Robusta, like Arabica, comes from sub-Saharan Africa. A study in 2005 showed a large genetic variation of 700 wild genotypes in the Ivory Coast, though, as we see in arabica, genetic material was supplied from a variety of sources.
The family Rubicaeae that coffee belongs to has a number of separate branches, the two most important (as we currently understand it) are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora var. Robusta, more commonly referred to as Robusta. There are others we come across too, Congensis, Eugenoides, Liberica, Racemosa, all play a part in the mix that is coffee, and nearly all have had their time on our offer list or cupping table. New species are still being identified too, with the team at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens identifying seven species as recently as 2009.
A couple of years ago the news spread out that Arabica had lost its last stand against Hemileia Vastatrix. Varietals that were resistant appeared to be just that, resistant – but not immune. This has led to organisations such as World Coffee Research, CIRAD and Kew all looking in to the future of coffee, and for the former two particularly, to look at Robusta.
Back in 2018, in London, the First International Collaborative and Precompetitive Robusta Research Planning Meeting took place at the International Coffee Organization with the aim to discuss, define and share a common vision for the future of Robusta. Both WCR and the ICO were involved, alongside CIRAD, Promecafe and a handful of big businesses. Goals were identified that align with those faced by Arabica- climate change affecting temperatures and causing drought conditions in traditional growing areas, and cup quality improvement.
Sowing the seeds
With diversity in C.Canephora greater than that of C.Arabica (which as we already know is causing a problem there), Robusta has a lot going for it; the fact that it more easily crosses with other species like Congensis or Liberica show there is a lot of potential for growth, improvement, and learnings. The fact that C.Canephora crossed with C.Eugenoides to create C.Arabica in the first place should not be overlooked too.
Although there are some great varietals out there, the supply of seed and common use is not as widespread as it could be, and so there is a long way to go. In further speaking to the language not so much of speciality, but agronomic futurism, WCR are setting up a Multi Locational Varietal Trial for Robusta. Whilst I intend to dig in to the varietals in another article, a part of me wonders to what degree we are overlooking the taste improvements aspect in Robusta due to a presupposed lack of value and therefore, and unwillingness to invest.
What goes around
In the way that most of these things are cyclical, the story behind the spread of Robusta through India is one I have recently had cause to dwell on. Coming 5th in the list of top Robusta producing countries behind Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia and Uganda, India has played a role that placed it at the heart of a situation we are looking at once more, the spread and destruction of crops by Hemileia Vastatrix- Coffee Leaf Blight, La Roya, or Rust.
Back when colonial thinking abounded, the Dutch had governates, commandments, and directorates across parts of India – Ceylon, Coromandel, Malabar, Bengal and more. These were used by the VOC, or Dutch East India company for trade, and gave birth to the reality of Monsoon Malabar. We tend not to associate these coffees as being introduced by the Dutch due to a system that only required people to grow coffee without specifying anything further. Fairly unsurprisingly, locals would not sacrifice good land for coffee plants, or pay any particular attention to them. As a result, the coffee was poor and serviced a very limited market.
It wasn’t until after the British took over the colonies following the Kew Letters, the Travancore kingdom’s interlude following the Battle of Colachel, and a subsequent back and forth between the Dutch and English that Robusta became more commonly introduced in the latter part of the Nineteenth century. In part this was due to the spread of British colonization changing the growing habits of coffee farmers, with the other part timing, coinciding with the decimation of arabica from a fungal infection in the Island of Ceylon and the plantations of India.
The hills of southern India were first used for arabica growth, in a relentless drive to create plantations and feed the British industry’s pockets starting with a commercial plantation in Mysore setting the trend and estates quickly gaining traction from there.
Estate owners at the time were already quick to abandon perennial tropical crops when trouble arose. In 1869, across Adam’s Bridge in Ceylon, yellow specks were noticed on the leaves of coffee trees. Berkley and Broom were the first to record it scientifically, and it became apparent that these were the same yellow specks as had been noted by an explorer on the shores of Lake Victoria in 1861. The effects on the coffee trees were soon to earn the fungus the name Devastating Emily.
Ceylon at the time was experiencing a burst of speculation on the land driving up prices and coffee production actually peaked about 10 years after the first discovery of Rust. Wages of the British workers abroad were expensive however, even with coerced labour debt could quickly rise, as did the cost of borrowing with it. Exporting always came with a hefty price tag and so it was, twenty years later, the Ceylon coffee industry was all but dead, replaced with tea, leaving a few plants left and the specimens in places like the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya.
