Could high-quality robusta replace arabica?
Jenna Gottlieb speaks with Pranoy Thipaiah of the Kerehaklu coffee farm in India about the rising potential of fine robusta.
Of all the threats to arabica coffee production over the last few decades, none have been more worrying than climate change.
In coffee-growing regions from Ethiopia to Colombia, increases in temperature and changes to precipitation patterns have already started to decrease yields, reduce quality, and increase pest and disease outbreaks. According to one study, climate change will halve the land suitable for growing high-quality arabica coffee by 2050.
For coffee farmers, this is making it not only more difficult, but more expensive to meet demand.
“I have been involved at my family plantation for just three years,” says Pranoy Thipaiah who works as a managing partner at Kerehaklu, a plantation and eco-resort in Chikmagalur, India, “but I have already witnessed a change – notably warmer summers and erratic monsoons. These have had a massive impact on our arabica production.
“The flowering was thrown off, blossoms appeared while ripe fruits were still on the plants, and the rains caused the uptake of suddenly available water, making the cherries split and drop off. We are also seeing an increase in pest and fungal attacks during these extreme weather conditions.”
The rise of specialty robusta
Climate change brings about numerous problems for arabica coffee producers.
The plant’s sensitivity to minute changes in its surroundings means that as temperatures rise and weather patterns become more irregular, producers must reassess their operations from top to bottom.
“First and foremost, we had to rethink our drying yard entirely,” Pranoy explains. “The raised beds are now covered under polyhouse tarp in a parabolic drying structure. This allows us to dry our coffees during the harvest season through all kinds of conditions. We had to also dry some of our coffees indoors – and that’s just during harvest season.”
Naturally, this has led many producers to move away from growing coffee and find new sources of income, such as cacao and avocado production.
However, a handful of pioneering farms have started to explore the opportunities offered by “fine” or “specialty” robusta.
Defined as robusta lots that score 80 or above on the SCA chart, specialty robusta offers all the benefits typical of the species: it is resilient, produces high yields, and provides intensity and body in the cup.
But the biggest difference is that, during cultivation, it has received the same care and attention as the best arabica lots – leading to better-tasting coffee.
“[These farms] are empowering their workers, investing in new technology, and paying careful attention to the details necessary to reduce defects in their coffee,” said Andrew Hetzel at a live event in 2015. “As a result, a small number of roasters and buyers are shedding superstitions and using these robustas in the applications where they truly excel.”
Specialty robusta is an exciting prospect for the industry as a whole, with a number of brands incorporating single origins into their line of offerings. For example, Black Sheep Coffee, a popular specialty coffee chain in London, offers an 85+ single origin robusta from the Bhadrariver belt of India.
While the market remains relatively small, it has been supported by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which introduced its landmark Q Robusta Program in 2010. The aim of the program is to create a common language of quality around specialty robusta while forging a certain set of standards that need to be met.
Pranoy says that as robusta has become a more widely accepted option, coffee farmers are using experimental processing techniques to create new and interesting flavour profiles.
“I have been working closely with the four robusta varieties that we have and applying what I have learnt previously,” Pranoy says. “I find that naturals and honeys with very specific fermentation conditions, and sometimes inoculants, can bring through some interesting, boozy cups with no harshness or rubbery notes.”
Will it replace arabica?
According to the International Coffee Organization, a combination of adverse weather conditions and logistical issues caused arabica production to fall significantly during last season’s harvest. Around the same time, robusta production grew by 3.2% to 73 million 60kg bags.
As farmers struggle to cope with the challenges of growing arabica, specialty robusta has become an increasingly attractive option. It offers greater resilience against everything from diseases to warmer temperatures and typically offers a larger crop.
For consumer-facing businesses, it allows them to keep down costs, which have been soaring in recent months. This will help provide a competitive edge in an ever more saturated market.
However, as Pranoy explains, robusta production also presents its own set of obstacles.
“Robusta is a different animal and requires a lot of understanding,” he says. “It’s not like arabica during post-harvest processing whatsoever. For example, I find that ageing in jute sacks is crucial.”
As exciting as it is, the emergence of specialty robusta isn’t likely to spell the end for arabica. Instead, it is expected to become a more widely accepted component to blends, adding strength and finish to the flavour and boosting caffeine levels.
“I wouldn’t say that specialty robusta will become a like-for-like arabica alternative,” Pranoy says. “But I do see it becoming more widespread.
“I think 80-20 and 70-30 blends might slowly see more of a shift towards robusta; not just for the body and mouthfeel, but because I think the cups it creates are unique.”