We are used to reading fancy - and not so fancy - coffee bag labels claiming that their content is 100% Arabica. Does it mean anything?
Oh yes. Robusta -the second most dominant coffee species- is very different from Arabica. And generally it tends to taste awful in comparison to Arabica.
Well, that’s what most people would tell you. But I found a World Barista Champion and very successful coffee competitor who said otherwise:
“I think first and foremost baristas should educate themselves and stop being so against Robusta coffee. Robusta can be good quality and have a nice flavor.” - Agnieszka Rojewska
So, let’s not discard Robusta before we learn a bit more about it. I gave it a chance after reading that interview and I say you can give it a chance too. Furthermore, if you had instant coffee, you might have already given it a shot.
Robusta’s name comes from its sturdiness and adaptability to harsher climates. Arabica, on the other hand, earned its name for cultural and historical reasons.
Although people discovered coffee in Ethiopia, documented trade started later in the VII century to current Yemen and lower Arabia, providing Arabica its name.
Taste, aroma, and... crema?
Photo by Kimiya Oveisi on Unsplash
Simply put, Arabica tends to taste better than Robusta. Naturally, Arabica is sweeter with a wide spectrum of scents and flavors. On the other hand, Robusta is naturally bitter, and depending on quality can be nutty and spicy.
One of the interesting things about Robusta is that it can produce a richer and thicker crema than Arabica. This feature contributed to its popularity in Italian blends for espresso for a long time. Even now, some roasters still use Robusta in their blends to get a more appealing crema in their espressos. However, this doesn’t have to do only with the coffee species, but with freshness and other factors like roasting profile and type.
Considering the quality of the coffee beans, things get a lot more complicated. Fine and premium Robustas can beat low-grade Arabicas easily, but a top-quality Arabica is nearly unbeatable.
Another huge factor is coffee varieties, which can display different aromatic profiles between them. This takes me to the next point.
Getting back to bitterness, the main reason for the differences between Arabica coffee beans and Robusta ones is caffeine.
We love caffeine, and it plays a huge role in our way of life. It makes us more productive, keeps us going through adversity and it’s less dangerous than other popular legal drugs like alcohol. But, caffeine is bitter. And Robusta coffee beans are bitter because they have more than twice the caffeine of Arabica coffee beans.
Another difference comes to sugars. One of the reasons for Arabica’s more pleasant taste is that it has a higher sugar content than Robusta.
To some extent, Arabica is a bit fattier than Robusta as well, which might explain why high-quality Arabicas can develop bold and rich cups. But chemistry alone doesn’t play a role in taste, aroma, and body.
Robusta is sturdier -hence its name- than Arabica. Having a high caffeine content helps the plant to defend against pests, because this substance is toxic for many bugs, and is present in the entire plant—even its leaves.
Furthermore, Robusta grows at lower altitudes and higher temperatures than Arabica. For this reason, experts are looking for ways to improve Robusta quality.
Unfairly for Robusta, growing at a low altitude didn’t give it an advantage in terms of value. Surely, many producers are happy to plant Robusta because it’s more resistant and relatively easier to take care of (although I can’t imagine an easy way of farming, for that matter).
On the contrary, since we tend to associate high-altitude grown Arabica with high-quality coffee, Robusta has been historically below Arabica’s price. But we shouldn’t be talking about price in this section.
Price and Market
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Higher demand for good tasting, mouth-watering, diverse, and beautiful Arabica coffee beans make them a lot pricier than Robusta.
Considering that more than half of global coffee production (about 60%) is Arabica, it’s shocking that high demand can still push the prices up. However, it isn’t that simple. Coffee grows only in tropical countries, that are increasingly hotter year after year, and their climate is becoming less predictable for coffee growing. In 2021, for instance, more than 2.5 billion plants died after an unprecedented frost in Brazil, triggering a huge pike in coffee prices.
In this regard, fine Arabica coffee beans and Robusta are significantly pricier, but Arabica is always more expensive.
Liberica, as it’s little known and not too available, can be quite expensive depending on its quality.
I have met some people who seem to have bitterness in their DNA, but in Robusta’s case, it isn’t a metaphor. Robusta is really bitter. In terms of family history, Arabica descends from Robusta, although it seems that we discovered Arabica first.
For centuries, we have studied Arabica with great care, while Robusta has been widely overlooked. Just recently, Robusta has acquired a better reputation among experts.
As a result, we know a lot about Arabica genetics, while it’s hard to find scientific papers about Robusta genetics and varieties. Moreover, we have found dozens of Arabica varieties and only two varieties of Robusta.
While I don't have any reason to think there are dozens of unknown Robusta varieties undiscovered in the wild, it’s quite likely that our deeper interest in Arabica has made us grow it in a wide range of places, with different altitudes, climates, and soils.
Coffee genetics is a tough topic, but if you are keen to dive into it, World Coffee Research has amazing information available.
Does Robusta stand any chance?
If you are looking for a simple and humble coffee shot, you don’t need high-quality Robusta or Arabica - you can get instant coffee, which is quite likely made from cheap Robusta.
Now, if you want to find eye-opening, mouthwatering, heavenly -I might be exaggerating here- aromatic profiles, then you need high-quality coffee. Arabica has a lot more chance of producing this transcendental experience because it has varieties that grow in dozens of countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and even Europe (Valle de Agaete, I am talking about you)
Still, Robusta is worth trying, especially fine ones.
Would you try some?