Something’s been brewing in the coffee world and it’s Robusta! Robusta coffee is slowly emerging as a new market of specialty coffee but to see how we got to specialty Robusta, let’s go back to the basics.
What does Robusta Coffee Mean?
Coffea robusta, also known as Coffea canephora or simply Robusta coffee, is a species of coffee native to Central and Sub-Saharan Africa. Robusta coffee accounts for approximately 30% of the global coffee market, with Arabica coffee taking up the rest of the market.
Robusta is often thought of as the ‘other’ type of coffee, inferior to Arabica but yet commonly used for instant coffee and espresso blends in homes and cafés around the world. Coffee brewed from Robusta beans is strong and acidic, with more heightened bitterness and a major caffeine kick. Robusta coffee has a reduced variety of flavors and aromas compared to specialty Arabica coffee. Robusta beans have a peanut-like aroma and when brewed, the aroma is described as earthy and strong.
Like all coffee, whether or not your Robusta cup tastes good or not depends on the quality of the beans. Good quality Robusta coffee beans can add a depth of flavor and complexity to coffee blends but poor quality Robusta beans give you coffee that is overly bitter and extremely strong.
When it comes to the plant itself, Robusta gets its name from the improved resilience of this coffee variety over other varieties of coffee. Robusta coffee plants grow as a tree or shrub up to 10m in height with irregular flowering patterns and the berries take 10-11 months to ripen. Robusta grows at a lower altitude than Arabica, usually around 900 MASL. It also has a higher yield and greater resistance to pests, diseases, and bad weather.
Robusta cultivation mostly occurs in Vietnam, with notable contributions from other countries like India, Brazil, and Western and Central Africa.
What Does Arabica Coffee Mean?
Arabica coffee is the other common variety of coffee which accounts for around 70% of the global market. Arabica is prized for its wide variety of flavors and complexity. However, it’s more difficult to cultivate than Robusta, since it’s prone to damage from pests and bad weather.
Arabica coffee is native to Ethiopia but is now grown in many countries part of the ‘coffee belt’ (between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn). Brazil, Colombia, Kenya, India, and many other countries in Latin America, Africa, The Caribbean islands, and Asia.
Currently, Arabica dominates the specialty coffee market while Robusta is relegated to commercial or commodity coffee markets. This may all change in the coming years as specialty Robusta emerges to disrupt the market.
Arabica vs Robusta Coffee
Robusta is often described as having an earthy or oatmeal-like taste, with a distinct bitterness. On the other hand, Arabica coffee has a wide variety of possible flavor notes, ranging from nutty to earthy to fruity. This difference in taste between Arabica and Robusta coffee could be due to differences in caffeine content, sugar content, genetics, and growing environment.
Robusta coffee is grown at lower altitudes than Arabica. Robusta can be cultivated at around 200-800 MASL whereas Arabica needs higher elevation, preferably above 900-1000 MASL. The Robusta plant is more resilient, gives a higher yield, and has lower production costs. On the contrary, Arabica plants are notoriously finicky. They are prone to infestation and environmental damage, have a lower yield, and come with significant production costs. Arabica beans are more delicate and need specific temperatures and elevation in order to produce good coffee.
Robusta coffee is cheaper to produce for a few reasons: it has a higher yield per acre, it matures faster, it’s highly resilient, and it has a wider tolerance for different growing conditions. All these factors together make it cheaper to produce Robusta on a large scale compared to Arabica coffee. Arabica has a lower yield, takes longer to mature, and is sensitive to variations in climate, pests, soil, elevation, and more. This makes it riskier for farmers to grow and drives up the production cost since you need to invest a lot more into making good Arabica coffee.
The higher cost of production leads some producers to mix Robusta with Arabica to make a blend.
It’s all in the name. Robusta coffee beans are quite literally more robust and resilient than Arabica beans. Robusta beans have a higher concentration of compounds like chlorogenic acid and caffeine which deters pests and prevents infestations (it also makes your coffee bitter), it can withstand variations in temperature including heat and frost, and is overall a much hardier plant. Contrary to this, Arabica needs careful nutrition and preventive care to deter pests and disease. It also requires protection from climate variation, soil changes, and more.
If you need a major caffeine kick in the mornings, then Robusta is the bean for you. Robusta coffee beans have a higher concentration of caffeine, up to 2.7% caffeine per bean whereas Arabica beans go up to 1.7% caffeine per bean. The higher caffeine content in Robusta lends it a more bitter taste and can worsen caffeine side effects like anxiety, insomnia, tremors, and digestive issues.
Another point to note is that Arabica coffee contains more sugars and lipids than Robusta which contributes to the improved flavor of Arabica coffee.
Robusta is most commonly used to make instant coffee. Interestingly, Robusta-Arabica blends are popular for espresso brewing where the presence of Robusta beans is said to improve the crema. High quality Robusta is on the rise and this could mean we see the prevalence of Robusta increase in specialty cafés and stores. This interest in specialty-grade Robusta is welcome as climate change ravages Arabica crops.
Arabica coffee is what you can expect at your specialty cafés, stores, and roasteries.
Things get a little more complicated when we compare the environmental impact of Arabica vs Robusta coffee. You would expect that Robusta would be better suited to combat the effects of climate change and this is true in many ways (resistance to temperature changes, resistance to pests, lower water and fertilizer consumption, etc.). However, Robusta cultivation pushes many coffee farmers towards mono-cropping.
Mono-cropping is an agricultural practice that involves growing the same crop in the same location, year after year. Overdoing this can lead to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. Since Robusta is easier to grow, large producers can buy forest land, clear all the local vegetation and trees, and plant Robusta year in and year out. This disrupts the local ecosystem and has a negative environmental impact overall.
On the other hand, while Arabica is more difficult to cultivate, it promotes more sustainable agricultural practices such as shade-growing and inter-cropping. As we look towards a post-climate change world, perhaps a mix of Arabica and Robusta could be cultivated that brings together the best of both worlds.
Which Variety of Coffee Bean Should You Pick?
As a coffee drinker, all this information is great to have but the final question remains; which variety of coffee beans is best for you?
The consensus is that you should always pick Arabica coffee and only 100% Arabica at that. While I agree that Arabica offers better flavors, let’s not write off the unique qualities of Robusta beans. The higher concentration of caffeine is a big draw for many people, especially those like me who need an extra motivator in the morning. Robusta as instant coffee is easy to find, generally very affordable, and requires no skills to brew. This makes it appealing for those on a tight budget or with little time on their hands. Lastly, Robusta beans would be good for someone who likes bitterness, less acidity, more caffeine, and convenience.
As a coffee lover myself, Robusta was my introduction to coffee via instant coffee. Over time this drove me to explore other types of coffee. In this sense, I think Robusta has great value for people who are just getting into coffee. The low barrier of entry encourages people to give it a try and who knows, this could lead to better coffee and greater interest in the coffee world.
Arabica is the gold standard for coffee currently and if you like complex flavors, don’t need too much caffeine, and can invest time, money, and effort then definitely give 100% Arabica beans a try. The wide variety of flavor profiles means there’s something for everyone and it’s fun to experiment with and explore the variances in Arabica coffee. Although it’s more expensive, good Arabica coffee will always be worth it.
Still on the fence? Go for a Robusta-Arabica blend. You can get this in different ratios of Arabica vs Robusta. Blends bring you the best of both worlds and can be good for brewing Italian-style espresso.
Whichever you choose, I recommend keeping an eye out for developments in Robusta coffee. Specialty Robusta is an exciting concept that could deepen and broaden our understanding of coffee. It’s not about which is better than the other, but ultimately what works best for you, for farmers, and the environment.