Are we really getting into this? We are indeed! We think it's an important topic and we think that robusta coffee has a lot more to it than some of us may think.
As a preamble to this blog post, I want to refer you to a short interview I did with Joshua Rukundu, a coffee expert in Kanungu district in Uganda, as he explores some of the differences between robusta and arabica.
I want to keep this post concise, so I'm going to outline what I believe the three main differences between arabica and robusta coffee. There are more and feel free to continue your research further, this is by no means an exhaustive list.
I'm starting with the most important issue. Although arabica and robusta are the two most popular types of coffee grown worldwide (first and second respectively), they taste totally different from one another.
Robusta is often considered to be of a bitter taste, with some people even commenting that blends with high robusta content often taste burnt and rubbery. This is perhaps due to two fundamental reasons. Firstly, robusta (2.7%) has a higher caffeine content than arabica (1.5%) and secondly, there is less sugar in robusta beans.
The fact that arabica beans tend to be sweeter when roasted certainly appeals to the palate of many coffee drinkers in nations such as the US and UK. However, in countries where Espresso is the drink of choice, think Italy and France, robusta often forms an important part of the blend. It is said that robusta adds depth to espresso shots and also improves the crema on top of the espresso.
This is why many blends that are marked as 'Italian' often have a high robusta content.
Arguably the second most important variable when comparing arabica and robusta coffee is the price. Although the global coffee market is notoriously volatile and prices often change considerably from year to year, on average green robusta beans are up to 50% cheaper than arabica beans.
This is a demand issue mainly - the demand for arabica is greater than robusta. However, just because robusta is cheaper, it should not be dismissed. In fact, I've often heard it said that it's better to drink a good cup of robusta than a bad cup of arabica. And I would tend to agree.
For people looking for strength and depth to their coffee, robusta might be their preferred choice and the bitter taste that many of us like to avoid is popular with some. Take the guys over at Death Wish who market their coffee as 'The World's Strongest.' They use robusta as part of their blend and they're offering a really high end product. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because robusta is offered, then the coffee is of poor quality. Often, it comes down to individual preference.
3. Growing Conditions
Although not overly important to a lot of consumers, the third difference I want to raise between the two varietals of coffee are the conditions in which they are grown. Robusta is grown at lower elevations, often at altitudes of up to 2,000ft and can be found in the relative lowlands of coffee producing countries.
Arabica on the other hand is grown in the highlands and at altitudes of up to 6,000ft. One of the reasons that arabica fetches a higher price than robusta is the fact that it is more difficult to get the product to market.
Another factor to consider when thinking of the growing conditions is that robusta, excuse the pun, is a very robust plant! It can withstand a lot of sunshine and heat and is also more resilient to insects than arabica. If you spend time in coffee growing regions, you will see that many small holder farmers grow robusta on their compounds and plantations alongside many other food crops to subsidise their income.
As I hope you can see from this post, there are many differences between robusta and arabica coffee, and I believe that I've outlined the most significant three. Disagree? Then by all means let me know by leaving a comment below!