Not all coffee beans are created equal. In fact, it's almost a class system.
On one side of the divide are Arabica beans, which are born into the privileged position of being considered worthy of the industry's investment. On the other are Robusta beans, which are so dogged by deep, long-standing prejudice that never before has anybody dared to suggest they could contribute anything of value to decent society.
Black Sheep, a young, London-based company, are to the specialist coffee industry what punk was to progressive rock in the 70s—a reaction to over-complexity and elitism. "We had no idea whether or not this was going to hit the sweet spot in the market," admits one of the founders, Max Dubiel, "but at the London Coffee Festival we looked around and realised that everyone was doing essentially the same thing—light-roast Arabicas from the same suppliers, all roasting on their own premises, with the same machines, on a small, perfectionist scale and all reaching the same end product."
Ultimately, though, no coffee drinkers outside of the specialist industry (i.e. a hell of a lot of people) really give a shit about any of this. They care about reliable taste and a reliable caffeine hit (and, to some extent, reliable ethical sourcing), which is exactly what Black Sheep have plugged into.
The idea was born when, with barely more than a consumer-level interest in coffee, four postgrads ditched inner-city finance and began analysing exactly what it is about coffee that people really care about. This, and a lack of institutionalised disdain for it, meant that they were able to see Robusta for what it really is—a hardy bean that ticks an extensive list of boxes, including containing twice the caffeine of Arabica, being far cheaper and easier to grow, being significantly more forgiving to work with, and much more closely matching what Dubiel calls "the mainstream palate".
He's not wrong. Black Sheep's Robusta Revival tastes like a royal version of commercial filter coffee, and has a velvety, nutty, earthy, bitter-chocolate aftertaste. Unlike with complex Arabicas, or even fine wines, there's little subtle about the flavour, which is punchy as hell and yet far from harsh or unpleasant.
Robusta's properties—twice the caffeine, over double the protein (which makes for an incredibly dark, rich espresso with a thick, golden crema), and significantly lower acidity than Arabica—have attracted interest not only from consumers and commercial buyers but also from athletes, many of whom consume acidic coffee for the caffeine while striving to keep their bodies alkaline.
Such is the industry's disdain for even high-grade Robusta (a term that would be considered an oxymoron by many) that despite it being an absolute no-brainer in many ways, Black Sheep—who are quickly becoming known over the city for their smoother-than-silk coconut oil bulletproof coffee—are the first company so committed to producing it. It seems astonishing that the product has never been pursued by companies like Starbucks, but Dubiel says that it is largely down to press—no company wants to look like they're selling a cheaper, lower-quality product. According to him, Black Sheep are small enough to make changing that perception credible.
"The majority of the market has a common-sense approach to coffee," he says. "It's treated as utilitarian and enjoyable. Then you have the experts within the specialty scene, who live in their own little universe, and there's a big disjoint between the two. At the beginning we were very intimidated by the whole thing, but slowly we realised that, hey, our end product is lovely and people—even some from the speciality scene, now—are enjoying it and actually, we might be on to something."
In terms of sustainability, Robusta is an appropriately robust species, and, unlike the highly-seasonal Arabica, which much be grown at high altitudes, is far easier to produce year-round. Despite the workings of the Robusta industry often being very suspect, direct trade with their independent grower in India allows Black Sheep to "cut out the middle man" and both run their own quality control on the farm and pay a very high rate—much higher, Dubiel says, than Fairtrade—for a highly nurtured product.
In terms of growers, Dubiel says the movement had already begun. "This change has to happen sooner or later," he says, "because of global warming and increasing global demand. Quality coffee supply will have to start increasing, and it can't continue to just be done with fine Arabicas. For that reason, this is a really important movement, and I do hope that we may be inspiring some people to rethink their attitudes."
Whether or not Black Sheep are pioneering something huge remains to be seen, but their "leave the herd behind" branding is spot on. Within the coffee industry, this is about as revolutionary as it gets.