- Robusta comprises around 40% of global coffee production
- Specialty coffee roasters have traditionally turned their noses up
- High arabica prices & soaring inflation have triggered a renewed interest in the species
AN EMAIL came through early last month from a well-known specialty roaster based in the UK.
“Welcome to the new era,” it read. “It’s with pride and excitement that we prepare to showcase a coffee which offers more evidence for the role of robusta in the future of the specialty coffee industry.”
A short time before that, another popular coffee roaster had sent an promotional email with a similar line. “Bringing together the unique qualities of both robusta and arabica coffee beans… It’s a perfect blend of tradition and new energy.”
With the rapid advance of climate change and the land available to grow arabica diminishing at an alarming rate, the search for alternatives has been underway for years. The more resilient and disease-resistant robusta species has been the favourite – and production has soared as a result.
In the 1950s, it accounted for some 13% of the market, rising to 30% by the end of the 1980s. By 2021, robusta exports totalled 47.62 million bags and comprised 40% of the global market.
However, until recently, the vast majority of specialty coffee companies had steered clear, dismissing robusta as bitter and rubbery compared to the smooth and sweet characteristics of arabica.
Some believe its sudden inclusion on specialty coffee menus is a direct reaction to historically high arabica prices: for nearly a year, the average price per pound of arabica was over $2 compared to just over $1 for robusta. This was only compounded by crippling inflationary pressure and a strong dollar.
But could it be more than that?
The rise of fine robusta coffee
The appearance of robusta on specialty coffee menus hasn’t been as abrupt as it may seem. Over the last few years, high-quality “fine” robusta has become increasingly ubiquitous on specialty coffee menus around the world.
Black Sheep Coffee in the UK was one of the first to introduce it as a standalone single origin.
Its “Robusta Revival” from the Bhadrariver belt in India was sold as having “double the caffeine, richer crema, and lower acidity compared to its arabica cousin”, along with “hazelnut and dark chocolate flavour notes”. When it was launched, it challenged the status quo and caused a ripple of intrigue in the sector.
“We’ve been serving single estate 100% speciality robusta since we started ten years ago,” says Black Sheep co-founder, Gabriel Shohet. “Our name comes from being among the first to launch fine robusta against all market trends.
“After visiting hundreds of coffee plantations, we found that the reason it has a bad reputation is because it’s being processed like a commercial-grade coffee. We couldn’t find anything wrong with robusta itself. It’s cool to hear others are now following suit and getting into this space.”
According to Gabriel, if you grow, process and sort robusta like specialty coffee, you can achieve dark chocolate and walnut notes that are accessible to a wider range of palates than arabica’s citrus notes and high acidity. It also tends to produce more body, caffeine, and protein – which makes for a thicker crema in espresso.
The Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols, a landmark set of guidelines published in 2015, support Gabriel’s theory. The protocols define fine robusta as lots that score 80 or above on the SCA chart, differentiating it from the lower Premium and Off-Grade (commodity) categories.
Notably, the handbook recognises a simple fact: the main step to achieve a specialty-grade robusta is the same as for its arabica cousin, namely processing. This gave way to a small wave of specialty coffee professionals intent on experimenting.
“When I started out in specialty, I didn’t know that the difference between a high-scoring and low-scoring robusta is simply processing, simple as that”, says Emi-beth Aku Quantson, the founder of Kawa Moka, a female-owned coffee roaster in Ghana.
Overcoming deep-rooted prejudices
Purchasing robusta as mostly commodity-grade creates a chain reaction that stifles possible market growth for fine robusta.
Low prices and weak demand for it in specialty-grade mean there is little incentive for farmers to invest in better quality. This, in turn, creates low availability on the market, meaning those seeking it will be hard-pressed to find sufficient quantities to serve demand. Historic marketing messages from global coffee firms have also left a harmful legacy.
“Large public-facing coffee roasters like Starbucks used slogans like, ‘We only buy arabica’, which created a bad reputation for robusta,” Emi-Beth says. “There’s a lot of marketing that’s been harmful, plus a need for higher volumes of well-processed robusta.”
Deep-rooted industry preferences and specialty dogmas are further obstacles to the acceptance of robusta. Yet Gabriel suggests that most of these are misguided. “I’ve found that those with the strongest opinions have often never tried a real specialty-grade robusta,” he says.
“I’ve seen blind tests where certain Q graders are incapable of discerning a robusta from an arabica. And who decided that a coffee should be very acidic and very complex? It’s an elitist paradigm. Taste preferences are highly personal.”
Yet with improving quality and lower prices in the face of a cost of living crisis, the arguments in favour of fine robusta or arabica-robusta blends have become increasingly difficult to ignore. Varieties of robusta, such as conilon from Espírito Santo in Brazil, are even said to present levels of complexity, balance, and clarity on the same level, if not better, than some arabica coffees.
“I don’t think it’s rational to dismiss 40% of global production,” Gabriel adds. “We can produce great robusta coffees. It’s partly about finding the producers because of low supply. If demand increases, so will production.”
Even as arabica prices return to “normal” levels of around $1.60 per pound, those focusing on being more climate-smart and water-efficient also are likely to start incorporating robusta as part of their long-term plan.
“Offering high-quality robusta at a more reasonable price than specialty arabicas with hiked-up prices is actually a golden opportunity I look forward to seizing”, Emi-Beth says.
With this in mind, it seems fair to ask whether the industry has simply been following the herd this whole time, and whether it’s time to leave it behind. “If something makes sense, then eventually people will do it,” Gabriel concludes.