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In defence of robusta: removing the stigma

Robusta coffee is much maligned and misunderstood — in some cases, quite rightly so. It can be the unwelcome guest at a posh dinner party: the misunderstood, rough and ready visitor who’s invited simply out of necessity. And it’s necessity that’s made robusta beans the clear choice for many instant brews: accounting for around 30% of the world’s coffee production, it offers greater yields than arabica, is cheaper to cultivate and has a greater resilience to diseases and pests – often at the expense of flavour. What isn’t known as widely is that robusta has benefits for both the roaster and drinker, which are too often forgotten.

Articles like these continue to perpetuate the belief that arabica = good, robusta = bad. The truth is, however, that not all robustas should be judged in the same way: if the industry’s thinking could be changed, better blends and better business could result.

Attractive qualities

Head of business development & quality Will Hobby says, “Fundamentally, robusta is a cheaper, lower quality coffee – there’s no getting away from that – it’s a different species of coffee tree. But it does have a valued place in the world.” 

Its higher caffeine content is certainly a plus for some, while lower levels of aromatic oils and higher protein levels not only create a stronger espresso crema but also make it easier to digest than arabica – making it the ideal candidate for after-dinner coffee. This is a characteristic that could certainly appeal to roasters from a marketing point of view, positioning robusta as an easy-to-digest post-prandial option after a large meal. Says Will, “Robusta adds a good characteristic to espresso – a nice heavy crema and plenty of body. This also makes it perfect for blending, adding something positive rather than it just being a cheap alternative to bulk up the volume.”

Despite its positive qualities, the fact that robusta beans are easier to grow and priced lower than arabica means that there is often no real incentive for growers to produce a better bean. However, some innovative growers are challenging this notion and paving the way for a robusta revolution.

Premium robusta

Will says, “There are some growers, especially in India, who are pioneering fully washed specialty robusta.” He’s talking of Kaapi Royale from the Sethuraman Estate in southern India – the only R-graded robusta estate in the world. 

Kaapi Royale is the creation of Nishant Gurjer: an engineer with a master’s in business administration who’s also a sixth generation coffee farmer. Once he finished college, he took over the family coffee farm; no small feat, considering it’s been in the family for over 250 years.

“I did a SWOT analysis of my farm”, he says, “and the results were pretty startling. That’s when I decided that I could either be the best robusta farmer in the world, or an average arabica producer. Before I took over, 15% of our crop was robusta. Today it’s 100%.”

The result? “It’s very good”, says Will, “creamy, nutty, full of cloves and pepper and with some sweetness too.”

Kaapi Royale is proof that carefully cultivated, properly processed robusta does have a place in the coffee industry – proof perpetrated further by Black Sheep Coffee, whose Robusta Revival uses the Kaapi Royale beans and a slow roasting process to create a smooth and full-bodied cup.

The future of fine robusta

While it’s clear that switching to fine rather than commoditised robusta works for some farmers and roasters, it may not work for everyone. Says Will, “Most robusta farmers will stick with what they know as they’re already making a good living from their existing farms: growing is easy, prices are low and yields are high. Getting farmers to switch to producing a fine robusta is harder work – they need to be physically shown how making these changes can benefit them. Robusta trees are more productive than arabica, so yields are much higher. Even though the price is lower, this is compensated for with increased volumes. If they can produce cleaner, better quality robusta with the same high yield, then their income will be much higher.”

Nishant Gurjer believes that times are changing. “I think more and more roasters are becoming more comfortable with using robusta,” he says, “The social stigma of using robusta is disappearing, and the overall quality of robusta is improving every year.”

“Initially, the specialty coffee movement was built on 100% arabica. But the new-age roasters really don’t care about convention or traditions: they want excellent-tasting coffee beans which will work for them. They are open to experiment, which is exciting for coffee producers like me: it gives me a lots of scope to produce great tasting coffees which are being accepted around the world.”

The social stigma that Gurjer mentions means that robusta is still viewed as arabica’s poorer cousin by many, but this needs to change.“One must keep in mind that not all arabica is good, and not all robusta is bad”, says Gurjer. We agree. Robusta beans don’t need to be the unwelcome party guest – with premium robusta on the up, it’s a true Eliza Doolittle story waiting to be told.

Why not give robusta a go? Check our current coffee list.