India meanwhile, was still growing Arabica in the way it had since the introduction from Yemen to the Chikmagalur and district way back in 1670 which is attributed to the Sufi Baba Budan. Estates in Mysore were one of the few globally that managed to still exist under pressure even with discriminatory practices, due mainly to separate smallholder farmers creating a viable market and temporary harvesters providing a temporary labour force. An increase in internal consumption markets at the time helped too.
- Marianne North, View at Peradeniya, Ceylon.
- Peacock Hill Coffee Estate.
- Main works at Messrs Worms Estates, Pussilava, Ceylon.
- 1860’s coffee plantation, Ceylon.
These trees were not immune to Emily’s entreats though and research at the time actually showed the largest variety in the fungal race was to be found in India (Srinivasan C.S., Prakash N.S., Jyothi D.P., Sureshkumar V.B., Subbalakshmi V. (2000) Coffee Cultivation in India). The Royal Gardens of both Kew and Peradinya carried out work on assessing the geographical impact and trying to find resistance within plants as well as understanding the life cycle of the disease itself.
Rather than converting to tea, farmers chose Liberica to plant new. It was distributed by the Botanical Gardens after being discovered in Liberia and seemingly resistant to rust. Others selected more resistant Arabica varieties that were growing on their farms as these revealed themselves. They would give rise to the Old Chik, Kent, and Coorg varietals, important for resistance in other countries such as Kenya as well as provide parent plants for Jackson, S288 and S795, though later appearing to lose this resistance (They didn’t, the rust mutated). A large part of the game we now play around new varietals and their marketing stems from this.
The emergence of var. Robusta
However, Liberica presented a challenging flavour profile and appeared weaker in resistance than originally thought. Liberica had spread to the Dutch East Indies and Malaysia where it still has a strong presence to this day, but following the continued destruction by Rust and the bioprospecting of the Colonial Dutch, Coffea Canephora from the Congo was experimented with in Java. One variety in particular was found to produce higher yields, with less work, and exhibited much greater tolerance to disease and pests. It drew the scientists attention immediately.
The taste was noted to be worse, but cross breeding and selection tamed that to a degree, to a level that was recorded as ‘indifferent’. However, the fact that this plant could be grown where others couldn’t meant it was planted widely. The impact was so large, that the species name became synonymous with the varietal name, Robusta. The coffee market adjusted. The coffee industry was saved.
Whilst coffee in India might not have flourished on the world stage, beating off both white stem borer and Rust is no mean feat at all. Although the resistant Arabica varieties still lingered, (and indeed, a lot went back to Africa for planting there) it was Robusta that took the forefront of the Indian coffee industry.
Growth changed to be much more in unison with the forest. Mysore farmers switched from a system where coffee was grown quickly in deforested land, uprooted and replanted anew to slower maturing, lower yielding but longer living and less damaging plants. This gave rise to a sustainable system of cultivation. Communication from other countries led to the beneficial understandings of shade grown coffee, the importance of polyculture over weakness of monoculture and many other practices we still see today.
So what can we learn from this? This year has starkly illustrated that when the pressure is on, systemic weaknesses are hugely apparent and so we should prepare on all fronts, commercial, ecological and societal if we want to feel secure in our future. Broader than that, the lesson is that there is no simple causative issue to success or failure.
Whilst rust devastated some areas, this was also due to societal biases, agricultural methods, available land and some bad luck. Without the correct balance of all elements, it is easier to lose our footing.
The second is that change does happen, for better or worse, and failure to adapt and support is what is ultimately unsurmountable. Rust is still out there, still spreading, and poised with our help to repaint the landscape as we know it. Those areas where coffee survived had better local consumption, more value perceived in them, a little good luck, and sometimes no other choice.
The writing of this article was made hugely easier by the writing of William Gervaise Clarence- Smith in his chapter Coffee Crisis in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, from Cambridge Press publication The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America 1500-1989. I thoroughly recommend it. Online, there are two more hugely interesting works that also proved invaluable.
The Pioneers 1825-1900 The Early British Tea and Coffee Planters and Their Way of Life John Weatherstone A digitalization of an original book, and The Big Rust and the Red Queen: Long-Term Perspectives on Coffee Rust Research (apsnet.org) – Stuart McCook and John Vandermeer, 2015