How high arabica prices have opened up new opportunities for robusta
Jenna Gottlieb speaks with the founder of Bonomi, Vardhman Jain, about the ongoing coffee price crisis and how robusta presents a viable solution for the future.
Back in 2021, the International Coffee Organisation estimated that during the preceding year, the world consumed nearly ten billion kilograms of coffee. Of all the coffee produced each year, the majority is Coffea arabica, with much of the remaining crop consisting of Coffea canephora, also known as robusta.
Arabica is universally considered the better quality coffee, lauded for its smooth, sweet cup profile, and virtually all specialty coffee is arabica. Robusta, on the other hand, is said to possess harsher, rubbery notes, and it’s primarily used in lower-quality coffee blends or as the basis for instant coffee.
Recently, however, more and more “specialty robustas” have appeared on the market, challenging perceptions that robusta has no place in specialty coffee. These coffees achieve cupping scores of 80 points and higher.
Furthermore, the price of arabica coffee has risen sharply over the past couple of years as a result of several factors, including lower yields brought about by the effects of climate change, logistical issues, and increased demand.
“I genuinely believe the coffee prices have increased because of the change in the weather situation globally, and especially in Brazil, which dictates the worldwide coffee pricing,” says Vardhman Jain, the founder of Bonomi, a cold brew manufacturer based in Bangalore, India.
“Because of global warming, yields have dropped and demand is at an all-time high for arabica,” he continues. “Not to mention the COVID supply chain issues as well, where consignments got stuck for months and cafés and roasters were ready to pay a premium to get the stock in hand at any cost.”
Earlier this year, arabica futures reached a ten-year high of US 258.95 cents/lb, ranging dangerously close to the historic high seen in November 2011.
There are other reasons for the rise in coffee prices, including higher fertiliser costs as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as high labour costs in some coffee-producing countries, like Colombia.
Does this signal a new opportunity for robusta?
Around the world, coffee roasters are feeling the effects of the arabica price increase, with profit margins being squeezed to their limits. In many cases, coffee businesses have to play a careful game when passing these costs on to the consumer, wary of chasing them away.
“I think roasters are in a fix, specifically in a price-sensitive market like India, where users are still not used to paying US $12 for a 250g pack of roasted coffee,” Vardhman says.
What this means, he adds, is that some roasters are adjusting their margins by switching to specialty robusta, while “ensuring they still provide the best cup possible in a highly competitive market like India”.
“It’s definitely good news [for the robusta industry], but I genuinely think robusta requires a lot of education and specialty robusta has to experiment more, just like arabica,” Vardhman warns. “For example, fruit fermentation and yeast fermentation should be attempted with robusta too, and not just arabica.”
However, even with more diversity in the robusta offerings on the market, he doesn’t see cafés switching to the traditionally “inferior” product overnight.
“I don’t think the switch is too easy,” he explains. “It will come on the back of cafés brewing the best robusta cup and putting it next to an arabica cup, which [may] surprise the consumer in a good way.”
According to one recent study, climate change will have a detrimental impact on arabica, halving the land suitable for growing high-quality arabica coffee by 2050.
Vardhman believes that if humankind is unable to reduce the global temperature by at least two degrees Celcius each year, volatile rain and drought patterns will spell further trouble for coffee prices.
Ultimately, this positions robusta as a cheaper alternative, especially considering its ability to grow under far less ideal conditions than arabica. As such, more roasters are likely to explore using fine robusta going forward.
What does the future of coffee consumption look like?
Many in the coffee industry assert that greater interest in robusta will encourage producers to invest more in its production.
“In years to come, especially in India, farmers have to work on experimenting with micro-lots and processing techniques for robusta,” Vardhman elaborates. “Specialty robusta is the way to go, and the same level of dedication and detailing is required at the farm level.”
However, he reaffirms that changes won’t just be seen at farm level, but with roasters and cafés, as well.
“At the same time, it is up to the cafés and roasters to put an equal amount of effort into education and inform users that there is a possibility of tasting high scoring robusta,” he says.
In the early days of this transition, some specialty roasters have begun introducing single-origin robusta coffees. Although this seems like a conservative step, it’s a bold move in an industry where robusta has traditionally been used in primarily-arabica blends.
“I think this is happening already in India,” Vardhman notes. “We saw some estates and roasters launching single-origin specialty robusta. Here at Bonom, we also launched robusta cold brew.”
In his opinion, a quality robusta should taste “like an arabica with a fruity flavour profile or smooth, like black tea”.
“This will come only with experimentation at the farm level,” he adds. “As a community, everyone has to play an equal role in this.”
Ultimately, whether roasters decide to stick with robusta if arabica prices fall remains to be seen, but for the moment, consumers can expect to encounter more more and more examples of high-quality robusta on the market.