For most people in the coffee industry, robusta is viewed as an inferior coffee. The general belief is that robusta beans produce a worse cup of coffee with a less desirable flavour profile. It is cheaper to grow for farmers, more productive, naturally higher in caffeine, and resistant to drought and disease. As a result, robusta is viewed as a “filler” coffee, used in blends and instant coffee.
Although this isn’t totally incorrect, there are a lot of misconceptions about robusta. One of the biggest is that robusta technically isn’t a different species of coffee at all, but instead one of the most common commercial names for the Coffea canephora plant.
This article explores what canephora is, what the differences are between conilon and robusta coffee, and how canephora could evolve in the future.
WHAT IS CANEPHORA COFFEE?
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), canephora accounts for approximately 35% of the world’s total coffee production. It was only cultivated outside of Africa in the 19th century, almost 300 years after arabica plants left the continent. As a result, little is known about its history, botanical background, varieties, and cultivars in comparison to arabica.
Vietnam is the world’s largest canephora producer, followed by Brazil. Mexico is the only other Latin American country that produces robusta at any kind of significant rate. Other notable canephora producing countries are the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, India, and Uganda.
In comparison with arabica plants, canephora is generally hardier, more productive as a crop, and its cherries achieve more uniform ripening. It also has a naturally higher caffeine content. While they thrive in high temperatures or tropical climates at a lower altitude, canephora plants can be farmed at altitudes as low as 100 m.a.s.l.
Generally, the world’s biggest canephora/robusta buyers are major roasters and manufacturers. They use it in a variety of caffeinated products, including capsules, blends, and energy drinks. Demand for robusta is also on the rise. The ICO reports that in the 12 months leading up to May 2020, arabica exports decreased, while robusta exports increased.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROBUSTA AND CONILON?
Coffea canephora is the scientific name of the coffee plant that produces beans that are commercially referred to as robusta in general. However, much of the canephora coffee produced in Brazil, is instead referred to as conilon. While the plants are of the same species, they are considered to be of different genetic “groups”.
Christophe Montagnon, CEO of RD2 Vision, tells me that conilon plants come from a genetic group called “SG1”, while the broader genetic group of robusta plants is referred to as “SG2”.
“The Coffea canephora species is made of different genetic groups,” Christophe explains. “One of two Congolese groups encompasses coffees from Central Africa, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.” The first group is broadly recognised as robusta, Christophe tells me.
“The other one of these two Congolese groups is referred to either as ‘SG1’ or as ‘conilon’,” he says.
Conilon plants, farmed in Brazil today, were originally found along the river Kouilou in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When written down, the “Kouilou” was misspelt, and became “Konilon”, later becoming “conilon”.
As a result, conilon plants do have a genetic origin that differs from “typical” robusta plants, but are still the same species and possess many of the same traits. There are however slight differences between the conilon “line” and others.
For example, conilon plants do not grow as tall, and have a larger canopy than typical robustas. They also mature more early, have smaller leaves, and are often more resistant to drought.
Often, plants from both genetic groups are farmed together. Christophe explains that conilon plants mature later in the season. So, for example, in Brazil, some producers instead plant both conilon and robusta plants which will mature at different times. This allows them to effectively plant for a number of consecutive harvests.
Dr Aymbiré Francisco Almeida is a scientist who used to work with two coffee research institutes in Brazil: the Brazilian National Coffee Research Consortium Center (Embrapa), and Incaper. He has studied canephora for three decades.
He tells me that one of the challenges with canephora hybrids and cultivars is that “the canephora species has open fertilisation,” meaning that “there’s no pure line as is the case with arabica”. This makes it difficult to trace the genetic history of a certain hybrid variety.
However, some arabica varieties contain genes from the canephora species. This is the case with Icatu, Sarchimos and Catimor, among others.
AN INCREASE IN QUALITY?
