From the Lab

Monday, April 18, 2022

Five Surprising Things About Robusta

You may think you’ve got a handle on Robusta, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. We spoke with Kristine Breminer Isgren, Q Grader Robusta & Arabica and QC at Sucafina UK, and Walter Rossi, Quality Manager and Q Grader at Sucafina, to learn more about Robusta’s hidden side. Kristine and Walter have long been advocates for the finer points of Robusta and we’re excited to learn from them.

1. Fine Robusta Can Be Specialty Coffee

When Kristine took the Robusta Q Grader course, she was blown away by the fine Robustas she tasted. “You would be hard-pressed to not think they were Arabica. You get florals, you get sweetness, you get fruits. It was all so balanced and nothing harsh in any way.”

Fine Robusta is defined as “Defect-free Robusta equivalent to specialty Arabica in which coffees exhibit unique and desirable characteristics resulting from a combination of varietal genetics, microclimate of origin, accentuated by the best cultivation and processing practices,” Kristine explains, quoting from her notes. In other words, when Robusta is cultivated and processed with the same attention to detail as specialty Arabica coffees, it can produce a cup with as much flavor and nuance as a specialty Arabica coffee.

That being said, there are some differences in taste between Robusta and Arabica. Robustas are typically less citric, and, because acidity is closely linked with tasting sweetness, they are less sweet. They also have more quinic acid, the bitter flavor in tonic water, and higher potassium, which contributes to a saltier taste. However, the better a Robusta is processed, the lower the potassium and subsequent salty taste will be.

Walter notes that Fine Robusta has been gaining traction over the past 10 years  nd has really been speeding up within the last 2-3 years. “That’s the next big development,” he says.

2. Robusta Is Impacted by Microclimate

Like Arabica,  Robusta is impacted by the microclimate where it is grown. As such, different locations are known for producing different profiles. The Americas are known for acidity, caramels, chocolate, a little bit of sweetness and a soft mouthfeel. Vietnam has a lower acidity, strong body and spicy, earthy and nutty flavors. Indonesian Robustas are also spicy with chocolate and some citric fruitiness. Robustas from Africa vary from country to country but are generally earthy and nutty. Tanzanian Robustas are especially well known for a winey, fruity and nutty profile

3. Robusta is More Genetically Diverse

The main reason Robusta is more genetically diverse than Arabica is that it’s allogamic. “It uses pollen from other flowers, from other Robusta plants, to fertilize itself,” Kristine explains. “There’s always cross fertilization and much more of a chance of it evolving on its own.” Arabica, meanwhile, is autogamic, meaning it typically pollinates itself with pollen from the same plant.

As the climate changes, coffee plants are facing higher instances of unusual weather and diseases, so genetic diversity of the heartier Robusta plant could be the key to surviving the frosts, floods and pests of the future.

4. Robusta Is Important

There are several reasons that promoting Robusta can be key to the future of the coffee industry. First, Robusta is heartier than Arabica, so, as the climate changes, Robusta of all grades may play a larger role in total coffee consumption.

In light of soaring Arabica prices, Walter did some tests evaluating Robusta ratios of Arabica and Robusta beans in blends. His purpose was to determine whether roasters could use a higher portion of Robusta coffee without drastically changing the taste of their blends. “In terms of cupping, it was possible to increase the percentage of Robusta by about 10% while minimally altering flavor,” Walter says. While there are still some roadblocks to altering ratios, including the density of beans while roasting, it does seem to be a viable solution for roasters looking to minimize costs, especially while Arabica prices are so high. We anticipate that unusual weather, drought and other climate-related changes will continue to effect Arabica coffee prices and availability, so Robusta may play a growing role in meeting demand.

Second, as we’ve mentioned, Robusta’s genetic diversity may become important to Arabica’s continued success as well. There are already several Arabica varieties, like Colombia and Catimor, that are hybrids of Arabica and Robusta varieties with higher Coffee Leaf Rust and coffee pest resistance. This trend will likely continue.

Finally, Robusta can grow at lower altitudes and in hotter climates and is generally less finnicky than Arabica. The ease of cultivation may be essential to helping farmers across the world reach livable incomes.

5. Robusta is Versatile

“You wouldn’t use fine Robusta as a blend. You treat it as you’d use a specialty Arabica,” Kristine says. “It has such nuance and beauty that it would be a waste to put it in a blend. You’d want to market the fact that it’s a fine Robusta. There’s a coffee shop here in the UK that only uses fine Robusta and their marketing strategy is to push the nuances of Robusta.” Kristine predicts that this interest will only continue to grow, especially as shortages in the specialty Arabica industry make coffee more expensive.

There’s an appetite for more fine Robusta and it’s our job, as an industry, to help farmers meet that need. “Part of the problem with fine Robusta is the lack of availability,” Kristine says. “And if you can get hold of it, the volume is really small.” Supporting farmers who want to produce fine Robusta, and compensating them fairly for their work, is key to expanding fine Robusta production.

Robusta is also a key ingredient in many specialty and mainstream coffee blends. The benefit of having it in a blend is that, depending on the ratio you have, it tends to cut the bright acidity of many Arabicas. “Robusta adds a creamier mouthfeel, more body and a longer aftertaste to blends. It gives a coffee a nice aftertaste that’s deliciously bitter like dark chocolate,” Walter says. Robusta is also commonly used in instant coffees.

“I think it is important that people are open to trying it. Robusta is not a dirty word. It’s very useful and it can be an absolutely beautiful thing to drink,” Kristine says. Ready to try fine Robusta or incorporate commercial-grade Robusta into one of your blends? Reach out to your trader today for more information and for help finding the best Robusta option for you.  

Want to read more about the potential of Robusta? Check out this article from the Coffee Roasters Guild.