Can Fine Robusta Be Considered Quality Coffee?
Is Arabica the only species of coffee that can be considered quality? Does Robusta always have to be bad?
Robusta accounts for around 40% of global coffee production. It grows more quickly than Arabica and is more tolerant of extreme weather conditions, but it’s not often given the same care and attention in production and processing.
With a reputation for poor flavor, Robusta is widely dismissed by specialty coffee lovers. But if it’s grown and processed with a focus on quality, could it make a delicious cup? Let’s look at Robusta in more detail.
Robusta vs. Arabica
Let’s state it clearly: when it comes to flavor and aroma, Arabica has more complexity than Robusta. This is partly because the two species are different at a chemical level.
In Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality, authors Andrea Illy and Rinantonio Viani state that “Arabica has lower levels of caffeine, amino acids and chlorogenic acids in comparison to robusta, but 60% more total oils. Chlorogenic acids contribute to astringent notes, so the reduced amounts in arabica favors its final cup quality. It is known that many aromatic volatile compounds are dissolved (trapped) in oil droplets and released during brewing, so the oil fraction may explain some differences in cup quality between arabica and robusta, particularly in espresso.”
Robusta is criticized as having rubbery notes and bitterness that may be related to its high caffeine content. Specialty roasters and brewers have largely dismissed it. It’s usually destined for the low end of the market and is often used in blends.
Find out more in What Creates Coffee Aroma? Understanding The Chemistry
Coffee quality comes not just from the chemistry of the beans, but also from a series of human choices. The delicious specialty Arabicas we drink today are not just gifts of nature, but rather the result of centuries of selection that have emphasized factors related to quality. And then we make production, processing, roasting, and brewing choices that each further affect the sensory qualities of a coffee.
Overwhelmingly, Arabica is given more investment of time and resources than Robusta throughout the supply chain, which has a big effect on the final cup.
The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) states that “Robusta is often overlooked because of its traditionally unfavorable cupping quality, which traces directly to the way it is processed. Oftentimes, Robusta beans are traded with hundreds of defects and their cupping quality has not been a priority. But what if it is processed properly? The impact could be huge on not only the farmers producing it but every party in the supply chain.”
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It’s one thing to say that if Robusta were given the same care and attention as Arabica crops, it could result in higher cupping scores and more respect for the species. But if we don’t have market demand for fine Robusta, farmers have little incentive to improve the quality at the farm level.
Some organizations are trying to change how Robusta is seen and develop a market for fine Robusta. The CQI established its Q Robusta Program in 2010 to set a common language of quality for Fine Robusta. This year, it launched its Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols at World of Coffee.
Speaking on The Coffee Podcast, Dr. Mario Fernandez, Technical Director of the CQI, says,“[Robusta] has some attributes which make it more attractive than Arabica for some growers, roasters, and consumers. Many people in the specialty coffee industry fail to understand that it is wrong to compare Arabica and Robusta in terms of quality… They are two species of the same genus, like a donkey and a horse. Both the donkey and the horse are valuable resources for humans, but each of them has different vocations and they serve different purposes… There is land suitable for Arabica and land suitable for Robusta.”
The importance of growing the right crop for the land conditions is one that is likely to become more obvious as the coffee industry sees more effects of climate change. As demand grows and more land becomes less suitable for growing Arabica, the industry needs to look for alternatives. Coffee Barometer 2018 states that “without major efforts to adapt coffee production to climate change, global production could even be lower in 2050 than it is today.”
Franziska Bringe is Purchasing Manager at GEPA, a German coffee importer that works with Robusta producers in Uganda. She tells me about some of the advantages of growing Robusta.
“As the common non-scientific name already says, Robusta is more robust than Arabica,” she says. “It is easier and less costly to grow. Producers can cultivate it at lower altitudes than Arabica, and it is less vulnerable to pests and diseases due to the higher caffeine content (which serves as a natural pesticide).
