July 1, 2020

Inside Brazil’s Specialty Robusta Scene

Specialty coffee is usually associated with Arabica coffee beans, and Robusta coffee beans are usually associated with commercial coffee, instant coffee, or blends. 

While Arabica is known for producing cup profiles that make it suitable for specialty coffee, a contributor to its success has been the care and attention put into its production and processing – as well as the resources and research invested into encouraging its production. This suggests that paying a similar level of attention to Robusta could improve its quality. 

In Brazil, specialty Robusta production is slowly taking off, and a handful of producers are starting to explore its market potential. Here’s what’s contributed to the recognition of this coffee, and how the country’s specialty Robusta scene is progressing.

Lee este artículo en español Analizando la Escena Del Café Robusta de Especialidad en Brasil

Qualities of Specialty Robusta Coffee 

Robusta is a member Coffea canephora family, and is a cousin to Arabica coffee. However, in Brazil, Robusta and Conilon are sister varieties of coffee that share similar traits and are grown in equal volumes. Despite this, Brazilian Conilon and Robusta coffee are both marketed internationally as Robusta.

Another distinct Robusta offering exists in the form of the Amazonia Robustas. This coffee, which only grows in the Matas de Rondônia Region, is in the process of becoming the world’s first Coffea canephora to receive a Geographical Indication tag. While Robusta generally has an inferior cup quality when compared to Arabica, it also has agronomic performance advantages, including heat tolerance and disease resistance.

Arthur Fiorott is the Director of Safra Agronegócios, and is based in Linhares in Espírito Santo, Brazil. He tells me, “When we analyze quality [Robusta] coffee, we look for intense and present sensory attributes. Contrary to what is widespread, [they] have high acidity…, medium sweetness, and low bitterness. They are robust coffees with a complex sensory variation.”

While specialty Robusta can have the above attributes, no two cups will be exactly the same, as each will be produced and processed differently. Lucas Venturim is a fifth-generation producer, and his family-owned farm, Fazenda Venturim, exclusively grows specialty Robusta. He tells me that “we work mainly with the peeled cherry, but we also produce natural batches, honeys, and for fermentation we have several processes, including the addition of yeasts (initial cultures).”

Joaquim Inácio Sertório Neto is a Robusta Grader and Conilon Consultant from Brazil, and describes the sensory profile of specialty Robusta as being “full-bodied… with [a] long aftertaste, low [to] medium acidity, low bitterness, with notes of fruits and spices.” 

These qualities will need to be taken into consideration during roasting. Joaquim explains, “As a roaster, I have to take the raw material into consideration… [It] has half of the sugars, less acids, and its structure is much more rigid than an Arabica”. This means he’ll need to take care during roasting to preserve the coffee’s sweetness and acidity. Because of the specialised approach required, many specialty Robusta producers roast and market their own coffee, as few roasteries have the expertise required to do so.

When brewing specialty Robusta, Lucas says that it should be kept in mind that it has more soluble solids than Arabica. “The recommendation would be to modify some of the extraction variables… to adjust the extraction. You can, for example… use a lower water temperature, a slightly coarser grind, or even reduce the ratio of coffee to water.”

Joaquim says that in the past, specialty Robusta was used to add more body and caffeine to coffee blends, and was rarely served as a single origin coffee. This could be because its taste differs from Arabica and requires getting used to. He explains that Robusta and Arabica should not be compared, as they offer different attributes: “This is a [coffee] with higher caffeine content and less sweetness, so it may taste strange at first”. 

You may also like How Does Grafting Arabica to Robusta Improve Coffee Yields?

The Rise of Specialty Robusta in Brazil

Robusta has already started to receive recognition in the specialty coffee world. In 2010, the international Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) released its official Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols, as adapted from the Specialty Coffee Association’s methodology for grading Arabica. THese protocols joined the Institute’s Q Grader Robusta Certification, which aims to help the industry differentiate between good and bad Robusta.

While Vietnam is currently the world’s top Robusta producing country, Brazil is right behind them, and could overtake them in the future – making the country well placed to produce specialty Robusta. Some local producers have started to take notice. Lucas says “the community of [Specialty Robusta] producers… we are still not very numerous… Everyone knows each other. We formed a group in order to share information and experiences, and we try to help each other, since everything is quite new”.

Organisations and groups are being formed to help specialty Robusta producers meet with other producers and increase their knowledge. The Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association has recognised the world’s growing acceptance of specialty Robusta, and that producers are starting to farm it. Vanusia Nogueira is the Director of the SCA Brazil, and says that by increasing the quality of their specialty Robusta, producers are helping generate market interest and acceptance.

A large percentage of specialty Robusta yields are high quality, further encouraging production. Arthur says that in Brazil, “a crop can produce around 80 to 100-hectare bags (4800 to 6000 kg), of which it is possible to have around 60 bags of high-quality [Robusta] coffee”. This is likely to have contributed to Brazilian Robusta exports increasing 59.5% from 2019 to 2018 and by 27.2% from 2019 to early 2020.

Producing & Selling Specialty Robusta

While the number of Brazilian Specialty Robusta producers is small, it could grow in future. Lucas explains that last year, “The demand for our coffees far exceeded our production, and fortunately we were able to help other producers to participate in this market.”

However, there are drawbacks. As each plant is multi-stemmed, mechanisation is challenging, making manual harvesting the best way to detach fruits from the branch without damaging the cherries. 

In addition, producers have to contend with Brazil’s reputation for producing commodity-grade coffee, leading many buyers and consumers to dismiss specialty Robusta as being inferior. However, Arthur notes that this is changing. “The domestic market has changed a lot in the last two or three years… the specialty coffee market is very curious and is always eager for news, and we’ve been gradually getting those opportunities”. 

For more people to adopt specialty Robusta as a viable option, they need to experience it firsthand. Lucas explains that most people have only read about Robusta, or tried a low quality sample of it. He explains that after trying specialty Robusta for themselves, “many of them understood that this coffee would have the potential to attract a new audience [and be] a new portfolio for their business.”

Specialty Robusta might not be as well known as specialty Arabica, but thanks to the efforts of its producers, this could change in the future. However, for it to find new markets in Brazil and across the world, coffee buyers will need to appreciate it as its own offering – without comparing it to Arabica.

By understanding what specialty Robusta has to offer, buyers can help introduce it to the market as a new way to experience coffee, and not as a replacement for Arabica. As Lucas says, “We want to produce a coffee that has its own identity, and that is a new portfolio for roasters, so that they can reach a new audience with this product!”

Enjoyed this? Then Read Can Fine Robusta Be Considered Quality Coffee?

Photo credits: Lucas Venturim, Empraba

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