The era of robusta coffee is here

The mere mention of the robusta bean is enough to conjure up images of poor, second-rate coffee. Vardhman Jain, co-founder of Bangalore-based cold brewer Bonomi, puts it more succinctly: “The general perception of robusta has always been that it is very dark, bitter, tobacco flavored and harsh on the palate.”

That is starting to change. Arabica, which has dominated the market and the mindset so far, is starting to give way to the hardier Robusta as failures in production, availability and prices take their toll. a recent Bloomberg news report noted that Arabica prices are at their highest point in 10 years; it is expected to become even more expensive, given changing weather patterns, new diseases and rising labor costs. Rizwan Amlani, co-founder and CEO of Dope Coffee, goes so far as to say that Arabica coffee may well be on the way out.

For years, robusta has had to live in the shadow of the arabica bean, whose milder flavor allows for different flavor notes, ranging from chocolate to fruity, and allowed the wave of coffee consumption to spread far and wide. Robusta would be most commonly used in South India, for filter coffee, or bought in bulk by big players like Tata Coffee and Nestlé for instant coffee.

Suddenly, however, everyone from planters to roasters to coffee companies is promoting specialty robusta coffee, seeking new flavor extraction processes, such as natural fermentation more suited to the unique properties of robusta coffee, and experimentation in micro batches, trying to extract complex flavors from the bean. —unheard of even a couple of years ago.

It is very timely. A 2022 study led by Roman Grüter at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland, estimates that climate change will reduce coffee-producing land by 50% by 2050. “Arabica coffee has little tolerance for rising temperatures and is susceptible to coffee rust. On the other hand, robusta coffee is resistant to heat and tolerates its cultivation better”, states the report.

The hardier robusta, which has a higher caffeine content, grows at lower elevations and higher temperatures. Unlike countries like Brazil and Vietnam, which are big producers of robusta, India has the advantage that robusta is grown in the shade of trees like pepper, for example, which can give its products a more unique and smooth flavor that can achieve higher prices.

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In India, most farms, ranging from the main Chikmagalur belt in Karnataka to Tamil Nadu and even Meghalaya, are already engaged in specialty robusta production. In May, Mumbai-based Subko Specialty Coffee Roasters launched three types of robusta coffee with different flavor notes together with Chikmagalur-based Salawara Estate. To attract customers, robusta beans come in drugstore-style pill capsules, with new maroon images to differentiate them.

Robusta from Salawara Estate.

Robusta from Salawara Estate.

“We launched into robusta beans with the purpose and mission of making India a leader in specialty robusta. It’s great to see other brands going the extra mile and also popularizing robusta because it’s the bean of the future,” says Rahul Reddy, founder of Subko Coffee.

Mumbai-based Dope Coffee went a step further during the first lockdown in 2020 and launched a whiskey cask blend using Amrut cask and robusta beans from the Harley Estate in Karnataka’s mountainous Sakleshpur region. “It was a lockdown experiment trying to make this coffee with robusta beans. I appreciate this cafe because many people discovered us thanks to it. We sold everything on our website in less than eight hours,” says Amlani.

In late September, Bonomi released its first robust cold brew. Jain says that he is waiting to see the reaction of consumers to the higher caffeine content in robusta beans.

Prices for washed robusta, which refers to a certain type of processing, rose by around $7,500 per 50 kg two years ago at $10,000. But it is still cheaper than washed Arabica, which is sold at retail for $16,000-17,000, and specialty Arabica, which goes up to $25,000-30,000 depending on its cupping score (a measure of how good the coffee beans are according to a certified expert) and quality, says Sharan Gowda, co-founder of Ground Up Coffee and a third-generation coffee planter at Salawara Estate. It may be easier to work with robusta, she adds.

“Robusta has just had a bad reputation for a long period of our history. We need to realize that it is a completely different coffee… And while it is not entirely possible to get rid of the harshness of robusta, we need to treat it as a different variety to get the most value from it,” says Amlani.

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Gowda believes that Indian robusta production is more sustainable than that of countries like Brazil and Colombia, which have cleared entire forests to plant coffee. India uses the forest ecosystem to grow coffee in the shade, protecting it from harsh UV rays and ensuring that fallen leaves are used as compost.

It is not easy, however. Shravan DS, Head Roaster at Beanrove based in Bengaluru and a fifth-generation coffee planter who also owns the Kalledevarapura estate in Chikmagalur, explains that robusta is not easy to roast. “A lot of work is needed to discover the process of extracting flavor notes from a bean known for giving notes of burnt rubber and wood.”

The industry is now ready to make the effort. Previously, all robusta beans were harvested together; it is now common to hand-pick beans to ensure quality robusta products make it to the specialty. The fermentation process is being modified to suit robusta, as bean mucilage is thicker than arabica. As Gowda explains: “Previously, we did a round of robust bean picking, with green and ripe beans together. Now we are more selective. We ferment the bean longer and check the pH level (acidity) separately compared to Arabica.”

“It is better to be ahead of the curve and innovate, as it can be difficult to do so in times of crisis,” says Amlani. “Every roaster will be releasing robusta coffee within a year.”

Here is a starter pack for specialty robusta:

• Dope Coffee Double Barrel Blend ( $600 per 250g)

• The three different Subko Special Robustas from Salawara Estate ( $595 for 250g)

• Blue Tokai’s Kerehaklu Estate Robusta ( $390 for 250g)

• Kaizen 2.0 of Kokoro Coffee ( $450 per 250g)

• Bonomi’s Kerehaklu Estate

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based writer who covers the F&B industry.

Also read | What’s behind the enduring popularity of pourover coffee?

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