A bit of US Coffee Championships history was made at the Qualifying Event in Baltimore back at the end of January. A competitor, Maya Crowley—the owner of Uncommon Coffee Co in Essex, Vermont, participating on behalf of Nguyen Coffee Supply—used a robusta coffee in her Barista Championship routine. And more than just using it, the robusta-centered routine earned Crowley an 11th place finish and a spot at the US Barista Championship, which, at far as we know, will be the first time a robusta will be the sole coffee for a USBC routine.
That coffee, an anaerobic fermented robusta from Vietnam, is now available for purchase for a limited time from Nguyen Coffee Supply, and it is very, very good.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but C. Canephora, better known as robusta, has the potential to make a decidedly tasty cup. Historically low-grade and used primarily in cheap coffee or a caffeine-infusing blend component, a concerted effort has been made in recent years by folks like Nguyen Coffee Supply’s Sahra Nguyen and Building Coffee’s Will Frith to show that, when given a similar level of care as high-end Arabica, robusta has the capacity to stand on its own and be enjoyed by even the most discerning palate. This limited release from Nguyen Coffee Supply is a proof of concept.
Scoring an 85.25, the anaerobic fermented, natural processed robusta grown in the Krông Năng district of the Đắk Lắk province of Vietnam’s Central Highlands has flavors of candied orange peel, passionfruit, and clove. The anaerobic process is a novel fermentation method in specialty coffee, and it is generally reserved for Arabica, often on experimental coffees and rare varieties. But with this coffee, it is used to show the full range of flavor possible in specialty-grade robusta. And it made for the perfect centerpiece around which Crowley could build the theme of her routine.
“What lead me to want to use robusta in competition was trying to source a good quality fine robusta for my own cafe. I had a lot of conversations with importers where I asked about fine robusta and the responses I got were largely people telling me I could buy a cheap, low-quality product if I wanted to lower the cost of my blends,” Crowley tells Sprudge. “After deciding I wanted to use a robusta, I thought about how to make robusta more approachable to coffee professionals who work in the US. I think most coffee pros have a strong sensory memory of the first arabica coffee they tasted that challenged what they believed coffee could taste like. I wanted to create the same memory for the judges within the context of robusta.”
I got a chance to taste this coffee ahead of its wider release, and it was a surprisingly sweet, balanced cup, avoiding some of the overripe fruit notes that can come with the anaerobic fermentation. It was not simply “good for a robusta,” it was good full stop. It’s honestly one of the best anaerobic coffee I’ve ever had. Though perhaps next time I won’t replace Arabica with robusta in equal measure. When I tell you I was flying high as a kite after consuming my 850g morning Chemex. I was in the spirit realm.
For Crowley, it was important not just to use this coffee in competition not just to prove to judges and competitors that robusta has a place in the specialty coffee world, but to those onlookers in the trading and importing business as well. “Because the audience for these competitions is so narrow…and I believed that a lot of decision makers and people with resources needed to see that there is a demand for higher quality robustas that are available for roasters to purchase and that the people who decide which coffees to import and seek out would be in the audience.”
The next stop for Crowley is at the US Barista Championship in Portland later this year in April. And the anaerobic robusta is coming with her. “100% we are using the same coffee for Nationals.” But in the meantime, for those looking to get a little taste of history for themselves, the coffee is available for purchase via the Nguyen Coffee Supply website for $28 per 12oz bag, a rather accessible price point for an experimental competition coffee. It’s a limited release, and once it’s gone it’s gone for good, so act now if you want to give it a try. Just maybe take it slow, lest you are looking to dissociate from your physical form during your drive to work.