Several recent reports have highlighted the issues of sustainability in coffee, and the threats against the cultivation of arabica. As a result, many are looking towards robusta coffee as a valid option for the future of the industry.
Technically, robusta isn’t a different species of coffee at all. Instead, it is one of the most common commercial names for the Coffea canephora plant. Conilon is another species with very similar properties to robusta but with some genetic differences.
Historically, conilon coffee was predominantly used for caffeine-infused products such as instant coffee. Therefore, the focus was on resistant plants that produced high yields in a short time.
However, investments have been made into developing the production of the conilon crop and understanding its potential. Improvements in cup quality, combined with conilon’s high yield and resistance capabilities means it has caught the attention of the industry worldwide.
To learn more about conilon coffee and how roasters can use it, I spoke to Dério Brioschi of Farmers Coffee in Brazil.
Exploring conilon coffee in Brazil
Farmers Coffee was the dream of four young men: brothers Dério and Phelipe Brioschi, Luiz Henrique Pimenta, and Joāo Paulo Marcate. Each is the son of a farmer and holds an intense passion for coffee.
They were born in the Montanhas Capixabas, in Venda Nova do Imigrante, the National Capital of Agritourism with a majority population of Italian descent. The four studied at the Federal Institute of Espírito Santo (Ifes) and, over time, have evolved family traditions to help modernise their coffee farms.
“In the past, production was mostly a commodity,” Dério explains. “There was a lot of willingness to grow, but little scientific knowledge and restricted access to technology.” However, he adds that during the 70s, their grandfathers began producing superior-quality coffee.
Dério says a small wet processing unit was developed and was powered by a water wheel as there was no electricity. Unfortunately, as time passed, this fell out of use because of the low incentives to produce high-quality coffees in the region. “Despite this, a love for coffee cultivation has been passed down from generation to generation.”
The municipality of Venda Nova do Imigrante is about 900 metres above sea level. Due to the altitude, climate, and terroir, arabica coffee has great productivity whereas nearby municipalities, such as Afonso Cláudio and Itarana, have a large production of conilon.
“The state is recognised by the working people, as there are several small productions led by families,” Dério says. “Even though coffee cultivation is the main agricultural activity, the state is known for its small rural properties. The average size of properties is around 8 hectares.”
On smaller farms, the producers can control production closely, which often results in selected lots. Dério explains that the attention paid to each coffee plant is extreme. “Even in post-harvest, the drying of the beans is carefully controlled, and some farmers are even producing fermented coffees.”
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 referred to as conilon. While the plants are of the same species, they are considered to be of different genetic “groups”.
Conilon plants come from a genetic group called ‘SG1’, while the broader genetic group of robusta plants is referred to as ‘SG2’. Research shows the conilon variety was observed in the wild by the French in 1880. It was found growing between Gabon and the Congo River, mainly next to the Kouilou River, in Africa.
Conilon coffee 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.
This research suggests that conilon, instead of robusta, may be the more viable option for tackling issues regarding climate change. Dramatic changes in weather patterns are affecting coffee crops around the world, with arabica being the largest casualty.
Conilon was initially planted in Espírito Santo to form an alternative income between harvests. “Due to time and logistics, the Canephora harvest had to be advanced and as a result, many immature fruits were harvested,” Dério says.
“Traditionally, the drying process was also a problem. As the beans are precarious, they were often dried at high temperatures with direct fire. Some producers still do this, as it is a cultural and financial issue.”
This combination of factors directly contributed to the construction of Conilon’s negative image. “Today, however, that mentality is changing,” Dério explains. “The younger generation of farmers are seeking knowledge and investing in technology. This generation already understands that Canephora has great potential, especially when produced with quality.”
Educating coffee farmers about the potential of conilon
There are currently many studies on post-harvest techniques for Canephora and the IFES has been educating producers in Espírito Santo about coffee fermentation.
Processes such as carbonic maceration and carefully controlled drying environments have led to Canephora coffee becoming a drink with a higher sensorial quality. “A coffee with a higher percentage of caffeine, which was once very stereotyped, is now gaining more acceptance as it has a quality that is on par with Arabica,” Dério says.
“Conilon coffee is starting to win the hearts of roasters and coffee lovers,” he adds. “These numbers will only increase as the coffee is constantly improved both genetically and post-harvest. The stigma surrounding poor quality is being broken and we feel that conilon is the future.”
Another way that roasters can address climate change, which is affecting producers around the world, is by ensuring that we are not contributing to it. Having sustainable packaging that is recyclable or compostable can encourage a more circular economy. Single-use plastics are one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Investing in coffee packaging that can be reused or disposed of responsibly will help the industry work towards a solution and slow down the exponential effects of detrimental and wasteful habits.
At MTPak Coffee, We offer a range of high-barrier coffee bags made from 100% recyclable materials, including kraft paper, rice paper, LDPE, and PLA. In addition to our water-based inks, which are low in volatile organic compounds, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags to highlight the unique characteristics of your coffee.
Images by Farmers Coffee