Liquid Thinking

The OG of Coffee is Making a Comeback

Is the 'original' coffee making a righful comeback?

8th February 2023

For decades, Arabica has pretty much had the market to itself. Meanwhile, Robusta has long been considered an inferior bean and is usually confined to the background of blends or lesser quality instants. But times are changing. Now Robusta is stepping into the spotlight, as environmental factors and sourcing issues mean it’s increasingly becoming a better choice. But can brands turn things around, undo decades of negative publicity and convince customers? 

Coffee drinkers overwhelmingly prefer Arabica. They do. Marketed for decades as the best bean out there and used by the majority of coffee shops and chains as their core product, sales are dominated by this ‘premium’ bean. Arabica currently accounts for 60% of global coffee production, with Robusta taking the remaining 40%. 

But why? You could say it’s down to flavour. Robusta is less sweet and much more bitter than Arabica. Or you could say it’s down to image and marketing. Considered less refined than its rival, rather than a leading lady, Robusta has always been something of a backing singer. Its marked bitterness has been used to round-out blends, or for cheaper instants. 

In fact, the superiority of Arabica, versus the shittiness of Robusta has been what the speciality coffee boom has marketed itself on. From the 1990s, the point of difference came from rejecting Robusta – then the dominant bean – in favour of sweeter, more nuanced, more flavourful Arabica. 

Rethinking the future of coffee 

But now, things are beginning to change. Due to environmental and growing issues, Arabica is no longer that sustainable. The bean is more susceptive to the changes in weather that the world is currently experiencing. Shifts in the amount of rainfall and air temperature are currently reducing yields and could eventually make some regions untenable. Some studies have suggested it could reduce the number of areas the bean can be well cultivated in by half, within the next 30 years, markedly driving up speciality prices. Volatile coffee prices due to environmental and growing issues are already being seen across the world, from Brazil to Uganda.

And yet, Robusta is much more climate resilient. Tolerant of drought, disease, and generally much easier to grow, shifting to Robusta production may become a necessity, rather than a choice. A mark of how significant this shift could be, comes from market giant Nestlé's investment in it.

The multi-national, as it puts it, is working on “developing low carbon coffee”. It’s calling its scientists development of two new Robusta varieties a “major breakthrough”. Offering up to 50% higher yields per tree versus what it calls standard varieties, it also reduces a grower’s carbon footprint by 30%. 

Not if, but when

So for Robusta, it seems that it’s not if, but when. More and more brands, more and more producers will steadily shift across to it. But after years of its reputation being trashed, will it be able to take consumers with it?

Firstly, there are already brands making a play for it. In the UK and now in the US, Black Sheep Coffee is a coffee shop and brand that has long differentiated itself with its use of Robusta. Possibly a pioneer of the ‘Robusta revival’ since first opening in 2013, it makes a selling point of the criticisms usually levelled at the bean. Its house espresso is a single origin specialty Robusta coffee, sourced from India. According to the brand, it has “double the caffeine, a richer crema and lower acidity compared to its Arabica cousin”. It says its perfect for both an espresso or a milk-based drink. Another brand flying the Robusta flag is Blue Turaco, which uses 100% speciality graded Robusta beans, sourced directly from Ugandan farmers.  Beans are graded and roasted in the UK by award-winning baristas amid claims of “coffee that delivers a strong, premium taste and coffee-kick like no other.”

Changing perceptions 

Similarly, there are a number of brands in the US market that proudly flaunting their preference for Robusta, although its arguable that with names such as Death Wish and marketed on its higher caffeine content, they haven’t helped advance its image. However, brands such as Truegrit by Nguyen Coffee Supply are helping to rebrand and reinvent the bean. With a striking, modern blue and white pack design and a patterned design that refers to the bean’s origins in Vietnam, the beans have nearly 2x more caffeine content, 60% less sugar, 60% less fat and double the antioxidants versus Arabica. Expect more brands to follow, but it's going to be a long slog to change perceptions. 

And in fact, changing perceptions is not just going to involve proving to eco and economically minded consumers, that arabica ‘no longer stacks up’. Those consumers are more likely to be on board. But to generalist coffee consumers the key to changing perceptions of the bean is going to rely on showing consumers that actually, it’s much better value. In short, the key to growing sales of Robusta will be in highlighting the criticisms once levelled at it, as plus points, while simultaneously proving that the natural qualities of Arabica, may no longer count in its favour. 

Beyond environmental benefits

In this age of health, wellness and moderation, Robusta might now actually be a better fit. Arabica coffee beans are naturally sweeter, containing twice as much natural sugar as Robusta. Meanwhile, Robusta beans contain a significantly higher amount of caffeine, at 3.5% compared to 1.7%; roughly double from the same size cup of coffee. And it’s known to produce a much better crema. And they’re also considerably cheaper, for now. Environmentally more sound, economically more sensible, and much more efficient at delivering a hit of caffeine, what’s not to like? Brands need to shout loudly about these wellness credentials. 

Well, coffee nuts would argue… taste. Taste is what they don’t love. Here too, brands are poised and ready. Whereas previously many Robusta beans were picked green, leaving berries to ripen longer significantly affects their taste. Other, better quality methods at cultivation, are producing more nuanced beans. 

So, when it comes to the Robusta revolution, whether it will happen or not depends on perceptions. But for new brands looking to enter this space – from protecting vulnerable farming communities, sustainability and climate change, and for the pure functionality of a bean that delivers less sugar, more caffeine and more antioxidants – the story is all already there. 

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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