From early 2021 through until mid-2022, coffee prices have steadily increased. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including extreme weather conditions, like the sudden frost that hit some of Brazil’s top coffee-producing regions in July 2021, and the rising prices of shipping containers.
In February 2022, arabica futures reached a ten-year high of US 258.95 cents/lb – close to the historic highs seen in November 2011. At the same time, the International Coffee Organisation halved its estimates for the 2020/21 global coffee surplus to more than 1.06 million 60kg bags – a 22-year low.
And while robusta prices have also been increasing (mostly because of shipping container shortages in Vietnam), it still remains significantly cheaper than arabica.
Robusta is already commonly used in many coffee blends, but are more roasters using it in their blends as the price of arabica has increased? I spoke to three coffee professionals to find out more. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on roasting robusta coffee.
Why have coffee prices increased?
Between April 2020 and April 2021, arabica prices increased by 12% to US 122.03 cents/lb. For the following 17 consecutive months, coffee prices rose to over US $2/lb for the first time in ten years, before dropping to an average US 194.78 cents/lb last month.
Philip von der Goltz is the Managing Partner at green coffee trader List + Beisler.
“We’ve seen coffee prices almost double over the last six months,” he says. “In April 2021, prices ranged between US 120 cents and 140 cents/lb.
“Following on from April 2021, coffee prices peaked at US 260 cents. It’s stressful for all companies in the coffee industry because the cost of goods has increased substantially,” he adds.
The reasons for price increases are complex, but they are largely attributed to unfavourable weather conditions, declines in production in major coffee-producing countries, and logistical issues related to Covid-19.
As well as Brazil – the world’s biggest coffee producer – coffee production in Colombia has been steadily declining over the last few years. A 2018 United States Department of Agriculture report stated that the country’s production volumes fell to 14.2 million 60kg bags after five years of growth, mainly because of higher levels of rainfall. This trend has continued into this year, with Colombia’s 2022 production figures down 15% on the same period in 2021.
“There are also rises in sea freight prices,” Philip explains.
Bloomberg reported in July 2021 that the shipping container prices have more than doubled as a result of Covid-19 and steep increases in freight demand.
“Then, there are also the rising costs of in-country transportation,” he adds. “There’s tight supply in an already tough situation because of the frost in Brazil, and now we have high inflation rates and the invasion of Ukraine.”
Why is robusta cheaper than arabica?
Although robusta prices have also been increasing alongside arabica prices, robusta has historically been and is still generally cheaper than arabica coffee.
Andrew Hetzel is a coffee consultant. He helped to establish the first Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols in collaboration with the Coffee Quality Institute and the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.
The guide states: “Robusta coffee has historically been considered inferior to arabica coffee and subsequently not enjoyed the same price premiums and motivation for quality improvement seen in the specialty arabica market.”
Andrew explains how this has meant it has historically been sold at cheaper prices than arabica.
“With no differentiated market to sell robusta at higher prices, most of it is produced as cheaply as possible to maximise value,” he says. “This means that more defective beans are harvested, processed, and exported compared to the arabica market.”
For coffee to be classified as “fine robusta”, it must be free of any primary defects, including fungus or mould damage. Fine robusta must also have no more than five secondary defects, such as broken or cut beans.
However, because of a lack of investment in robusta production, there is significantly less formal training on how to spot and remove defective beans – meaning the quality of robusta coffee can be significantly lower.
“The yields from robusta trees are higher compared to arabica, and the trees are much more resilient to pests, diseases, and climate change,” Philip tells me. “Production costs are also cheaper, but it doesn’t have the same sensory profile as arabica coffee.”
Andrew also notes that while robusta is largely cheaper than arabica, when at higher levels of quality, this does become less of a given. “Many of the fine robusta coffees that I’ve worked with have actually been more expensive than their arabica counterparts; some were sold for US $2.50 to $3.00/lb, when the C price was sitting around US $1/lb.“
The advantages of adding robusta to blends
Despite the associations to being of lower quality than arabica, there are a number of benefits to including robusta in blends.
It is particularly beneficial for espresso blends as it produces a more pronounced crema than arabica. Crema is the layer of reddish-brown foam on the surface of espresso which accentuates the body and mouthfeel of espresso.
Philip notes some other reasons why roasters might use robusta in blends.
“Robusta can add a certain smoothness, as well as light, earthy, and spicy notes,” he says.
Jamie Treby is a strategist for green coffee trader DRWakefield, which offers around 15 robusta coffees.
“Robusta can add bitterness, sweetness, depth, and flavour,” he tells me. “Indian robusta will have more molasses and spice notes, whereas Vietnamese robusta will generally have more chocolate, puffed rice, and fine leather flavours. Robusta grown in Java and Guatemala, meanwhile, often has more soft cocoa notes.
