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Business trends

From Uganda to Vietnam, Robusta coffee turns critics into fans

Coronavirus demand drives global rediscovery of often-snubbed bean

Toi Nguyen has won accolades for Robusta coffee grown at his farm in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Namamame Honpo)

TOKYO -- Eager to dispel Robusta's reputation as a second-rate coffee only suitable for instant drinks, more producers around the world are churning out luxury varieties of the bean grown, picked and processed with extra love.

Toi Nguyen, owner of the Future Coffee Farm in Vietnam, has been at the forefront of the global push for quality Robusta. Coffee from Nguyen's farm is made with only the ripest beans grown under strictly monitored conditions, and has received high marks from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

"It now has fans in Europe too, and is harder to get ahold of than before," said Hiromasa Okazaki, president of online coffee retailer Namamame Honpo. "Its wholesale price has gone up about 20% from last year."

Robusta can be grown at lower altitudes and is more resistant to pests than Arabica, which is used more commonly in non-instant coffee. Thanks to its relative reliability, Robusta's share of global coffee production has increased to about 40% from 20% over the last four decades.

But Robusta is often priced lower than Arabica beans due to its distinct aroma, which some find off-putting, and cheaper production costs. An increasing number of growers are now looking to break into the more lucrative specialty sector in order to boost their incomes.

"More farmers are adopting methods and particular growing practices for the bean in order to play up the unique tastes and characteristics of Robusta," said Masaomi Arakawa, a manager at Japanese trading house S. Ishimitsu.

At the Kaweri Coffee Plantation in Uganda, this has meant growing Robusta beans at an altitude of roughly 1,200 meters. Coffee plants grown at higher altitudes require more care, but the wider temperature range throughout the day gives the beans a deeper aroma.

"You get a certain sweetness, like chocolate, in addition to the typical toastiness of Robusta beans," said an industry executive.

The coronavirus has only bolstered the public's interest in Robusta, with more consumers staying home and drinking instant coffee.

"Robusta producers see this as an opportunity to market luxury products that are different from existing mass-market varieties," said a source at a Japanese trading house, adding the beans can be sold straight or in a blend.

Robusta used to be panned by Japanese consumers, who unfavorably compared the flavor to that of barley tea.

But there is expected to be a shortage of Arabica coffee beans during the 12-month period ending September 2022, according to an estimate by trading house Marubeni. This would be caused in large part by a production slump in Brazil, the largest maker of Arabica.

Furthermore, climate change and other factors are projected to wipe out half the arable land for Arabica coffee by the year 2050. In light of that, expectations have soared that Robusta can keep coffee supplies stable.

Kazuyuki Kajiwara, head of Marubeni's beverage department, says Robusta should not be bought at the low valuations that resulted from its unflattering comparisons to Arabica.

"It's essential to purchase [Robusta] at fair values in order for production centers to be able to remain sustainable," said Kajiwara.

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