“Robusta is also more resistant to erratic weather conditions and warm temperatures – quite an argument in times of climate change and the fact that growing areas for Arabica decrease. Robustas also produces cherries much more quickly than Arabicas, which need several years to come to maturity, and they yield more crop per tree. A disadvantage, of course, is the lower prices compared to Arabica.”
But low prices are another strong argument to support the development of fine Robusta and its place in the specialty coffee industry. Robusta is already grown by millions of farmers around the world and an improvement in the quality of these coffees is likely to result in higher prices and better incomes for producers.
If the mission of the specialty coffee industry is to put producers first, as many of its members claim, investing in Robusta to increase its quality and improve its reputation ought to be a priority for an ethically oriented industry.
How to Improve The Quality of Robusta
Let’s take a look at how Robusta is generally handled and what measures could be taken at various points of the supply chain to raise its quality.
Production & Processing
Stephan Katongole comes from a family of coffee farmers in the Masala District of Central Uganda. His company, Coffeeyouknow, produces fine Robusta. He says, “The bad reputation of Robusta comes from poor agricultural practices in cultivating and especially in post-harvest processing.”
He tells me that it begins with “bad picking” and improper storage, saying that “many farmers do not dry their coffee completely to moisture levels of 11–13%. All these bad practices affect your final cup [and can make it taste] sour, earthy, moldy, and so on.”
He says that the cup quality of Robusta could be improved by some simple measures, such as picking only ripe cherries, processing them immediately, using proper drying areas on raised beds, and using good storage.
Stephen says, “Essentially, take all the best basic processing techniques that are used for processing an Arabica and use them (with some changes) for your Robusta. Of course, you will not get as many different flavors as in an Arabica, but you will get] something else that many consumers and roasters never tasted before.”
He tells me that when Robusta is processed well, “you can have a very clean cup, brighter acidities with intrinsic flavor profiles and a lighter body compared to sun-dried coffees.”
Franziska tells me how GEPA has been able to produce fine Robusta that tastes crisp in the cup. “GEPA worked together with Ankole Coffee Producers Co-operative Union (ACPCU),” she says. “Constant cupping with producers and the cooperative raised awareness among them about the qualities their coffees could reach. We developed a fine Robusta that is sold as a single-origin espresso on the German market. [GEPA provided] training on post-harvest techniques and selection and grading. It’s amazing how much better the quality gets when you carefully handle the beans.
“The processing for this fine Robusta is different from how conventional-quality Robusta is handled. Farmers harvest the cherries and within a few hours they are brought to the cooperative’s site, where they are dried on proper drying beds. As this process is managed centrally by the union, the quality improves and cherries can dry uniformly and with proper ventilation. Then, the beans are graded, selected with a color-sorter and by hand again.”
Franziska says that there is a big potential for improving cup quality simply by improving harvesting and post-harvesting techniques. She also highlights that the same variety of Robusta is used for the standard, commercial quality and the fine Robusta and that only the processing differs.
Market Demand & Industry Expectations
Stephen tells me that it’s difficult to implement agricultural improvements without market demand. “I think one of the major reasons the situation is like this, is the basic negative attitude against Robusta,” he says.
“Imagine a Robusta grower uses all the best techniques, follows all the rules in best agricultural practices, invests the little he has, and then a specialty roaster will say, ‘Well, thank you, very nice, but this is still a Robusta and we’re working only with specialty coffee beans, which happen to be Arabica.’
“This goes so far that even exporters at origin reject Robustas,” Stephen says. “Because the industry contemplates only Arabica. You can not blame the grower for not investing in improving his crop, because their beans will never make it to the specialty end, where he may get more money for his efforts.”
Mamy Dioubaté is a doctoral researcher in International Political Economy who works on global value chains of agro-commodities. He tells me that he doesn’t see fine Robusta as taking away from specialty Arabica’s market.
“Pushing fine Robusta doesn’t mean adding additional pressure on Arabica producers – it means offering end consumers the ability to taste a completely new and different product,” he says. “I am convinced that Robusta can add new consumers to the specialty coffee market, as the taste is completely different.
