According to the International Coffee Organisation, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of coffee. In 2020, the country produced around 12.1 million 60kg bags of coffee – an increase of 5.8% on the previous year.
The vast majority of coffee grown in Indonesia is robusta. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the country will produce some 9.3 million 60kg bags of robusta during the 2021/22 harvest season.
Despite the large volumes of robusta that Indonesia produces, most of it is used in blends or in soluble coffee products. The main reason for this is the perception that robusta is of lower quality than arabica – largely as a result of minimal quality control for robusta production.
But is there a chance this could change? To learn more, I spoke with several local coffee professionals. Read on for their insight into Indonesian robusta.
An overview of robusta production in Indonesia
Robusta is a major cash crop for Indonesia. In fact, according to Index Mundi, Indonesia is the world’s third-largest robusta producer after Brazil and Vietnam. So why does the country grow so much robusta?
Mia Lakhsmi Handayani is a R grader (also known as a Q robusta grader) in Indonesia.
“The country’s vast areas of suitable land for coffee production, as well as its different microclimates, make it ideal for producing robusta coffee,” she says.
She adds: “These conditions also mean robusta flavours can range from more soft, subtle coffees with notes of chocolate and fruit grown in Central Java, to more intense flavours of vanilla and chocolate, like robusta grown in Sumatra.”
The largest robusta-producing regions in Indonesia are mainly found in southern Sumatra – an island located west of Java. Sumatra’s high temperatures make it more ideal for growing robusta than arabica.
Like in many producing countries, the majority of farmers in Indonesia are smallholders who grow coffee on around one or two hectares of land. As many smallholder farmers produce coffee on a subsistence level, they often retain little money to reinvest into their farms, which understandably means quality control can become an issue.
Why do we need to improve robusta quality?
Denny Hermawan is also a R grader in Indonesia. He explains some of the issues which robusta farmers face in the country.
“Robusta production in Indonesia is plentiful, but quality and yields need to be improved,” he says.
In addition to a lack of widespread quality control measures, there are also problems around differentiating between fine robusta and commodity-grade robusta. To be considered fine robusta by the Fine Robusta Standards and Protocols, a 350g sample of green coffee should have no primary defects and no more than five secondary defects.
With quality control continuing to be an issue in Indonesian robusta production, it can be difficult firstly for smallholder farmers to identify the quality of their robusta, and then subsequently to improve it if they need to do so.
Furthermore, if producers are already producing fine robusta but do not have the knowledge or equipment to verify this, they could potentially be missing out on opportunities to scale their income.
However, these are not the only issues that Indonesian robusta production faces.
According to the paper Effects of Climate Change on Global Coffee (Coffea arabica L) Production, global warming could have devastating effects on the country’s arabica-growing land.
In the study, the researchers claim that because up to 37% of the country’s land may become unsuitable for arabica production, Indonesian farmers may need to “climb higher” to reach better growing conditions.
However, it could also mean that Indonesian arabica farmers ultimately may be forced to produce more robusta, as it is much more climate-resilient than most arabica varieties. This could have detrimental effects on their income – largely because farmers receive higher prices for arabica compared to robusta.
In turn, this means an increasing focus on improving robusta yields and quality is becoming more and more essential for the future of Indonesia’s coffee industry.
Challenges in Indonesian robusta production
Alongside the increasing threat of climate change, Indonesia’s robusta farmers face a range of other difficulties
According to the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture, most coffee farms in the country yield about 817kg of cherry per ha. However, robusta plants are capable of yielding as much as 1,300kg per ha – indicating a productivity gap. In essence, this means that more investment could be needed to make robusta plants more productive.
“Most farmers only own small plots of land for robusta production, [and with such low prices for robusta], they are suffering economically,” Mia explains. “Their economic situation is made worse by the fact that the robusta plants need to be pruned and fertilised, which costs money.”
As a result of ongoing preconceptions about robusta as being of lower quality than arabica, many farmers in Indonesia invest less in processing and post-harvest for their robusta plants.
“Some producers don’t see the full potential of robusta because they receive less money for it than arabica, so they focus more on quantity over quality,” Denny says.
Riswan Fitriyandi is a robusta farmer in Indonesia. He agrees that a lack of quality control during robusta production is a problem in Indonesia.
“There is a lack of maintaining quality control,” he tells me. “During harvest, pickers will remove all of the cherries, regardless of whether they are ripe or not, which can affect the harvest the following year.
“It’s not easy to change these practices as they have become somewhat normal in Indonesian robusta production,” he adds.
Ultimately, the issue circles back to information and resource availability as far as the correct production and processing techniques for robusta are concerned. Furthermore, with farmers accustomed to lower prices, as well as international perceptions of robusta being lower in quality, market growth certainly looks like a challenge at present.
Improving quality control standards
So, how can the quality of Indonesian robusta be improved?
Denny believes that it starts with increasing farmers’ access to education, including resources for processing coffee. This is especially important as it’s estimated that post-harvest can be responsible for up to 60% of overall coffee quality.
“It allows farmers to sort higher-quality robusta beans from commercial-grade beans,” he says. “I grow about 200 robusta plants and try to share my knowledge and data on how to conduct proper processing techniques with other farmers.
“My methods may not be applicable to all farms in Indonesia, but they at least provide general guidance on how to improve robusta quality,” he adds.
Mia agrees, saying that more people in Indonesia need to be made aware of the existence of fine robusta.
“When more people are aware of specialty-grade arabica, the market for it grows, which means connections to farmers are much easier to come by,” she tells me. “That’s why I became a R grader in the hope that it will increase awareness and demand of fine robusta, and ultimately boost the quality of robusta in Indonesia.”
She tells me how fine robusta can sometimes have similar flavour profiles to arabica.
“I first tried a fine robusta in 2005,” she says. “It had a citrus-like acidity and a good body – it would have been delicious as a single origin espresso.”
Given that the C price for arabica has been steadily increasing for over the past year, roasters’ shrinking profit margins may mean they look to more affordable sourcing options to continue to meet demands for interesting cup profiles.
“The potential for robusta is definitely there; we just have to find a way to use our experience and knowledge to bring the best out of it,” Denny says. “By growing higher-quality fine robusta, we can create a more viable market for Indonesian farmers.”
Riswan agrees, saying: “The results of the first-ever Cup of Excellence Indonesia were promising last year, and I believe robusta can also shine in the same way [given the right time and investment].”
There’s no doubt that applying stricter quality control standards across the Indonesian supply chain will result in higher-quality robusta. But to maintain these improvements, these standards need to be scalable and accessible.
A large part of this revolves around increasing access to farmer education – which means supporting producers to learn more about robusta production and how quality control can be improved. If we do so, then Indonesia could improve its reputation within the niche of fine robusta coffee.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on experiments with localised coffee flavour wheels in Taiwan & Indonesia.
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