Rebuilding Robusta's reputation
Robusta might be the saviour of coffee
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Rebuilding Robusta's reputation
Most coffee drinkers have heard of the coffee variety Arabica. It accounts for 60% of global coffee production, and is the variety that most likely powers your espresso and filter drinks every day.
The other 40% of global coffee production is made up of Robusta. Robusta is a parent of arabica and has a very different chemical composition. It has less sugar, less fat and more caffeine, which creates more bitterness and traditionally a less pleasant flavour.
Brazilian coffee roaster and YouTuber Rodrigo Torii describes Robusta like this:
“Generally speaking, Robusta’s aren’t praised for its quality. You often find it pre-ground, and overly roasted. In the cup you taste leathery and ashy notes.
If you have had a really rough instant coffee, chances are it’s largely Robusta (or a blend or Robusta and Arabica.
You know the flavour - bitter, acidic, burnt, gross. Think the likes of Nescafe Classic instant. It’s the coffee that people try for the first time and then get put off coffee for life.
Why are we talking about Robusta then?
Despite its terrible reputation, Robusta might just be the saviour of the coffee industry. Compared to Arabica, Robusta:
is easier to grow
is cheaper to produce
is more resistant to pests and diseases due to it’s high caffeine content
grows at a lower altitude
grows in a warmer climate
is cross-pollinating, creating more diversity within in the variety.
Robusta is getting better
To date, not a lot of R&D or investment has gone into making Robusta better. It’s been treated as a low value commodity product. That means farmers don’t get paid a lot for it, so they don’t invest in it.
This is changing.
Given the impacts of climate change on the world’s coffee production, the characteristics that can be found in Robusta will become more and more important.
Competition’s role in repairing its reputation
Barista championships around the world are a place to showcase the individual skill of a coffee practitioner. They’re also a place to showcase innovation in coffee, and many competitors take this to heart.
In the 2022 NZ Barista Champs, Luise Metelka, who won the 2021 title, used Robusta has her competition coffee.
It was a bold choice, so I had a quick yarn with her to find out more.
NB: for many reasons, I sat on this for over a year (2022 was a YEAR…). So, massive thank you to Luise for her time and patience!
TMR: What made you choose Robusta for the competition?
Luise: I see the competition as a platform for sharing new ideas and pushing the boundaries. I knew that'd be risky, because we, as humans, often have our biases and not many people are familiar with Robusta's different profile.
But it was important to me, and it is important for our industry.
Someone had to start the conversation and I am honoured to have been the first in New Zealand.
TMR: How hard is it to get Robusta tasting as good as arabica?
Luise: It is not the same. It is very different.
It is low in acidity, it tends to have more bitterness, but it is very sweet, and it has an incredibly full and silky body. It has herbaceous, oaky chardonnay, dried fruit flavours. It is balanced and delicious in its own unique way.
However, to get the best results out of it was challenging for us, because we had no idea how to approach this new product.
All we ever knew was arabica. So this was completely new territory.
We underdeveloped the first 20 roasts and even then we were not sure what we were looking for. We had an idea of what Robusta used to taste like, but what about a delicious fine Robusta? How much can you expect from a product with such a poor reputation?
We ran so many trials, I stopped counting.
We found out that it needed longer to degas [following roasting]. While arabica takes 7 days, Ecurobusta needs 2-3 weeks to show its full potential.
And when brewing it, it showcased a lot more sweetness and complexity when running a longer shot 29-31 seconds.
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TMR: How important will Robusta be for the future of coffee production, as climate change and more diseases hit the coffee production world? Will we see more Robusta in our cups here in New Zealand?
Luise: I am convinced we will see more fine Robusta very soon. Because of all the reasons that it is different to arabica.
Robusta is naturally more hardy and thrives in a warmer climate, whereas research has shown that by 2050 the arabica production is going to decrease by 50% due to climate change.
Will that mean an end to novelty varieties like Geshas? I am not sure, but I wish we, the consumers, could see the importance of more sustainable varieties.
We are setting trends and encouraging producers to take risks and grow varieties that might not even have a future.
And I am aware that I am mainly talking about Specialty Coffee and competitions, which are just a small part of the entire coffee production.
But if we want to bring an end to this power imbalance between consumer and producer, then we need to let the producers determine what a more reasonable production looks like.
And this hopefully leads to a place where we can celebrate a sustainable and delicious coffee, like a Fine Robusta.
TMR: How do we get consumers to welcome Robusta with open arms?
Luise: To be fair, the majority of the population already welcomes it. You can find low grade Robusta in commercial instant coffee and a lot of dark roasted blends, which is what traditionally has been described as a "strong coffee", because it has a bigger body and is more pungent.
But what if we increase the quality of Robusta and it brings more to the blend than just body?
What if instead of making up 5% of a blend, it could be a 50% component?
And what if instead of receiving a quarter of the price of Arabica, producers could earn the same?
I think we as roasters and baristas need to start with ourselves first. We have this idea of what coffee should taste like and that makes us biased automatically.
For years we've been telling people that Robusta is "trash" and that arabica is the only option. Relearning takes courage and time, but with more and more access to higher quality Robusta we will get there!
What’s happening to Robusta now?
It’s been a while since Luise shared her views on Robusta. So what’s happening with it now?
And World Coffee Research announced in May that they’ve been working towards a possible Robusta breeding programme.
So, it looks like the future is bright for Robusta. Which means the future is also bright for the coffee industry. That’s always a good thing.
However, I couldn’t get my hands on any speciality grade Robusta here in New Zealand. Things might be developing fast, but we’re still going to see a lot of arabica in the short term.
Want to learn more?
James Hoffmann hosted a few creators on his YouTube channel a few years back, and Rodrigo Torii produced a great video on Robusta. It’s worth having a gander.
Thanks for tuning in
If you have any thoughts on this, or have tried some Fine Robusta yourself, I’d love to hear about it!
Fire some comments below.
Thanks for reading!
Post script: A word about AI
As you may have noticed, a few of the images in this story have been created by artificial intelligence, or AI.
We’re in an amazing age where technology is seemingly taking massive new steps every week. This time last year, AI was a tool that only the nerdy and wealthy could access. Now, it’s embedded into our web browsers and at everyone’s fingertips.
The use of AI images was a bit of an experiment. For the images that I ended up using, there’s another 10 that didn’t make the cut.
I think I will continue to use AI images where I can’t find relevant, useful or interesting pictures to help tell my story.
I will always declare the use of AI content.
Where I have created something using AI, you’ll know.
Trust in the institutions we hold close to our hearts is vital, and that line will get blurred as we all figure out what this technology means. But I promise that you’ll always be able to trust The Magic Roast and what we do in TMR Towers. I have too much fun doing this to throw it away by plagiarising work that isn’t mine.
Also, AI writes better than me, so I won’t be using it for actual blog posts - you’ll see right through it.