“It is extremely important to take into account the context of how the coffee is produced. Robusta farmers represent 40% of the coffee market and these farmers don’t have access to the specialty coffee market even when their product is of the highest quality. Robusta producers who work intensively and passionately on the quality of their products should receive the same recognition and reward as specialty Arabica producers. So, the objective is to bring additional revenues to Robusta.
“I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where the emergence of Robusta on the specialty coffee market takes away from the Arabica market. We should work on coffee quality and diversity. We need to diversify. We need to think about all those people we don’t reach with our current specialty coffee product instead of being worried about the cake getting sliced up into smaller pieces. Let’s make a bigger cake.”
As co-founder and roastmaster at Nordhavn Coffee Roasters, I had the opportunity to roast and cup samples of Guatemalan, Indonesian, Tanzanian, Guinean, and Ugandan Robustas. My team was impressed by the balance, clarity, and the mellow sweetness of these samples.
As with Arabica, we understand that quality correlates with altitude, among other things, and the high elevations of the Ugandan coffees translated into distinct flavors of hazelnut and milk chocolate salted caramel, and peanut butter. One of the samples even displayed some notes of citrus fruits and lemongrass, descriptors usually used for specialty Arabica.
We have been roasting Robustas for one of our organic blends and experimented with a few other micro-lots, but we have never used the systematic approach that we apply when roasting Arabica.
To learn more about roasting Robustas to highlight their best qualities, I spoke to Philip Binkert and Yves Ineichen of Röstlabor, a Swiss roaster that exclusively uses Robusta.
“We always cherished a good cup of Robusta a lot,” Philip and Yves say via email. “Unfortunately, access to roasted Robusta beans was difficult in Zurich and the beans were mainly roasted very dark. Our passion for ‘good’ Robusta coffee was motivation enough to start roasting Robusta to our liking, in 2015…
“In recent years, we have grown our customer base continuously as we learned more about Robusta and started to play with different blends, varieties, and producers. For us, the most beautiful properties of Robusta coffees are the thick, foamy crema, the body, and the absence of acidity (especially for lightly roasted Robusta beans).”
The biggest difference compared to roasting Arabica is the barely audible crack,” Philip and Yves tell me. “In addition, the rate of rising changes only very slightly.”
“Roasting with the right equipment is also important,” they say. “We employ a de-stoner since naturals might contain stones. Consistency in roast degree is also important. We check a batch at regular intervals with our color meter. Apart from that, we roast Robustas mostly like Arabicas, although we fundamentally believe that roasting Robusta is less delicate than roasting Arabica. The aromas are less complex and they tend to be more forgiving.”
Cupping & Evaluation
When cupping Robusta, it’s difficult to avoid the inevitable comparison with Arabica. For this reason, at Nordhavn Coffee Roasters, we don’t put the two species in the same cupping.
Philip and Yves say that “the distinct flavor palette of Robusta only reveals under pressure. That is the reason why we always base our final decision on an espresso shot pulled from the samples.” So if you’re interested in experiencing a fine Robusta at its best, make sure to taste it separately from Arabicas and add espressos to your cupping.
It is clear to me that for Robusta to be taken seriously, the industry has a responsibility to provide technical support to producers to improve their production and processing. But we also need to work on creating a stable and financially rewarding market for quality Robusta with regular purchases. This seems to be the only way out of the vicious circle of low quality-low prices.
The only operators in the coffee industry with the capacity to do this on a large scale are importers. I believe that specialty coffee roasters have a duty to work closely with the most transparent importers and back them up in the process of creating a market demand for fine Robusta.
With the current coffee price crisis and its impact on producers across the globe, it is time for roasters, baristas, and consumers to act as they are part of the same fate. We need to reconsider some of the beliefs and preconceptions that are detrimental to coffee-producing communities, in particular to those who have no choice between farming Arabica and Robusta.
We need to use more critical thought and less coffee snobbism. Before labeling Robusta as inferior, it would be fair to give to the ugly duckling the same opportunities we gave to Arabica to allow it to become the swan we so much appreciate.