The Rise of Robusta—and its Impact on Hawaii Coffee Farmers
Dabble in the world of coffee—either as a consumer or a connoisseur—and chances are you’ve heard the word “Robusta” enter the conversation with increasing speed.
And yet, what is Robusta—and what role does it play in the future of coffee, both here in Hawaii and across the globe?
First, a brief history:
The lion’s share of coffee you likely drink is derived from Arabica—an evergreen shrub, known as Coffea, that ultimately yields high-quality java.
Such high-quality has turned the plant into the dominant producer of coffee around the world (to the tune of representing 75% of global production). Starbucks, for example, purchases and serves only Arabica beans; this alone has determined national, if not international, taste.
Robusta, meanwhile, has long been considered the lesser of the two coffee plants. Technically known as Coffea canephora, and, at present, grown mainly in Vietnam, Brazil, and Africa, it has a greater crop yield than that of Arabica. It also contains nearly double the amount of caffeine. That said, its high bitterness and low acidity (read: it’s less sweet) has rendered it the “cheaper” and less delightful of the two. (Maxwell House, for one, used Robusta in their blends until 2007.) At the same time, Arabica’s loftier taste is partially the result of years and years of perfecting how it’s grown, processed, and roasted. As the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) reports, Robusta is “often overlooked because of its traditionally unfavorable cupping quality, which traces directly to the way it is processed. Oftentimes, Robusta beans are traded with hundreds of defects and their cupping quality has not been a priority.” Arabica, by and large, has historically been thought of as the superior brew.
Robusta’s Changing Status
Despite its reputation as inferior, Robusta is on the rise. Cafes from Missouri to Washington are specializing in slow-brewed “Vietnamese” coffee, which calls upon the hardy bean. The actor who played Freddy Krueger—yes, he of Elm Street fame—used Robusta in his much-anticipated “Nightmare Blend.” The bean is favored in espresso drinks to create that froth we so love, advocates of the plant are pushing for more research into how cultivators can improve its flavor, and in 2017, Robusta was the star ingredient in the world’s strongest cup of coffee (a cup that held 17.5mg of caffeine per kg—which, to be clear, is three times as much caffeine as a regular cup of Starbucks coffee.)
Moreover, while emerging data suggests that Robusta isn’t as weather-resistant as once thought, of the two coffee plants, it’s believed to be more sustainable and better able to withstand global climate change; it’s also less costly to produce. Further, Robusta, whose naturally-higher caffeine content protects itself from pests, is more impervious to diseases than its pricier cousin.
In turn, global production of Robusta is skyrocketing. In October, 2020, Brazil—the largest producer and exporter of coffee in the world—reported soaring sales of Robusta. Costa Rica lifted a 30-year ban against growing Robusta trees to make room for the increasingly-popular plant. Additionally, farmers and roasters across the planet are taking a different approach to Robusta, producing, in the end, a new type of Robusta: One that maintains its outstanding body but also possesses sweeter, softer notes.
The Impact Robusta Will Have on Hawaii’s Coffee Scene
While Hawaii isn’t the only coffee producer in the United States, it is the largest—and many would argue the finest. The Big Island is home to the Kona Coffee Belt, a region whose ideal climate for harvesting coffee has resulted in the creation of nearly 800 coffee farms. (There are roughly 40 more farms scattered across the rest of the islands.) The state has recently seen a surge in Arabica varieties—brews that have garnered awards—but it’s widely known for its Kona coffee: a subtle, velvety cup that’s widely appealing for its drinkability.
But “Arabica varieties” is key here. Robusta may be the more economical crop, but the merit of Hawaii-cultivated coffee is believed to be due to the fact that the state grows only Arabica beans. (This partly explains the high price tag on Kona and other Hawaiian coffees, as Robusta is used as both a blend and a filler in lower-end brews.) But, given the challenges coffee farmers are confronting in the face of climate change, will that shift?
Differing Views on Robusta’s Future in Hawaii
Depends on who you ask.
According to Miquel Meza—a renowned roaster and the founder of Pahala, Hawaii’s Isla Custom Coffees—Robusta is a central part of Hawaii’s coffee future.
“I hope to see it expand—to more growing origins and more species,” he told STiR about his hopes for the future of specialty coffee. “I’ve always been a big believer and supporter of specialty Robusta, and I hope to see the same kind of attention to detail given to Arabica applied to Robusta, as well, at both the farm and research levels. We really haven’t scratched the surface of what the quality potential or flavor profiles possible with this species are, as it’s always just been written off.”
He went on to say that “the reality is that Robusta and intogressed hybrids using some Robusta parentage have to be the future of coffee as environmental conditions change in growing areas around the world. The less prejudice we hold against non-Arabica varieties, and the more work we do now developing their potential, the better the coffee we drink is going to be 20-50 years from now.”
The executive director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, Ken Love, however, believes that the climate changes hitting other parts of the planet—parts that have had to turn to growing Robusta out of necessity—won’t be as deeply as felt in Hawaii because of the islands’ optimal latitude and excellent drainage.
Meanwhile, Andrea Kawabata—an extension agent at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources in Kainaliu—believes that while Hawaii has geographical defenses that protect its coffee crop, other threats to coffee, such as pests and diseases, may give Hawaii coffee farmers something to think about. “Farmers are always dependent on weather, so if the climate is turning harsh, they’re going to be looking for hybrid coffees that are going to withstand that,” she told West Hawaii Today. “But on top of that, they need to be aware of the pests and diseases these plants may not be tolerant to, so they want to breed that into it also.”
The bottom line is that Robusta may make its way into the Hawaiian coffee scene, where it might prove to be as resilient in the islands as it has in Brazil and Vietnam. In the meantime, though, we’ll have what we’ve long adored: The bright, fruity flavor of a Hawaiian cup of joe.