Is Central America under threat from fine robusta coffee?

fine robusta vietnam
  • Fine robusta has become the subject of increasing focus in recent years
  • Some fine robustas sell for little more than a commodity arabica coffee
  • It could threaten the future of Central American production – but there are barriers in the way

THE RISE and rise of “fine robusta” has been watched with considerable intrigue over the last few years.

The high-quality version of what is traditionally considered an inferior species to arabica has transformed from peripheral figure to protagonist due to a combination of factors, including war, a pandemic, and eye-watering inflation.

For years, “100% arabica” was emblazoned across coffee bags as a seal of quality. But today, the tide is changing as robusta producers – backed by enterprising roasters looking to offset rising costs – have focused increasingly on the species for use in blends and even as standalone single origins.

As a result of investment and research, some fine robustas, such as Nguyen Coffee Supply’s True Grit 100% peaberry robusta and Black Sheep’s Robusta Revival, now rival, or even surpass, certain arabicas.

These coffees tend to have more caffeine, richer crema, and lower acidity compared to their arabica cousins, with notes of chocolate, hazelnut, and caramel. Yet although they lack the floral and citrusy notes attributed to some of the most prized arabicas, their complexity and smoothness have set tails wagging in several corners of the coffee industry.

India and Vietnam, the second-largest coffee producer in the world, have been pioneers in this space, dedicating vast resources to improving the quality of robusta over the past few decades. Daklak in Vietnam’s Central Highlands has been a key area for its production.

“Daklak is one of the major regions in Vietnam producing fine robusta,” says Nguyen Ngoc Hoai An, a co-founder of Helena Coffee Vietnam. “The region has the ideal climate and soil conditions, and farmers use careful processing methods to bring out its best qualities. Daklak fine robusta has a distinct taste and aroma and is highly sought-after by specialty buyers.”

This is clearly good news for the country’s farmers, who can not only negotiate higher prices for their coffees, but also enter new markets in which they had previously been shunned. But for coffee-producing countries in Central America, where arabica is priced at a premium because of its distinct qualities, the rise of fine robusta has provided plenty of reasons to feel uneasy.

panama arabica coffee production

Will arabica production in Central America be disrupted?

Central America produces some of the world’s finest and most sought-after arabica coffees, from Panamanian Geishas to Salvadoran Pacamaras and Costa Rican SL28s.

A unique blend of high altitudes, rich volcanic soils, and a temperate climate make it the ideal place to grow coffee. But it also benefits from a global market that attaches great pedigree to coffees that come from the region – a reputation built up over decades of careful cultivation and commitment to quality.

Central American coffees, therefore, carry price tags to match. The average price of coffee exports from El Salvador reached $229.06 per quintal (45kg) for the 2021-22 cycle, while Panama has built a market around its world-famous Geisha variety, sold by the majority of top growers for between $30 and $200 per pound.

But the introduction of fine robusta from the likes of Vietnam or India has the potential to disrupt this market considerably. Helena Coffee’s dry-processed peaberry robusta, for example, sells for just $2.54 per pound – a few cents above the average rate of commodity arabica for much of last year.

If fine robustas such as these can undercut arabicas while offering similar characteristics, it could cause problems for Central American farmers, particularly at a time when roaster profit margins are being squeezed from all directions.

But according to Rodolfo Ruffatti Batlle, a coffee producer and importer from El Salvador, it is a big “if”.

“I’m hearing a lot of hype about fine robusta coffees,” he says. “Personally, I haven’t come across a great one yet. A lot of robusta could replace the big volumes of arabica coffee if it’s cheaper and at a lower price. But the super floral and high-quality Geishas will take a while to be replaced.

“Specialty is also heavily based on relationships – and high-end arabicas have some strong, long-term relationships in place that will be hard to break for the sake of a cheaper option or a new trend.”

Indeed, Rodolfo, who also runs the Coffee School Project, is less worried about the threat of superior, or even equal, robusta qualities popping up on the market, and more concerned about mechanisation in other countries putting them out of business.

As countries such as Brazil have shown, the use of machines to harvest and process coffee can significantly drive down costs, making them more competitive on the global market. If regions where mechanisation is out of the question continue to rely on expensive labour, Rodolfo believes this could pose a far greater danger than competition from fine robusta.

vietnam fine robusta

Ensuring growth in both markets

So long as climate change continues reducing the areas of land suitable for growing high-quality arabica and global shocks drive costs up for consumer-facing businesses, fine robusta will be an attractive option.

However, it is important to realise that there are certain barriers before it will be as widely venerated as Central American arabicas.

“If producers of fine robusta can offer a high-quality product at a lower price point, they could potentially compete with arabica in the market,” says An Nguyen, a co-founder of Helena Coffee Vietnam. “But they will need to overcome the perception that robusta is of lower quality, offer a comparable level of quality and taste to arabica, and manage their production costs to maintain a competitive price point.”

What’s more, as processing methods and cultivation because more complex, fine robusta will only become more costly to produce. Shade-grown or intercropping practices are often required, which can increase production costs. Processing methods, meanwhile, demand more time and care in sorting and grading the beans, as well as more sophisticated equipment and technology.

The average for commodity robusta is around half that of arabica. But as fine robusta climbs in price and demand steps up, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a price competitive edge.

As such, Nguyen warns the decision to go into fine robusta production should be taken with caution.

“It should be based on a careful analysis of the market demand, production costs, and potential profits, as well as a consideration of the long-term sustainability of the crop,” he says.

If results are good, however, and the coffees command considerably higher prices (while remaining accessible), it could be well worth the extra investment.

Similarly, Central America can prepare for any potential competition by building resilience and exploring new avenues. “Improvements to the quality of robusta doesn’t mean arabica is remaining static,” Rodolfo says. “Look at Panama. Before Geisha they weren’t doing that well. Now suddenly they’re making all this money.”

The general trend in Central America is that lower elevation arabicas are disappearing, while improved qualities and new varieties of arabica are popping up thanks to better access to Ethiopian seeds and experimenting with hybrids.

Rodolfo tells me that he has started testing out robusta cultivation in El Salvador, using some of Brazil’s best robustas, and others are experimenting too. Provided the climate works for them and mechanisation can be leveraged to scale up production, he thinks it could become a trend.

Market competition between specialty arabica and fine robusta appears to be more fiction than fact, and largely fanned by marketing efforts on either side. If the industry accepts them as two different species and products, each with its own distinctive and diverse attributes, they could coexist and flourish in the specialty coffee space.