MONTERÍA, Colombia—For as long as this country has been producing coffee, one bean has been so reviled by Colombians that no one dared grow it.
Producers have long favored the milder, more expensive arabica bean and shunned robusta, the variety most often found in instant coffee and in coffee blends.
“People say it tastes like tires. Like petroleum barrels,” said Andrew Hetzel, a consultant in the specialty coffee industry. “I’ve even heard it described as ‘the tears of children.’ ”
Arabica makes up 65% of the world’s coffee production. However, global demand for less expensive robusta beans is rising, especially in Asia. That’s left Latin American nations scrambling to plant it. Guatemala and Nicaragua are expanding their robusta plantations. Costa Rica in February lifted a 30-year ban on growing it. In Colombia, the country that invented arabica snobbery, a small group of pioneers are breaking with tradition and experimenting with the plants.
Some coffee connoisseurs even say robusta isn’t so bad after all, produced in the right conditions.
“The big roasters want more and more of it,” said Ricardo Piedrahita, sustainability manager in Colombia for Nestlé SA, which buys about 5% of the country’s annual coffee production.
At the Agriculture Ministry’s plant nursery near the farm town of Monteria, agronomists are tending to the very first 3,000 robusta seedlings shipped from Nestlé facilities in France and Mexico.
To inspect the baby robusta, a visitor has to don a blue sanitary smock and hairnet, step through an iodine foot bath and go through three doors designed to keep out insects and microbes.
Government agronomist Juan Carlos Pérez treats the 4-inch-high interlopers like his own children. He carefully caresses them—each sprout marked with an orange tag and number.
Mr. Pérez comes from a coffee producing family that’s proud to cultivate arabica on a picturesque mountain farm. “But you have nothing to lose by experimenting,” he said.
Robusta has sold wholesale for an average of 87 cents a pound this year, compared with $1.39 for Colombian arabica. However, Asia, where robusta dominates, is the fastest-growing region for coffee sales, with consumption expected to rise 3.1% this year. That compares to 0.5% in Europe and 2.6% in North America, where arabica rules, according to the International Coffee Organization, an intergovernmental organization based in London.
Robusta has a few advantages for farmers, said James Watson, senior beverages analyst at Rabobank. “It is literally robust. It is stronger against diseases. It generally has higher yield and is easier to grow.”
Still, he said he usually orders cold brew coffee at shops, and picks the specialty, single-origin beans over the house blend.
“I have never had a cup of robusta,” he said. “My understanding is you wouldn’t really want to drink it.”
Robusta doesn’t have to taste like tar, said Jorge Cuevas, chief coffee officer at Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importer based in Portland, Ore.—it’s just that growers don’t have the financial incentive to put the same amount of care into the beans as arabica. A good robusta, he said, is creamy and intense, with a full, syrupy mouthfeel, and is sometimes used in espresso drinks. (It’s found in U.S.-sold brands such as Sanka and Lavazza.)
He put it this way: If robusta and arabica walked into a bar, arabica would blend in, but robusta “would be bigger, louder, funny and charismatic. It would draw a lot of attention. You can’t miss it.”
Colombia has long shunned robusta over concerns that growing it would damage the country’s reputation for quality, said Juan Lucas Restrepo, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s research branch that is running the robusta experiment.
The country gained prominence for its coffee in the 1960s, when the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation introduced an ad campaign touting its arabica beans. Numerous U.S.-produced TV spots followed starring a fictional straw-hatted farmer named Juan Valdez and his trusty mule, Conchita. One featured the captain of the Queen Elizabeth II abruptly turning the luxury liner back to port after running out of Colombian arabica.
“It was the only civilized thing to do,” intoned the narrator.
By 1979, Colombian coffee exports had doubled.
As emerging markets picked up a coffee habit, robusta demand began to percolate. In 2000, Vietnam displaced Colombia as the world’s No. 2 coffee exporter, behind Brazil, thanks to its robusta production.
A government-sponsored white paper in 2014 recommended that Colombia plant robusta, citing growing world demand brought on by rising prices for arabica and the development of better-quality robusta. Improvements have prompted coffee companies that once used 20% robusta in their blends to increase the amount to about 60%, said Roberto Vélez, chief executive officer of the Coffee Growers Federation, which represents 400,000 of Colombia’s 540,000 producers.
He said the group would leave the development and promotion of robusta to the private sector. “As the federation, we’re not participating at all. It would not be exported as ‘Colombian,’ ” he said.
“I have nothing against robusta,” he added, but the federation’s arabica-growing members would revolt if the group began promoting robusta.
Diego López, a Medellín businessman who once worked in the arabica trade, has spent 10 years testing robusta on tiny plots around the country. Growing robusta in the land of arabica means starting from scratch to identify proper robusta clones, soil and microclimates for profitable yields. He has one decent plot of robusta, he said, but the area is located in a remote part of southern Colombia far from ports. Robusta, he said, requires “a different mentality.”
Mr. Restrepo, from the Agriculture Ministry, predicts that it will take at least five years of tests and harvests before the best robusta varieties are developed and geographic zones in Colombia are identified for commercial production.
Should the crop take hold, it would also erase the awkward fact that millions of Colombians drink coffee from neighboring Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. Colombia exports nearly all of its coffee and must import about 1 million sacks to meet local demand for cheap coffee, according to government figures. Most of it is robusta.
Write to Julie Wernau at Julie.Wernau@wsj.com