If you know a bit about coffee, then you will probably know that Arabica is the main coffee species used for specialty coffee. But is only high-quality coffee from Arabica coffee? Is Robusta always bad coffee? Robusta coffee beans make up around forty percent of coffee production around the world. Robusta is not only a sturdier plant, but it also grows more quickly in comparison with Arabica. However, it is not always provided the same attention and care during production and processing. It has a reputation for bad flavor and is often dismissed quickly by the specialty coffee industry. But if the production and processing of Robusta is given as much care and focus on quality as Arabica is, could it make a better cup of coffee?
Robusta vs Arabica
In terms of robusta vs arabica taste, it’s hard to deny that Arabica coffee offers more in terms of flavor and complexity compared to Robusta. This is mainly due to the fact that the two species have chemical differences. Arabica naturally has lower levels of caffeine, chlorogenic acids and amino acids in comparison with Robusta beans, along with sixty percent more oils in total. Since chlorogenic acids contribute to astringent tastes in coffee, the reduced amount in Arabica contributes to the quality of the cup. The increased oil, too, can explain some differences in the quality of the cup when it comes to arabica vs robusta, since many compounds are dissolved in oil droplets and released during the brewing process.
Robusta coffee often gets a bad reputation for being bitter and having rubbery notes, which may be due to the higher caffeine content. It is a coffee species that is destined for the lower end of the market, widely dismissed by brewers and roasters, and is typically used in blends.
The quality of the coffee isn’t just down to the bean chemistry, though. Human choices can also have an impact on the final quality of a cup of coffee. Many of the delicious specialty Arabica coffees that we drink today aren’t just down to nature, but also the selection of the best quality factors in the processes of production, processing, roasting, and brewing. Arabica is overwhelmingly given a much larger investment of resources and time compared to Robusta in the supply chain, which has also had a huge impact on the quality of the final cup.
According to the Coffee Quality Institute, if Robusta is processed in the same way as Arabica, it could make a huge difference. Robusta is traditionally unfavorable in terms of cupping quality, which has led to it being largely overlooked and has had an impact on how it is processed. Often, Robusta beans are traded with lots of defects, and cupping quality for this species of coffee is rarely a priority.
Could Things Change?
While it’s easy to say that if Robusta were provided with the same attention and care as Arabica, it could lead to better cupping scores and more respect for this coffee species; if there is no market demand for Robusta coffee, there is very little incentive for coffee farmers to improve the quality starting at the farm level. However, some organizations are attempting to develop a bigger market for Robusta coffee by changing how it is viewed. In 2010, the Coffee Quality Institute established a new program to develop a common language of quality for developing Fine Robusta. Recently at World of Coffee, it launched the standards and protocols for fine Robusta.
According to the Technical Director of the Coffee Quality Institute, Dr Mario Fernandez, Robusta does have various qualities that make it a more attractive choice in comparison with Arabica coffee for some growers, roasters, and even coffee consumers. Many people in the world of specialty coffee don’t realize that you can’t really compare Arabica and Robusta in terms of quality as they are two species of the same genus, with different qualities and characteristics.
As the coffee industry is more and more impacted by the effects of climate change, the importance of growing the right crop for the land conditions is likely to become even more obvious. With the demand for coffee growing as more lands becomes less suitable for successfully growing Arabica coffee, the industry is going to be faced with a need to look for an alternative. Robusta may provide the answer. It is, as the name suggests, more robust in comparison to Arabica, easier to grow, and cheaper to produce. Farmers can grow Robusta at lower altitudes than Arabica, and it has a higher caffeine content that acts as a natural pesticide, making Robusta less vulnerable to diseases and pests. It is also more resistant to extreme weather conditions and temperatures, and produces cherries much faster than Arabica plants, which often require several years to mature.
How Robusta Quality Can Be Improved
Let’s explore how Robusta is currently grown and handled, and what measures could be changed or taken at various points of the process to improve the quality of this coffee species.
Production and Processing
Coffeeyouknow is a Ugandan coffee farming company that produces fine Robusta. The owner, Stephan Katongole, says that Robusta’s bad reputation comes from poor agricultural processes in the cultivation and post-harvest process. Bad picking and improper storage are not uncommon when it comes to Robusta, with many farmers failing to dry the coffee beans completely to a moisture level of 11-13%. Bad practices like these are common in the Robusta production process, and all have an impact on the quality of your final cup. Katongole argues that the cup quality of Robusta coffee can be improved by taking some simple measures such as selectively picking the ripest cherries, immediately processing them, drying them correctly on raised beds, and improving storage. Ultimately, all the best basic processing techniques used to get the best results from Arabica can be used with some adjustments to improve the quality of Robusta coffee. When Robusta is processed well, it can produce a surprisingly clean up that has intrinsic flavor profiles, bright acidity, and a lighter body.
Industry Expectations and Market Demand
Without the market demand, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make any agricultural improvements. One of the main reasons why the situation is as it currently is in terms of Robusta, is the general negative attitude towards it. Even when a Robusta grower uses all the best techniques and best agricultural practices, many specialty roasters are still going to reject even fine Robusta coffee as they only work with Arabica. The industry currently only considers Arabica, which is why many exporters at origin will also reject Robusta.
However, encouraging fine Robusta does not mean that additional pressure should be put on Arabica producers, according to global value chain specialist Mamy Dioubate. Instead, it means offering the consumer the chance to try a product that is completely new and different. Since the taste is completely different, this approach could add new consumers to the specialty coffee market. The main goal is to bring additional revenue to Robusta, and it’s important to consider the context of how the coffee is produced. Robusta farmers make up around forty percent of the market, and they do not have any access to the specialty coffee industry even when they take steps to create a high-quality product.
There are also differences to consider between Robusta and Arabica during the roasting process. It’s important to roast Robusta coffee with the right equipment, as natural beans might contain stones, this includes using a destoner. It’s also crucial to get the consistency in the roast degree right. Most of the time, specialty roasters who do roast Robusta coffee will use many of the same practices as they use when roasting Arabica which, when done right, can produce coffee that is balanced, mellow, and sweet. High quality, fine Robusta often has distinct flavors of milk chocolate, hazelnut, peanut, and salted caramel, and some even have citrusy notes, which is normally common with specialty Arabica. Roasting Robusta is also often less delicate compared to roasting Arabica, with less complex aromas that tend to be more forgiving.
It’s often difficult to avoid the inevitable comparison with Arabica when cupping Robusta, which is why coffee roasters that work with Robusta will avoid putting the two species in the same cupping session. The distinct flavor profiles of Robusta are best revealed under pressure, which is why an espresso shot pulled from the samples is the best way to cup Robusta.
While Robusta has had a long reputation for being lower-quality coffee that does not taste great, many companies are changing this opinion and demonstrating that Robusta has lots of potential for the specialty coffee industry when better measures are taken at every step of the production process. With the current coffee price crisis and the effect that this has had on producers worldwide, it’s important for everybody in the coffee industry to rethink their beliefs and preconceptions that might be detrimental to communities that produce coffee.