Market Reports

Making the switch to Robusta

When Mild Arabica prices crept to almost US$3 a pound last year, roasters scrambled to find more affordable alternatives. For many, the solution came in the form of cheaper Robusta. The result has been an increase in Robusta exports by 13.1 per cent in the 12 months leading up to August, while Arabica exports have dropped by 3 per cent. The shift falls well in line with the Coffee Quality Institute’s announcement last March of the first Robusta certification program. The program saw Sutheraman Estate’s Kaapi Royale as the world’s first R Certified coffee. The CQI has worked on the Robusta program dating back to 2002.  Andrew Hetzel, from CafeMakers, an advocate for quality Robusta, got involved as a consultant early this year. He says the rise of demand for Robusta might be just what the industry needs to help this variety shake off its negative stigma, and find a new place in the market. “Robusta has been largely ignored by the specialty coffee industry,” says Hetzel. “It’s a bad situation for Robusta coffee growers as they have no incentive to improve their quality.” Hetzel partially blames Robusta’s bad reputation on the London Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE) that allows ten times the number of defects in Robusta than in commercial Arabica. He says LIFFE will allow 450 defects per 500-gram sample, while in commercial Arabica only 30-40 defects are allowed per 350-gram sample. “So when people are drinking Robusta, they’re essentially drinking defective coffee,” he says. “If you were to add the same level of defects to Arabica, it would taste just as bad.”   The result of these defects has led the specialty coffee industry equating ‘100 per cent Arabica’ to quality coffee. While this simplified marketing message has served its role in educating customers on the availability of better coffee, Hetzel says Robusta has lost out on the long run.  The new R Certification program is set to work against this trend in giving producers an incentive to improve their quality, similar to when the CQI first introduced the Q Grading system for Arabica. “The whole idea was to formalise a way to identify quality coffee,” says Hetzel. “The idea worked great and now we’re looking to do the same thing with Robusta. It’s coffee too, and can taste just as great, I think a lot of people forget that.”   Sethuraman Estate’s Nishant Gurjer says Robusta’s poor reputation was exactly why he decided to focus his producing efforts on this varietal. As a sixth generation coffee grower in India, Gurjer did his research before entering the family business, and saw the high amount of quality Arabica available on the market. With his land better suited to Robusta, he saw more opportunity in this less-reputable varietal. “It’s always nicer to be number one in a field, and I just didn’t see that happening with Arabica,” he says. “In working with Robusta I really had an opportunity to produce the best quality available, the kind that could compete with the best Arabica.” With Robusta a “bad word” in the specialty coffee industry, Gurjer says it took a bit of convincing to get roasters to try his coffee. He says inviting roasters to his farm has been quite helpful, in allowing them to see how he grows his coffee. He says the new certification program is another powerful tool in helping win over roasters. “It’s a big challenge to get people into a different mind-set,” he says. “To be able to say it’s the only R Certified coffee is a big help.” In terms of pricing, Gurjer refuses to discount his coffee simply because it’s Robusta. “That would be lowering the perspective of Robusta, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do,” he says. Gurjer has invested heavily into his farm, including the recent installation of a specialised drip irrigation system that helps cater the amount of water needed to each plant, as well as water-saving coffee processing equipment from Pinhalense. Hetzel and Gurjer have worked together over a number of years to help the specialty coffee industry understand that investments and efforts like this can produce fine quality Robusta. Hetzel remembers that they struggled to get anyone to attend their first cupping sessions at the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America exposition a few years ago, with most specialty roasters turning their noses up to Robusta. At this year’s event in Portland, however, he says they filled the cupping room to maximum capacity. “People are realising the potential of Robusta coffee. Without question, there is a place in the market for this,” says Hetzel. He is hopeful the recent increase in Arabica prices will help their case. With more roasters increasing their share of Robusta, he says this is a great first step to roasters becoming more comfortable with the varietal, and hopefully understanding the quality available. “We don’t want people to think of Robusta anymore as some cheap alternative,” he says. Just as the specialty industry benefitted from programs to help farmers increase the quality of their Arabica, Hetzel says the commercial opportunities to increase the value of Robusta are enormous. For countries like Vietnam, the world’s largest Robusta producer, to be able to sell their coffee at higher than market value could lead to significant humanitarian benefits by increasing their incomes. As for the future of CQI’s R Certification program, Kaapi Royale is still the only certified Robusta commercially available. However, Hetzel says they’re receiving increasing interest and sample submissions, and he hopes to soon add other certified Robustas to the list, which should benefit the industry as a whole. “Specialty coffee is really only focused on 1 to 2 per cent of the industry. It’s unfortunate, but it’s really only an elite group. Having only Arabica coffee in that group makes it even more exclusive,” he says. “Over the next few years, I’d like to see this program grow, so that we can create some opportunities for the other 98 per cent. I’d rather take a large quantity of coffee like Robusta and try to improve the quality, than continue to work on that 1 to 2 per cent. In the long run, I think more farmers will benefit and a lot more good will come from that.” GCR

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