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A Huge Step Forward for Fine Robusta. Is the Specialty Coffee Market Ready?

uganda fine robusta coffee

Photo courtesy of Uganda Coffee Development Authority

Long talked about for its potential in the growing specialty market, fine robusta is taking a big step forward with the Uganda-led development of a fine robusta training and research institute.

The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) says the Center of Robusta Excellence (CORE) will bring together coffee industry leaders from throughout Africa and the world for research and education to increase quality and differentiated value in fine Robusta. In the process, they hope to break down the robusta quality taboo among influential specialty buyers.

Financed by the Agribusiness Initiative Trust (aBi), the institute is expected to open in 2015 and is being developed in partnership with the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which oversees the Q-grading system and last August unveiled new R-grading standards (for robusta), as well as new marks for robustas and blends.

“Uganda is where Robusta originated, which is why we will lead this global effort,” UCDA Managing Director Henry Ngabirano said in an announcement yesterday. “Through CORE, we aim to achieve excellence with innovation that will lead to not only better Robusta quality but also knowledge that can be used to the benefit of all coffee cultivated worldwide and its farmers.”

Uganda is currently the world’s fourth largest exporter of robusta, and UCDA representatives last September outlined a $42 million (USD) plan to plant approximately 300 million robusta seedlings over the next three years.

Why fine robusta and why now? The answers are many. Over the past year, we’ve heard coffee professionals from all segments of the industry discuss the varietal’s potential to augment the specialty arabica industry. Potential benefits include:

  • Quality and Blending: Robusta has been notoriously underdeveloped in terms of quality, despite its widespread use in espresso blends. As the fine arabica market is increasingly tight and global prices remain volatile, robusta has the potential to provide some relief. (See Success in Fragments: How Big Really is the Market for Fine Robusta?)
  • Genetics: Robusta is already known for its superior resistance to heat, pests and other threats that will continue to plague fine arabica varietals. (See Rethinking the ’100 Percent Arabica’ Stance as Robusta Genetics Proliferate.)
  • Farmer Income: A more mature fine robusta segment can only help farmers, whether through education, training, infrastructure development or crop diversification.

The UCDA believes their new center will help lead the way for a “new generation of robusta,” yesterday announcing:

CORE programs will focus on the improvement of cup quality, study of new or unexplored landraces of Robusta and strategies for increasing productivity and value.  Varieties discovered and new practices developed by CORE are expected to offer a new generation of Robusta to the coffee industry and its consumers – one with dramatically better flavor and more applications than currently exist.

Time will tell whether the R-word taboo will actually fade among influential buyers in the specialty industry, which has for years trumped arabica as the only quality option.

“Large specialty coffee companies simply cannot afford to take a risk on offering even the best robustas,” Coffee Review founder Kenneth Davids said late last year at Let’s Talk Robusta, an offshoot of Sustainable Harvest’s Let’s Talk Coffee event. “They would be doomed by the same 100% Arabica myth they helped create.”

At that same event, Melbourne’s Veneziano Coffee Roasters President Craig Dickson said, “You want to produce a fine robusta?  Treat it like a fine arabica,” while Blue Bottle‘s Stephen Vick offered the following warning: “Someday soon there won’t be enough fine arabica to meet demand. Better to start experimenting now.”

Let the experimenting begin.