by Paul Katzeff, Co-founder of Thanksgiving Coffee
Back in 1980 I read in the coffee literature that a certain coffee variety known as Robusta had three times the Caffeine as Arabica varieties. Of course, I set my mind to thinking about putting them inside the chocolate covered coffee beans we were selling to people who preferred soda pop and candy to stay awake rather then drinking a cup of coffee. Students and Truckers were mostly the consumers who were buying them at the time. High caffeine was not my personal need and I was getting up there in age, ( in 1980 I was 42 ) and too much caffeine kept me up all night. But that was me. What about “them?”
I researched the issue of caffeine content in various varieties of the coffee plant. I discovered the high grown Arabica Variety had about 1 % caffeine by weight, and the low grown Robusta variety had about 3 %.. Hmm. I had an idea. A natural high caffeine coffee. There was nothing like that on the market other then “No Doze”, a high caffeine white little pill you could purchase over the counter for about $41,500 per pound. Granted, you got seven million little pills for the money invested, but in the short run, a high caffeine coffee that was naturally created by G_d, and tasted like coffee seemed a better choice.
At the time, the rap on Robusta was that it had a bad flavor profile. In 1980, I had been roasting coffee for 11 years, since 1969, and had never tasted a cup of Robusta. It lived up to its reputation: Leathery, woody, baggy, tobacco notes, and if you were lucky, some dark chocolate. But if you accepted the fact that it was like comparing Navel Oranges with Indian River Oranges (they are used for different purposes which evolved because of their different taste profiles), then you can start thinking about Robusta Coffees in a different way. And that is what I began to do.
I began by roasting Robusta dark, so that the flavor was primarily the roast color. A deep, rich, smoky and carbony flavor. I called our graphics guy, Chris Blum, and together we mapped out the idea for the label. I wanted it to be orange because I thought that was a “caution” color, like Cal Trans vests. Chris named it Pony Express and created the simple image that has stood the test of time for 33 years. During that time, Espresso entered the American consciousness and discussions turned to the use of Robusta in Espresso blends. Recently, a movement to include Robustas in the discussion of Specialty Coffee has created some real live polarization in the Trade. However, the quality of Robusta coffee has improved in giant steps since 1980.
Today, March 13, 2013, I tasted a Laos Robusta that was sent to me by the good people at Snake Bomb Coffee Company in Orlando, Florida. They sell coffee to raise funds for Land mine elimination and snake bite prevention in Laos. The coffee was roasted almost to a Vienna Roast. It was clean, the coffee flavors were balanced between cedar and oak. There was little acidity and no sweetness. This allowed a good amount of dark chocolate flavor to emerge. Ten percent added to our Upsetter Espresso Blend made a nice new espresso blend that was nothing like what we now offer.
Our Pony Express today is made from much higher quality beans than the ones we started with 33 years ago. With this increase in quality – perhaps it is time to begin roasting them a little lighter. Just remember to judge their taste differently than you would Arabica coffees. Look for the chocolate notes and do add cream and sugar if you choose – this coffee can stand up to adulteration better then any Arabica!