“And with different processing variables, there will be a whole new range of flavours to experience,” he adds.
Andrew points out the popularity of milk-based beverages in coffee shops, and how robusta is often preferred in these drinks.
“The majority of coffee drinks consumed in the US, the UK, and other European markets are milk-based,” he tells me. “Robusta has a very classic flavour profile, with more bitterness and less bright acidity that can clash with the creaminess of milk.
“A lot of the nuance of high-quality arabica can disappear when combined with milk – is it worth it to make a cappuccino using a Cup of Excellence-winning arabica coffee? If you minimise the off-tastes and defects, robusta is an excellent base for many milk-based beverages,” he says.
So, are roasters adding more robusta to blends?
Jamie tells me that it’s mainly larger commercial roasters who purchase more robusta, but he has noticed that “some smaller roasters have been including robusta in their offerings for some time now”.
He believes this could be attributed to increasing coffee prices.
“Fine robusta is still generally cheaper than arabica, even with similar farming practices and quality control,” he says. “I’m sure there are roasters who have been tempted to buy more robusta when they perhaps previously would not have.”
Philip also notes that there has been a correlation between arabica prices increasing and roasters looking for cheaper alternatives – often robusta.
Changing perceptions of quality
Although robusta is associated with having a less desirable flavour profile than arabica, Philip explains that certain stereotypes about robusta can be harmful.
“It is crucial to avoid stigmatising robusta as an inferior product to arabica,” he says. “Classifying arabica as high-quality and robusta as low-quality is too simplistic.”
Andrew adds to this, saying: “It’s important to remember that all arabica is not necessarily good quality, nor is all robusta necessarily poor quality.”
Within the specialty coffee sector, there is a growing focus on how coffee quality can be improved. For the most part, this largely encompasses arabica coffee, but people are becoming increasingly aware of how robusta quality can be improved as well.
“New processing methods have helped to increase robusta quality,” Jamie says. “Vietnam and Brazil are both growing new robusta varieties, as well as using these new processing techniques. India’s coffee industry is also using more unique processing methods.
“When we sold an anaerobic robusta, we had a lot of requests for samples,” he tells me. “People are willing to try robusta and understand more about it.
“Roasters looking for high-quality robustas will certainly source robustas that have met more rigorous quality control standards,” he adds.
Andrew tells me how these standards are helping to improve flavour profiles in robusta, as well helping to change the industry’s perception of robusta quality.
“You can find exceptionally clean robusta coffees grown in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Uganda, and Vietnam, which was not the case ten years ago,” he explains.
What might the future hold for the robusta market?
Alongside the push for more quality control and better farming practices in robusta production, the effects of climate change on the coffee industry could create a viable new market for robusta.
“It’s a more robust coffee species that is also highly productive and cross-pollinating,” Andrew explains. “This gives robusta the potential to adapt better to changing environmental conditions.”
In the 2022 research paper entitled Expected global suitability of coffee, cashew, and avocado due to climate change, it is predicted that the land used to produce arabica coffee in Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia will decrease in both size and suitability by 2050. This is largely attributed to the rise in average global temperatures.
“When considering factors such as climate change and robusta’s higher yields, it could be an alternative to arabica,” Philip tells me.
Andrew explains how robusta’s ability to evolve and adapt can also improve its flavour profile.
“No two separate gene pools of robusta are the same, which means different flavours, tolerance to climate change, cherry and tree size, and yields.
“Some robusta has even reduced some of its caffeine and chlorogenic acid content, which makes it less bitter than others. Essentially, robusta is evolving every generation,” he adds.
Philip also believes that high-quality robusta is an affordable alternative to cheaper arabica.
“Roasters need to find ways to adapt to the current situation with coffee prices, mainly by looking for more affordable alternatives,” he explains. “They need to try other coffees in their blends, especially bigger roasters, as smaller roasters tend to have more flexibility.”
And with blends seemingly becoming more popular across the coffee industry – such as in the 2021 World Coffee Championships – robusta could be a valuable addition for many roasters.
“Historically, countries such as France, Italy, Greece, and Spain have commonly used robusta in their blends,” he adds. “But now there are many roasters in most major cities who have a high-quality espresso blend that includes robusta.”
Andrew adds: “Roasters, particularly smaller specialty roasters, are willing to experiment with new and interesting coffees, [and robusta is a part of this].”
Robusta currently accounts for between 30% and 40% of the global coffee market, but this could change if quality continues to increase, as well as more innovative processing techniques emerging across robusta production.
Furthermore, as it looks like coffee prices still aren’t settling or falling any time soon, we could well see more roasters use robusta in the months and years ahead, whether as a blender coffee or a single origin. Only time will tell.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on why frost in Brazil caused global coffee prices to increase?
Photo credits: Andrew Hetzel
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!