As the market for high-quality java reaches new heights, the world’s most pedestrian coffee variety is itching for a makeover.

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As the market for high-quality java reaches new heights, the world’s most pedestrian coffee variety is itching for a makeover.

Robusta is the lowly, bitter bean that is the heart and soul of cheap canned coffee, and makes up a lot of coffee production in Vietnam, West Africa and Brazil. It is commonly dissed by high-brow coffee types, who prefer its smoother-tasting cousin, Arabica.

“Robusta has an image problem,” said Andrew Hetzel of Café Makers, a coffee consultancy for roasters, growers and traders. Before tasting coffee from beans made by a high-quality Indian producer of robusta, he says all he knew was “that robusta was bad.”

Also, he said Friday at a panel at the Specialty Coffee Association of America convention in Seattle, he’d “seen t-shirts with ‘Your mother drinks robusta.’”

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Hetzel, however, became a convert — even if initially a lonely one. “There were a few years where we held cuppings” of exquisite robusta beans, “and nobody came,” he said.

Nevertheless, high-quality varieties of the species are gaining some ground in coffee-mad places like Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Craig Dickson, of Australian roaster Veneziano Coffee Roasters, says that since most coffee in his country is consumed with milk, the stronger notes of robusta come through better than those of Arabica. Forty percent of Veneziano’s business is from an espresso blend that contains high-quality Indian robusta produced by Nishant Gurjer, of Sethuraman Estates. It brings out “positive chocolatey notes,” he said.

In fact, Gurjer’s coffee was the first to receive a fine robusta certification in 2012 from the Coffee Quality Institute, in Long Beach, Calif.

Henry Ngabirano, an Uganda Coffee Development Authority official who has sought to spread the gospel of high-quality robusta for three decades, said at the panel that it’s moment in the sun is finally coming.

“Better late than never,” he said.

This movement comes amid growing concerns of future availability for top-notch arabica, as the bean suffers from climate change and disease even as consumption in new markets such as China and India explodes

But some challenges remain, especially in Arabica-loving America, where specialty coffee drinkers are used to smooth coffees from Latin America.

A big image overhaul is in order for a species that’s been long pooh-pooh’d by specialty coffee gurus, said Hetzel.

“Perhaps a new name for robusta,” he said.