer enthusiasm. There was a Roll With Robusta Skee-Ball experience, a game that simulates augmented reality, which created a new robusta cold brew. Also, there were Powered by Robusta T-shirts available for purchase. It was difficult not to be struck by how obsessed we are with new forms and better varieties of coffee as I walked among festival booths. There were espresso machines promising “precision dosing down to one tenth” of a gram, while others used beaten honey. Coffee has an acquired taste regardless of whether it is made of the most expensive robusta or finest Ethiopian arabica. We spat it out as children, worked hard to like it as teenagers, and now spend our adult lives fetishizing its bouquets. The majority of arabica tastes terrible, too, Kenneth Davids pointed out to me, unless it is coddled, massaged, and blasted with an embarrassing level of human ingenuity. Imagine if this obsession were applied to robusta.

Here in the U.S., we will soon have more opportunities to find out. In Vietnam, there is already a boom in the demand for high-quality robusta. After the pandemic hit, Frith pivoted his roasting business to keep from going bankrupt: He launched his own coffee brand, Building Coffee, and today “fine robusta” accounts for 40 percent of production. Inspired by pioneer robusta farmer-roasters like Toi Nguyen (whose cupping scores now land in the 90s, on par with the fanciest arabica coffees), hundreds of quality-robusta producers have sprung up in Vietnam. Two new coffee shops have opened in Ho Chi Minh City that are exclusively focused on quality robusta. Arabica is relegated as a token commodity like decaf. Tractor Coffee, however, serves fine robusta in all its variations–espresso and Vietnamese-style–along with its Arabicica options.

When I spoke with Duong last week, again via translator, he admitted that the robusta he’d served me back in 2020 wasn’t very good. It turned out that the soil in which he’d been growing his robusta trees was still laden with chemical pesticides from the Instant Era, which he said had permeated the processed coffee cherries, causing “undesirable taste traits.” Duong had spent the past two years waiting for the pesticides to clear before introducing organic fertilizer. This is now common practice among robusta growers, he told me, resulting in “a much cleaner cup and more clarity in the desirable flavor notes.”

Meanwhile, given Americans’ lust for coffee innovation–and appreciation for a comeback–robusta’s rise may continue here as well. Perhaps one day soon, coffee sourced from Vietnam will be branded with its own gourmet bona fides: No Arabica!

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