Redefined prospects for Robusta

For decades now, consumers and coffee professionals, have been educated by the specialty coffee industry that 100 percent Arabica is a mark of quality. Which has left Robusta to be thought of as low quality and undesirable, stagnating its growth and innovation. Now this is all changing, and gradually industry eyes are being opened to the opportunities of, what the Wall Street Journal called, ‘the underdog bean’. By Kathryn Brand

“We don’t talk about any other agricultural products in this framework of superior and inferior. We don’t say red wine is inferior, white wine is superior,” said Sahra Nguyen, founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply, advocates of Robusta since its founding. “A really easy way to completely deconstruct this false framework of the Arabica-Robusta dichotomy is to apply all the ways that we evaluate and appreciate the differentiated qualities of the wine industry to the framework of coffee. We’d be in a completely different space.”

Robusta is the common name for the species Coffea canephora, and, in the history of coffee, Arabica predates Robusta, with the latter not being introduced to the coffee market until 1900, according to the Special Coffee Association’s (SCA) chief research officer, Peter Giuliano. “Robusta was positioned as a way to produce coffee cheaply in places where Arabica couldn’t thrive – and became associated in the coffee market with cheapness,” explained Giuliano.

In short, Robusta is easier than Arabica to grow, as, informed Spencer Turer, vice president of Coffee Enterprises, it requires lower altitudes (0-600m compared to Arabica’s 600-1,200m), and, in part due to its higher caffeine content (2.2-2.7 percent to Arabica’s 1.2-1.5 percent), it is more resistant to pests and diseases; it grows ‘robustly.’ What’s more, when it comes to harvesting, the Robusta coffee cherries ripen all at the same time, compared with Arabica which ripen at different times on different branches. This means that Robusta requires less labour to harvest as it can be done all at once, rather than the often-repeated visits required for Arabica. This, combined with its generally higher yields, has positioned the Robusta species as an efficient and cheap to produce coffee crop.

“Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, some companies began blending large amounts of cheaply produced, low quality Robusta to make their coffees cheaper. In some ways, the specialty coffee revolution was a reaction to this ‘race to the bottom’, and the canephora species was easy to blame,” added Giuliano.

An overdue uplift

When the specialty coffee industry evolved, therefore, in the late 1980s and 1990s, since Robusta had only been produced cheaply to meet volume and nothing else, the quality of it was not comparable to that of Arabica and it has been considered antithetical to specialty ever since. As a result, as Gloria Pedroza, head of quality, NKG Quality Services Switzerland, explained, “The industry is more familiar with this species [Arabica], it has invested in research and has experimented with processing methods, meaning that Arabica is a few decades ahead in terms of development and marketing compared to other species.”

Image: ICO Production Statistics

Consequently, there has been a chronic lack of investment and research into optimising Robusta production. There were no systems or infrastructure in place to allow producers to differentiate their Robusta, and there was no incentive for them to try. Nguyen noted, “I know a lot of very passionate Robusta producers; they want to improve their crop, they want to improve their land, they want to improve their wages. But the market is so fixated on this stigma, that it won’t pay a higher rate because they don’t believe Robusta can be quality.” She noted that “there’s been an entire community in the coffee world that that has been told you don’t deserve investment. You don’t deserve care. You don’t deserve to improve or advance your livelihoods, and that’s what we are ultimately trying to lift when we talk about Robusta.”

There are markets, meanwhile, Hanna Neuschwander, communications & strategy director at World Coffee Research (WCR) argued, where Robusta has always been highly accepted by consumers, such as in Italy where it has been used in espresso blends for decades, and in certain African markets it is prized for its flavour over Arabica. Further, with Robusta now making up 40 percent of global coffee production, a rise from 25 percent since the early 1990s, it is not an unfamiliar flavour profile for consumers, with it pervading across the coffee industry and its numerous brands and products for many decades.

Yet it wasn’t until 2010 that the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) launched its Robusta Q programme, to complement its existing Arabica Q programme, followed by the debut of the CQI Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols in 2015. This gave the coffee industry the framework it needed to differentiate Robusta in terms of quality and offer it something to build on and parameters to innovate within.

Nguyen Coffee Supply, founded by Sahra Nguyen in 2018, championed Robusta from the offset, and has been “extremely loud and proud” about it ever since. Its 100 percent Robusta products have been clearly labelled as such from the start, vehemently dismissing the industry norm to hide a coffee product’s Robusta content. Nguyen explained that, despite her company being both an importer and a roaster, it largely operates in the consumer space; “In the B2B space, the stigma [against Robusta] was just too strong, where I couldn’t really break through.” Whereas in the consumer market, the stigma against Robusta is minimal to non-existent.

Nguyen continued, “Consumers are generally unaware of this negative perception, and they really don’t care. […] They just want what they want right?” Nguyen Coffee Supply has invested a lot of its resources in the marketing, education, and storytelling side of its brand, to “shift consumer perceptions that would then create a ripple effect into the industry,” she said, and they have since seen the movement grow, with more and more brands beginning to champion Robusta.

