In North America, most major brands of coffee will declare “100% Arabica coffee!” on their packaging, though you may not have heard of the alternative: Robusta. So, which one makes good coffee, and why?
Arabica is seen as
While Arabica does have roughly half the caffeine content of Robusta, it contains sweeter, fruit and floral-like aromas, and the flavor profile is sweeter, milder, and has notes of sugar, fruit, and berries. They are also somewhat more acidic with a wine-like flavor. Some may find them too floral and light, in which case a robusta blend may be preferred.
In contrast, robusta packs a punch with double the caffeine, but a much stronger sharp, woody flavor that smacks you in the face. Some say it has a grain-like flavor and an aftertaste like peanuts. Generally, they’re considered lower quality than Arabica, making them used primarily for instant coffees.
What is the difference between their production?
Robusta’s name comes from their ability to be more durable, resistant to pests and diseases, and being generally… robust. They produce fruit more quickly than arabica strains, and yield more per yield. They’re less valued because robusta is more abundant and less desirable.
Robustas trees can be grown at lower altitudes, and are grown primarily (if not exclusively) in the Eastern Hemisphere, with Vietnam being the top producer in the world.
Fun fact: Vietnam is the 2nd largest producer of coffee in the entire world, yet because it’s nearly all robusta, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bag of Vietnamese coffee on your grocery store shelves.
Arabica is a bit more finicky when it comes to cultivation. The trees take longer to grow to maturity, they produce fruit slower, and each yield is smaller. They’re also more likely to succumb to “coffee rust” (a fungus that kills the plant) and are more vulnerable to pests.
Grown at higher altitudes (800-2000m above sea level), arabica requires a more delicate balance of humidity, shade, and will benefit from acid- and mineral-rich soils. It needs constant attention to ensure it is growing well, and remains fragile its entire life.
It’s the sheltered prince who plays wonderful music, but gets sick from an open window.
If it tastes “bad”, what is Robusta good for?
In robusta’s defense (which I find myself inexplicably taking), it is said to add depth to the flavor of a coffee blend, filling out the notes that arabica lacks.
As well, robusta generates more crema – the reddish-brown foam on top of espresso that some say is necessary for the perfect espresso shot. Robusta is often an essential part of the coffee mix when you intend to make a good shot of espresso. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, eh?
As well, since it has higher caffeine content, it is better for soluble/instant coffee.
Since most people don’t tend to like bitter flavors without some sweetness added, robusta is good for those sugary instant coffee mixes.
Remember: bitter is not the opposite of sweet – it’s just another flavor.
Again, Vietnam comes to robusta’s rescue. Since they’re the main producer of robusta, they’ve come to acquire a taste for the strong, bitter coffee, and have found ways of using that bitterness to its advantage.
Vietnamese-style coffee is defined by its combo of bitter-sweet robusta beans with sweetened condensed milk. It’s a surprisingly addictive beverage and definitely one of my preferred coffee variations.
Finally, if you want a strong coffee flavor in your baking, Robusta may be where it’s at.
When using coffee as the feature flavor, you probably want something that won’t easily be diluted and forgotten in the mix. If you are a baker and enjoy making coffee-flavored delicacies, it’s a worthwhile experiment to try each form of coffee and see how they come out.
Is Arabica always be the better choice?
Honestly, I see Robusta as an underdog that I’m rooting for.
While Arabica is really good – for the time being – this may not always be the case. Arabica started off on better footing and was given much more care and attention as a result.
Specialty coffees have been made by refining the plant and cultivating better and better strains using the most advanced techniques.
For robusta, this was never the case.
Countries that largely produce arabica don’t tend to have systems that reward the methodical testing and enhancement of the plant, opting to pump out as much of the product as they can to maximize profits. I’m looking at you, Vietnam.
If robusta growers were to have a system that encouraged and enhanced robusta’s finer qualities, it could become a contender in its own right.
Just look at beer: there are some fruity, lighter beers, and there are the dark, whole-bodied, bitter ones. Which is better? It’s a matter of taste, of course, and coffee could one day become similar.
Personally, I’m rooting for robusta to make it’s rise, especially since arabica is much more fragile to environmental changes. One day, if the climate continues to become more extreme, we may no longer have arabica to drink; it can only be grown in the very areas that will be hit first and hardest.
So, maybe we should invest in better robusta before it’s the only option left, don’t you think?
Pierre Lablanche, one of the founders of the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas, believes that robusta’s have been given short shrift, and that they’re normally just poorly processed. If properly processed and washed using the same techniques as high-quality arabica coffees, Lablanche argue that robusta’s could find a niche in the specialty coffee market.
As pro-robusta advocates (yes, they exist) say:
“a carefully washed robusta will always taste better than a poorly processed arabica.”
Which costs more?
Well, basic economics clearly places arabica as the winner between these brothers. Arabica is more desired, harder to grow, and yields less per run, providing it with a more favorable supply-demand combo.
But, again, I’m rooting for robusta to get some quality TLC one of these years and hope to see some quality, strong, bitter coffee appear on the market.
Though, it’s possible you’ll find robusta running a steeper price in bean form since it’ll be so difficult to find in North America. Ironic, isn’t it?
A Humorous Final Note
If you think that they’re splitting hairs between two beans, and I can often find myself thinking that about certain areas of coffee, you’ll find this funny.
In the March 1992 issue of the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, Donald Schoenholt, a specialty coffee roaster and specialties editor for the journal went on record saying:
“I have discourage the acceptance of C. canephora because… to my mind the species is, incompatible, with the spirit of virtue that our coffee should represent to the world. The gospel according to David Weinstein calls for uncompromisable coffees. Canephora is a compromise. No coffee man adds canephora to a blend based on the taste qualities it brings to the table. On historical principles, the american trade should abstain from the use of the coffee as an atonement for the C Canephora excesses of the past generation. It will be best to scrupulously avoid its use except in the very narrowest drawn circumstances and applications. This is prudent. It is sometimes not unwise to be overly cautious, even to err on the side of caution. We in the United States should understand, though, that “Gourmet” blends containing C. canephora are accepted in polite European coffee society. Indeed, many Americans prefer blends which include these coffees.”
I don’t know about you, but something that provides an extra kick of caffeine, adds variety to the menu, and causes such vitriol to be said with such pomp, well, that’s an underdog I’m willing to root for.