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Robusta vs Arabica: How climate change and consumer demands are brewing up a battle

For years, Robusta has been the poor relative of Arabica coffee. But with climate change impacting supplies – and a concerted effort by at least one leading Vietnamese coffee industry tycoon – could that be about to change?

Arabica is usually the more favoured type of coffee among coffee fans because of its sweet and delicate flavour profile. Considered less acidic than Robusta, it contains almost 60 per cent more lipids (fat) and almost twice the sugar concentration of Robusta.

The beans are farmed in areas with high elevations above sea level, particularly with more rain and humidity. Unfortunately, because the arabica plant is delicate and prone to disease, it requires a fair amount of pruning and constant attention. 

The challenges of farming the beans impacts the market price considerably, but coffee connoisseurs say they are happy to pay the difference because of the "softer, and sweeter taste". 

Giving its name justice, Robusta is known for its strong and often harsh flavour profile. The coffee beans are second to Arabica in global production, despite their resilience because of their stronger taste, which some refer to as "burnt and rubbery".

The plant species is tolerant of its environment and can be grown in almost any type of altitude or climate. Its beans also have high levels of caffeine – at 2.7 per cent, almost double Arabica’s 2/7 per cent – which acts as a natural insect repellent. 

Because of Robusta’s reputation for a bitter taste, the bean is not as popular as Arabica, except where strong flavoured coffee is the norm, in countries like Vietnam. However, because it is easier to grow and harvest than its milder counterpart, farmers tend to get higher yields which can increase their return. 

Robusta is popularly used in instant coffees and as a filler in dark roasts. By using three parts Arabica and one part Robusta in a batch, a roaster can save up to 20 per cent on the cost of raw beans. But this practice may also sacrifice the product quality. 

Growing interest in markets like China and India are driving a cafe boom, boosting demand for brewed coffee. (Image: @eyamarajas via Twenty20)

Arabica vs Robusta

It is important to remember is that while Arabica is often considered higher quality than Robusta, that’s not always the case. A high-quality speciality Robusta coffee will generally taste as good as – or even better than – a low-quality Arabica. 

There are high-quality Robusta coffees, mostly single-origin coffees roasted in small batches. The finer beans will include undertones of chocolate or rum and a pleasant nutty flavour. 

That said, high-end Robusta isn't widely available. 

Coffee by the numbers 

Data relating to the market share of various coffee bean types is typically vague. Adopting the midpoints of estimates, it is safe to say that about 70 per cent of coffee produced worldwide is of Arabica beans, and about 25 per cent being Robusta. Brazil is the top producer of Arabica, while Vietnam is for Robusta. 

The balance comprises the rare Liberica bean found in the Philippines, which accounts for about 1 per cent of global sales, and its cousin the Excelsa bean predominantly found in Southeast Asia, accounting for 4 per cent. 

According to market research, the global coffee bean market was valued at US$102.02 billion in 2020 and is forecasted to reach $163 billion by 2028, enjoying a cumulative annual growth rate of 4.28 per cent between 2021 and 2028.

One of the main factors for increased coffee consumption is the growing popularity of coffee among the youth, particularly in India, China, and the Philippines, among other markets. 

Various coffee franchise retailers are entering the market to meet consumer demand. For example, in China, Starbucks alone has more than 5400 outlets and other brands like Lavazza (in partnership with KFC parent Yum China), Canada’s Tim Hortons are others are all gearing up for expansion. With fast-growing cafe networks and a general trend by millennials from tea-based drinks to coffee, demand for both Arabica and Robusta beans is growing rapidly.

Coffee and climate change

Coffee is commonly grown in delicate ecosystems in the world's tropical and subtropical regions, but with the rise in demand for beans, the need for more plantations led to deforestation. Leaving these areas nowhere near as bio-diverse as before, killing wildlife, causing pollution, and disturbing ecosystems.

The irony is that coffee is also among the crops under threat from climate change.

A study published in January found that 60 per cent of wild coffee species – or 75 of 124 plants – are at risk of extinction.

Deforestation, global warming, and disease contribute to the decline of coffee plants, and scientists warn that without proper conservation measures, the world's most popular drink may one day become a thing of the past. 

Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, associate professor of environmental policy and management at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, explained that coffee lovers would eventually feel the impact of climate change. Prices will go up, quality will decrease, and premium beans will be harder to find. 

"The production worldwide is such right now that the consumer is not yet feeling that," said Shapiro-Garza. 
"But as time goes on, it might mean that you go to your favourite coffee shop or the grocery store to buy a bag of specialty coffee, and the quality just won't be the same, or you can't get the same types of coffee that you're used to."

Levelling the playing field

Le Hoang Diep Thao, dubbed Vietnam's Queen of Coffee and who owns the international brand King Coffee, is on a mission to position Vietnamese Robusta as more premium and narrow the perception gap. In her recently published biography, The Queen of King Coffee, she shares that around 97 per cent of Vietnam’s coffee output is of the Robusta variety. 

Despite the high volume, she says local coffee farmers' success has been cyclical and unstable.

"One of the reasons for this in recent times is due to the perception that Vietnam has flooded the world market with a low-quality Robusta compared to the reputation of Arabica, which has sent prices plummeting and negatively affected the wellbeing of local growers," she explained.

Le responded to this by setting up Happy Farmers Company Trading, a wholesale and distribution network to help farmers secure buyers and negotiate higher prices domestically and worldwide. 

However, she writes that initiative alone doesn't help the reputation of the Robusta bean, which has seen its price continue to decline for decades. 

"If you read through publications written for coffee aficionados or flip through a magazine devoted to travel and leisure or food, you will see many articles that bestow supremacy on the taste of Arabica."

That, she believes, is wrong, because taste is subjective, and while Arabica varieties are more pleasing to some consumers around the world, different cultures have different matrices of taste.

"The elevation of the highlands, the amount of annual rainfall, the higher level of decomposing matter in the soil – all of these factors add to the inimitable taste of Vietnamese Robusta."

Her work at King Coffee and Happy Farmers aims to shed light on these distinctions. However, she fears that due to a "universal preference" for Arabica beans, even the best Robusta coffee will struggle to command a good price.

"I believe it is essential to enact a strategy common to underperforming products in other industries – rebranding."

According to Le, the coffee industry needs to brand the highest quality Robusta beans as the "pièce de résistance". Companies could do this by packaging labels and promotions that identify the beans as an upmarket niche coffee and advertising campaigns highlighting their quality and exclusivity. 

"We could use this as an opportunity to reintroduce our best robusta and solidify a better reputation – the result of which would raise prices for farmers while improving awareness of the Vietnamese coffee industry and reaching new consumer markets," said Le.

Breaking stereotypes
Another Vietnamese coffee entrepreneur Sahra Nguyen is on a similar mission to break down the harmful stereotypes surrounding Robusta. The founder and CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply also wants to help make the future of coffee sustainable.

"I firmly believe the fourth wave of coffee is brewing, and it's rooted in exploring Southeast Asia and sustainability via the resilient Robusta bean," she shared in an interview with Vietcetera.

According to Nguyen, the next wave needs to break down stereotypes and understand that one type isn't superior to another. 

"It starts with a dialogue. Ask yourself and the people in your life who drink coffee: Why do I believe certain coffee is better than the other?" she concluded.

  • About the author: Kaycee Enerva is a Filipino writer with a passion for sustainability, travel – and coffee.

Some day soon, when consumers head to their favourite coffee shop or buy a bag of specialty coffee, the quality just won't seem the same, predicts one expert. (Image: @Jaruka via Twenty20)
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