Canephora coffees are typically used to add strength and caffeine to arabica coffee blends and beverages. Aymbiré says that “mixing arabica with high-quality canephora brings desirable advantages: the body and the crema capacity are increased, both typical characteristics of a canephora cup”.
He also notes that consumer choices today aren’t driven by the traits of certain species or varieties. Instead, people choose coffees according to taste and personal preferences.
“Unfortunately… research has not been carried out on [canephora’s] individual sensory attributes”, say Ted Lingle and Sunalini Menon, authors of The Craft and Science of Coffee.
Quality robusta is becoming more prevalent in the coffee sector. Requirements for all coffees have increased, regardless of species, and quality standards are as high as they have ever been. “In addition to genetics, much has evolved in the past 30 years, such as crop management, harvesting, and processing,” Aymbiré says. He tells me that, these days, even the least careful canephora producer “washes, peels, and pulps their coffee” because farming without minimum quality standards is not practical.
However, this increased focus on quality comes with its own challenges. For example, higher quality canephoras usually require manual harvesting. Mechanised harvesting can damage the cherries, and many canephora plants have multiple stems, which means that using machines isn’t always the best option.
THE GROWTH OF SPECIALTY CANEPHORA COFFEE
Some producers find that when robustas are farmed and processed with the same care taken with specialty arabica, they can produce an intense and flavoursome cup. These coffees can have high acidity, medium sweetness, and low bitterness. The potential cup profile of a carefully produced and roasted canephora is a full-bodied coffee with a long aftertaste, low-medium acidity and bitterness. Some have even described the coffee as having notes of spices, flowers, and fruits including melon, walnut, nutmeg, and cacao.
Canephora can be processed, dried, and fermented in the same way as arabica, but the timings of each step will be different as the fruit has different characteristics. It also needs to be roasted differently, as canephora cherries have a much lower sugar content, fewer acids, and a rigid, “meatier” structure.
In 2010, the Coffee Quality Institute launched the official Q Robusta program, which focuses on quality robusta grading. It is adapted from the Specialty Coffee Association’s methodology for arabica. Brazil’s Specialty Coffee Association has also accepted canephora producers as members since 2018, and hosts an annual Canephora Cup of Excellence award.
Specialty robustas produced in the Amazon area of Rondônia, Brazil, will be the first in the world to receive a geographical indication (GI). This means that the coffee has been officially recognised as possessing certain qualities that are unique to its origin. Alongside Brazil, high-quality canephoras are also produced in other countries, including Ghana, Ecuador, the Philippines, India, and Thailand.
THE FUTURE OF CANEPHORA
World Coffee Research and the ICO have been developing research programs and studies to determine the quality potential of canephora. These initiatives aim to “change the underlying assumption that robusta coffees are necessarily lower quality”. Climate change and its impact on arabica plants mean the future could be brighter for robusta, which is a naturally stronger plant.
Recent trials and researches conducted by Embrapa also suggest that specific canephora cultivars could thrive at different altitudes and climates. This would expand the areas in which it could be grown. Canephora genetic material can be adapted to be viable at altitudes ranging from 500 to around 1,500 m.a.s.l.; colder climates at certain heights have also been shown to improve fruit quality, creating sweeter and bigger cherries. Similar programs conducted in India have also had successful results.
There could also be an increase in demand for canephora from outside the coffee industry. The natural high caffeine content of canephora varieties makes them suitable for use in cosmetics, diet supplements, isotonics, and energy drinks.
The canephora and arabica plants produce incredibly different coffees with varied cup attributes and flavour profiles. Many people in the specialty robusta world believe this is the biggest barrier to its success.
There are a wide range of researchers and producers investigating the quality potential of the different canephora subspecies. Some are already experimenting with them to improve their arabica crops’ yield or resistance to disease and pests.
However, if the species is to be accepted in the specialty coffee arena, buyers, traders, and roasters will also need to work alongside the researchers and producers investigating the potential of quality canephora.
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