Sahra Nguyen, Nguyen Coffee Supply founder, holding limited edition anaerobic Robusta beans. Image: Nguyen Coffee Supply

Nguyen Coffee Supply has built on this ethos with its Robusta Pledge, which encourages other producers, importers, roasters, cafés, businesses, and coffee enthusiasts to sign a commitment to advance opportunities for Robusta farming communities and for a transparent and fair Robusta market.

Sustaining the future of coffee

While Nguyen Coffee Supply recognises the importance of the Robusta bean and the immense value it holds for the coffee industry, gradually this mentality is spreading. In March 2023, WCR launched its Robusta Variety Catalogue, alongside other Robusta resources such as a Grafting Manual and Nursery Videos. It is becoming increasingly evident that the future of coffee production as we know it is at considerable risk, largely in part due to climate change and the impact this is having on the temperatures and conditions in coffee growing regions. WCR operates a breeding programme for coffee varieties to not just optimise taste, but to encourage climate resistance and better adaptability or suitability to particular conditions. This year, WCR is planning to launch a global Robusta specific breeding network, which will produce hundreds of new Robusta crosses. It is thought that Robusta will be a crucial tool in safeguarding coffee production for future generations.

As already discussed, Robusta has proven to be more pest and disease resistant to Arabica, this, as Pedroza explained, combined with the higher planting density and leafier shrubs creating shade under the plants, helping the soil to maintain moisture, discourages the growth of weeds around the plant which means that less herbicides and pesticides are necessary. These more organic practices encourage long term soil health, further contributing to yield, and protecting the local and wider ecosystem of the area.

With 50 percent of land for Arabica production projected to be no longer suitable by 2050, as forecast by WCR, among others, preparations must be made. “It is difficult to see how the industry can avoid using a greater proportion of Robusta beans in the future given the realities of climate change,” noted Matthew Barry, insight manager of food & beverages at Euromonitor International. Arabica is already struggling to keep up with global demand. Neuschwander emphasised that “Robusta has already saved the coffee sector. If Robusta had not arisen over the last few decades to its current position (40 percent of total production), many – perhaps millions – of coffee farmers would be out of work and entire segments of the coffee market would not exist. Without Robusta, we would not have been able to keep pace with growing global demand over the last three decades.”

However, Robusta is not immune to the climate emergency; WCR predicts that with consumption and climate trends as they are, the world could be facing a Robusta shortage of up to 35 million bags by 2040. As the years progress, Neuschwander concluded, “We need every tool we can get to respond to climate change – farmers will have to ‘run faster just to stand still’.”

Opportunities for innovation

Robusta has quite quickly and assuredly established itself on the specialty coffee scene, with Nguyen affirming that roasters are now frequently asking the company for fine Robusta, or single origin Robusta. Giuliano concurred that the request for Robusta has been the SCA’s most asked question of 2023, and Turer that Robusta is offering roasters a unique selling proposition for them to differentiate themselves.

Image: Nguyen Coffee Supply

“Increasing interest in Robusta signifies a coffee market that is creative, innovative, and open to new ideas. The success of Robusta is part of an increasingly diverse coffee market which is more likely to thrive in the long term,” enthused Giuliano.

And we are only just starting to scratch the surface of Robusta processing methods, believes Nguyen, with Nguyen Coffee Supply recently having released an anaerobic Robusta. Pedroza added that if Robusta is treated [during processing] the same way as Arabica, excellent results are possible. She explained that for decades the washed processing method was considered the best for high quality coffee, yet now, “New processing techniques like extended fermentation periods, anaerobic fermentation, just to mention some, have also had a great impact on the cup, proving that Robusta has a huge quality potential and the industry is in the process of discovering it.”

The opportunities the evolution of Robusta presents for the industry for both innovation and sustainability justify its dizzying rise to the realm of specialty coffee. “Coffee is economically important – and beloved – around the world, yet it faces a [USD] $452 million/year investment gap. Filling that innovation gap is how we ensure a future with quality coffee from climate resilient trees, whether that coffee is Arabica, Robusta, or any other species,” explained Dr Jennifer “Vern” Long, CEO, WCR.

Nguyen also noted that, as a result, she thinks we are headed towards more global collaboration as a coffee industry, “for uplifting Robusta, and also just expanding the coffee experience to make it better for everyone.”

So, although, as Neuschwander articulated, “Robusta is not a silver bullet for climate change or sustainability efforts in coffee,” it is an exciting time for the coffee industry, as it begins what many believe to be a long overdue embrace of “the underdog bean.”

  • Kathryn Brand is an associate editor on T&CTJ, while still writing for several of Bell’s other magazines. She joined Bell Publishing at the beginning of 2022 after graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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