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The age of robusta coffee is here

Long forced to take a back seat to the arabica coffee bean, robusta is now becoming the flavour of note for the speciality coffee industry

Speciality robusta is beginning to make a mark, (Istockphoto)

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Mere mention of the robusta bean is enough to evoke imagery of poor, second-rate coffee. Vardhman Jain, co-founder of the Bengaluru-based cold brew maker Bonomi, puts it most succinctly, “The general perception of robusta has always been that it’s very dark, bitter, tobacco-ey and harsh on your palate.”

That is beginning to change. Arabica, which has dominated the market and mindscape so far, is beginning to yield ground to the sturdier robusta as production, availability and pricing niggles take a toll. A recent Bloomberg news report noted that arabica prices are at a 10-year high; it’s expected to become pricier still, given changing weather patterns, new diseases and increasing labour costs. Rizwan Amlani, co-founder and CEO of Dope Coffee, goes as far as to say arabica could well be on its way to extinction.

For years, robusta has had to live in the shadow of the arabica bean, whose smoother taste allows different flavour notes, ranging from chocolatey to fruity, and enabled the wave of coffee consumption to sweep far and wide. Robusta would be more commonly used in south India, for filter coffee, or bought in bulk by big players like Tata Coffee and Nestle for instant coffee.

Suddenly though, everyone, from planters to roasters and coffee companies, is promoting speciality robusta, looking at new flavour extraction processes, such as natural fermentation more suited to robusta’s unique properties, and micro-lot experimentation, trying to extract complex flavours from the bean—unheard of even a couple of years ago.

It’s well-timed. 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% before 2050. “Arabica coffee has low tolerance to rising temperatures and is susceptible to coffee rust. On the other hand, robusta coffee is heat-resistant and more forgiving to grow,” the report states.

The sturdier robusta, which has higher caffeine content, grows at lower elevations and at higher temperatures. Unlike countries like Brazil and Vietnam, major producers of robusta, India has the advantage of robusta grown in the shade of trees such as pepper, for example, that may give its produce a more unique, mellower flavour that can fetch higher prices.

In India, most estates, ranging from the main Chikmagalur belt in Karnataka to Tamil Nadu and even Meghalaya, are already engaged in producing speciality robusta. In May, Mumbai-based Subko Specialty Coffee Roasters launched three types of robusta coffee with different flavour notes along with the Chikmagalur-based Salawara Estate. To entice customers, the robusta beans come in pharmacy-type pill pods, with new maroon imagery to set them apart.

Robusta from Salawara Estate.
Robusta from Salawara Estate.

“We jumped into robusta beans with a purpose and mission to make India a leader in specialty robusta. It’s great to see other brands put in effort and popularise robusta too because it is the bean of the future,” says Rahul Reddy, founder of Subko Coffee.

Mumbai-based Dope Coffee went one step further during the first lockdown in 2020 and released a whisky-barrel blend using the Amrut cask and robusta beans from Harley Estate in Karnataka’s hilly Sakleshpur region. “It was a lockdown experiment to try and make this coffee using robusta beans. I cherish this coffee because so many people discovered us because of it. We sold out on our website in less than eight hours,” says Amlani.

In late September, Bonomi launched its first robusta cold brew. Jain says he’s waiting to see the reaction of consumers to the higher caffeine content in robusta beans.

Prices of washed robusta, which refers to a certain type of processing, are up from around 7,500 for 50kg two years ago to 10,000. But it’s still cheaper than washed arabica, which retails for 16,000-17,000, and speciality 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, he adds.

“Robusta has just got a bad name over a long period in our history. We need to realise that it’s a different coffee altogether... And while it’s not completely possible to get rid of robusta’s harshness, we need to treat it as a different breed to get maximum value out of it,” says Amlani.

Gowda believes India’s production of robusta is more sustainable than countries like Brazil and Colombia, which 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 fallen leaves are used as manure.

It’s not easy, nevertheless. Shravan D.S., head roaster at Bengaluru-based Beanrove and a fifth-generation coffee planter who also owns the Kalledevarapura estate in Chikmagalur, explains that robusta is not easy to roast. “It takes a lot of work to figure out the process of extracting taste notes from a bean known to give burnt rubber and wood notes.”

The industry is now ready to put in the effort. Earlier, all robusta beans would be picked together; now it’s common to handpick beans to ensure quality robusta produce comes into the speciality fold. The fermentation process is being tweaked to suit robusta since the bean’s mucilage is thicker than arabica’s. As Gowda explains: “Earlier, we did one round of picking robusta beans, with green and ripe beans together. Now, we are more selective. We ferment the bean for longer and check the pH (acidity) level separately compared to arabica.”

“It’s better to be ahead of the curve and innovate since it might be difficult to do so in the time of crisis,” says Amlani. “Every roaster will launch robusta coffee within a year.”

Here is a starter pack for speciality robusta:

• Dope Coffee’s Double Barrel Blend ( 600 for 250g)

• Subko’s three different Specialty Robustas from Salawara Estate ( 595 for 250g)

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

• Kokoro Coffee’s Kaizen 2.0 ( 450 for 250g)

• Bonomi’s Kerehaklu Estate

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

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