With Robusta prices at a 28 year high, the market has been buzzing with the potential for high-quality Robusta coffee. As global coffee demand goes on increasing and adverse weather events disrupt the supply, Robusta is being touted by many as the saving grace the coffee industry needs.
But how far can Robusta take us and is it truly the climate-resistant solution we need?
How Climate-Resistant is Robusta?
Historically, Robusta has a reputation for hardiness and resilience. It’s right there in the name- robust. It’s commonly thought that Robusta can withstand the effects of climate change, but recent studies have cast a doubt on this.
The commonly accepted growing temperature range for Robusta is generally thought to be 22-30°C but recent studies have found that this range is inaccurate and doesn’t produce the maximum yield. The commonly accepted range is the result of a limited study in one region of The Congo and is over 400 years old. Modern research suggests that Robusta grows best at an optimal temperature below 20.5°C, with the range being 16-24°C.
This casts a shadow on the hopes of Robusta being the sole saviour for coffee producers. While Robusta may not be the perfect solution, it’s still a good candidate for transitioning to climate-resistant coffee. For one, many growers around the world are familiar with cultivating Robusta and have a wealth of knowledge that the industry can benefit from. The industry is familiar with Robusta which improves its chances of acceptance by growers, roasters, and consumers alike.
The Rise of Robusta
Robusta has often been written off by the specialty coffee market, but times have been changing. With a growing demand for experimentation and irregular weather patterns wreaking havoc on Arabica harvests, Robusta is finally having its day in the sun.
Robusta prices hit a 28-year high in June 2023, signalling a closing of the gap in pricing between Arabica and Robusta. However, Arabica prices have also increased (albeit not as much as Robusta) due to inflation and irregular weather. This has encouraged many roasters to experiment with fine Robusta which is still cheaper than specialty Arabica.
For farmers, Robusta is becoming a lucrative alternative to Arabica. Robusta has relatively lower production costs, can be grown at lower altitudes, and is more resilient overall. This makes Robusta more cost effective for many coffee growers, especially in light of reduced Arabica yields and less land available for Arabica cultivation (which requires high altitudes and a very narrow temperature range).
The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of Robusta is a lack of research. When it comes to Arabica, we have decades upon decades of research and development in cultivation, harvesting, and processing. On the other hand, Robusta has historically been written off as a commodity-level product and so not much research has been invested in the crop. In particular, a lack of knowledge in processing fine Robusta keeps it from achieving the wider flavour profile and mildness that we associate with fine Arabica.
Challenging The Bias Against Robusta
Decades of treating Robusta as purely commodity-grade coffee has left a lasting impact on the minds of both coffee professionals and consumers alike. Roasters and cafés generally emphasise that their coffee is 100% Arabica, and this marketing has left the impression that only Arabica can be considered specialty coffee.
The bias is further compounded by a lack of research into growing and processing Robusta. A lack of demand and low prices for Robusta means there is no incentive for coffee growers to invest time, money, and labour into producing higher quality Robusta. In this turn produces low quality coffee which further reinforces the bias against Robusta, labelling it harsh and without appreciable flavours.
Breaking this cycle starts with investments at the farm level. If Robusta is grown with the same care and attention that Arabica receives and is then processed well, it can produce beautifully nuanced yet deep flavours. In addition, as climate change accelerates and the cost of living crisis continues, the lower cost of Robusta (including specialty Robusta) is appealing to both roasters and coffee consumers.
100% Robusta and Arabica-Robusta blends have seen renewed interest in the last year or so. These have the potential to change how we view specialty coffee and expand our definition of what specialty Robusta can be.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that robusta will replace arabica completely in the specialty market. However, it’s clear that Robusta has a key role to play in the future of the coffee industry. As a more economical and climate-resistant option, Robusta can help the industry meet the ever-increasing demand for specialty coffee while remaining affordable for growers, roasters, and consumers.
Robusta is overall a more sustainable option thanks to its natural resistance to pests, diseases, and adverse weather. In addition, the higher yields and lower costs of production (less water usage, less chemical inputs) are good incentives for growers to consider and diversify their coffee farms.
The implications of global warming have a big role to play in the rise of Robusta and the current Robusta rush we’re experiencing. Only time will tell if Robusta can truly crave a place for itself in the specialty market, but improvements in cultivation and processing are promising.