What is Robusta Coffee?
Given there are several hundred species of coffee, Robusta has managed to be the second most popular coffee next to Arabica. There are more than 120 Species of coffee but only two of them have commercial importance namely:
- Coffea Arabica
- Coffea Canephor (Robusta)
There are others that we come across often too – Congensis, Eugenoides, Liberica, Racemosa, to name a few. Robusta was known to have originated in the Congo basin much before Coffea Arabica was discovered. In fact, Robusta and Coffea Eugonides contributed to the birth of Coffea Arabica. Since Robusta being a cross pollinator, has more scope for crossing with multiple species like Congensis or Liberica, there is immense potential for growth and improvement in Robusta cultivation.
Robusta & The Indian Perspective
The story of how Robusta spread along the Indian subcontinent is something to dwell on. India being the 5th largest producer of Robusta behind Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia and Uganda, has played its part in fixing the problems that caused the spread and destruction of other coffee species by Hemileia Vastatrix – more commonly known as “Coffee Leaf Blight, La Roya, or Leaf Rust”. Robusta in particular was found to produce higher yields, with a lot less work, and exhibited much greater tolerance to disease and pests.
It drew the attention of scientists immediately.
The taste of Robusta was noted to be non-desirable, but cross-breeding and specific selection allowed it to be tamed to a degree, a level that was recorded as ‘indifferent’. However, the most important fact was that this plant could now be grown where Coffea Arabica couldn’t; making it possible to be planted widely in the regions where leaf rust was making coffee production a challenge. The impact was so large, that the species name became synonymous with the varietal name, Robusta. The coffee market had to adjust. The coffee industry was saved.
Today, even though Coffea Arabica is widely preferred due to its complexity of flavours, Robusta is not far behind. Robusta contributes to 40 % of the world’s coffee market and is now being grown in regions where Coffea Arabica can no longer sustain itself. This has also proved to be more beneficial to the farmer, as it is less susceptible to disease, more productive in terms of yield, and more tolerant at high temperatures, especially given an increase in erratic weather patterns around the globe.
But one of the main problems being faced by producers of Robusta, is that it is consider to be inferior and only usable in Blends or Instant coffee due to its different taste. Robusta tastes more bitter than an Arabica. This bitter flavour is in part due to the higher caffeine content. It’s also higher in chlorogenic acid (CGA) which contributes to the bitterness – Robusta contains around 7-10% CGA, where Arabica has around 5.5-8%. CGA. There is also about half the sugar content in Robusta. Overall Robusta is described as tasting earthy, harsh, grainy, with hints of burnt wood/rubber, with an aftertaste of peanuts.
The Need of the hour
We must understand that Coffee quality does not come from just the Chemistry of the Bean, but also from a series of human choices. The delicious Specialty Arabicas that we drink today, are not gifts of Nature, but rather a result of centuries of selective breeding with emphasis on quality; followed by the careful choices we have made in Cultivation, Harvesting, Processing, Roasting and finally, in Brewing. Given its potential, it’s just a matter of time for Robusta to become a major part of the Speciality Coffee Industry – we have already seen glimpses of this in the form of “Kaapi Royal” which is well known for its quality worldwide, or even the “Robusta Monsooned Malabar” which is a speciality coffee.
To summarize, an emphasis on Quality while selecting the Seedlings, the cultivation activities that follow, ambient Micro climates with the right Harvest Intervals, and finally, the best processing & storage practices, will lead to an interesting and unique profile, heralding in a new generation of coffee through Robusta.