If you want to see me roll with your eyes, you just have to put me in front of a typical coffee advertisement. What really gets on my nerves is that you don’t get any real information about your coffee, but it ensures a bold announcement of “100% Arabica”. In uppercase letters.
The supposed quality guarantee “100% Arabica” implies that this type of bean is the best thing that can happen to your cup of Joe. Of course, it also indicates that there is another variety that we prefer not to have in coffee. It also resonates with the fact that there are coffee blends that can contain other elements besides coffee.
This text is a long overdue update to one of my age-old articles about the differences and similarities between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Since that first publication, a lot has happened in the Robusta area.
Also, coffee fans today know a lot more about Robusta’s variety and the real differences from Arabica. If this is not the case with you, you may continue reading this post and change that in the following paragraphs.
Arabica and Robusta: Different name, same coffee?
Let me first clarify a fundamental matter: Arabica and Robusta both come from the Coffea coffee plant from the Rubiaceae family. So they are botanically siblings. But just like siblings, the two types are not identical. Because they come from different subspecies.
There is the Coffea Arabica plant and the Coffea Canephora plant. Both grow with different requirements in different areas and therefore produce different fruits. If you close both eyes, let’s talk about the difference between sour and sweet cherries.
Canephora is the botanical name for the type of bean we know as Robusta. However, it should not be forgotten that there are also varieties such as Liberica or Excelsa and more than a hundred other variants, which hardly play a significant role in the global coffee trade.
And because botany is always high, the two main types, Canephora and Arabica, branch out again into subcategories. You may have heard of illustrious names like “Bourbon” or “Cattura.” Arabica alone has around 70 variants, each with very different properties.
You may find all the kinds of coffee in the variety list of World Coffee Research.
Cultivating – the legend of “highland coffee.”
Perhaps it is also because of this natural diversity that Arabica is the epitome of coffee. But I blame something else for the excitement about the “100% Arabica” tag.
It is based on a promise of quality and a luxury discussion that started from the demanding cultivation of the Coffea Arabica plant – and from its myth:
Arabica is the “original coffee” with a long tradition. The plant was discovered as early as the 7th century and was valuable over time. Everything that has to do with the Viennese coffee house tradition and similar history is based on Arabica. This gives Arabica a significant image advantage.
The plant only grows at altitudes between 600 and 2,300 meters. Hence the stupid name “highland coffee” sounds like something superior, correct? The higher the location, the slower and more complex the aromas develop. But the higher it goes, the smaller the acreage and thus the cultivation. The shortage of space generally leads to higher prices.
It must neither be too hot nor too cold to grow the Arabica coffee cherry. The climatic capers are increasing more and more, which is why the perfect, constant “coffee weather” for an abundant harvest is increasingly rare and can only be found in specific areas.
The humidity must be very high. This is also only possible in some areas of the world. Deserts, Rhineland-Palatinate, or the flat North Sea coast, therefore, fall completely flat for Arabica.
The harvest takes place according to the individual ripeness of the coffee cherry by hand. In the steep terrain. The manual factor costs – time, personnel, crop resources, and ultimately the customer. What the farming families get from it is another subject.
Direct sunlight is taboo. Most Arabica beans need to grow peacefully in the shade. Shadow on the mountain is not so easy to find. Also, the sun’s intensity increases with increasing altitude. And again, the potential harvest drops considerably.
If we only take these six points, it becomes pretty clear why Arabica coffee beans have such a big reputation:
- Demanding growth conditions
- Limited income opportunities
- Only certain places of origin in the world are suitable to produce Arabica coffee
- The cultivation is hard, is done manually and therefore has a definite manual labor cost
The advertising has managed to inject these factors deeply into us for Arabica coffees, although we still don’t know what is behind them. It is enough for the stupid consumer to see that he can buy an absolute luxury item for 3.50 dollars per pack.
Atmospheric pictures of mist-covered primeval forests and exotic longing names like Brazil or Guatemala are incentive enough.
So it could also happen that plants that are far too beachy makeup more than 60 percent of global coffee production. Consumers want it that way (apparently) because we were brought up by advertising.
Coffea Canephora or Robusta owns the other 40 percent of the world’s coffee. It mainly comes from the less mass-dominated areas of Indonesia, Vietnam, or India, which, interestingly enough, is currently absolutely on-trend.
As its name suggests, the Robusta takes matters a lot easier with the addition:
Robusta grows splendidly between 300 and 600 meters above the sea level
Robusta is less sensitive to climate fluctuations, diseases or the sun
Robusta delivers a higher yield per tree
Harvesting is a bit easier and less costly
Robusta coffee’s first perception problem is due to its difficult marketability. With “Lowland Coffee,” you don’t lure anyone behind the stove. And the name itself sounds like a red-faced peasant bump.
But does this make a Robusta coffee “cheaper,” as the branding for coffee has taught us?
Yes and no. The pure cultivation price per bean is much lower, the profit theoretically higher. But now there is an economic paradox:
Because Arabica dominates the market, the management of Robusta coffee is again riskier, although the bean’s risk sensitivity is lower. Because there is less acreage available with a lower total yield.
To put it simply, pave the coffee plantations in the preferred locations with Arabica before turning to Robusta. After all, you want something from the cake. Robusta is just a “filler” that is supposed to maximize profit.
Those plantations, specific areas, soil, and climate are only suitable for Robusta, take an even higher risk. For example, if a harvest on Robusta Plantation X falls victim to rotting, the Robusta supplier has little or no “alternative” – in an emergency, his annual income is gone.
At the same time, he gets fewer buyers for his offer. The fewer consumers there are on the market, the higher the selling pressure for the providers. So buyers can promptly dictate prices. And then there is the risk of price dumping, which in the end is expensive for the trader.
In the end, a cheaper pack of Robusta coffee beans is just as expensive as its big sister Arabica – but with a different tag.
I only explain this business factor in detail because it is an essential mechanism in global coffee production – but in its perception ultimately falls under the table. Advertising will be careful not to disclose the two cycles at Arabica and Robusta. Clear price transparency would only ruin the ideal advertising world.
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However, if we measured the value of both varieties of coffee solely based on economic factors, there would no longer be any difference worth advertising. Because the 100 Pro promise also suggests the price value of the Arabica good compared to the raw material alternative Robusta.
Also, and I have to say honestly, the advertising has so far not developed an idea on how to market the down-to-earth Robusta sexy and how to balance 13 centuries of Arabica history.
Only if this succeeds will the supply-demand ratio and thus the risk factor at Robusta shift. Funnily enough, Robusta would be cheaper than Arabica across the board – but would ultimately be even more attractive to price-sensitive consumers – regardless of what taste and style might say.
Taste and style – of strong Robusta and the fine Arabica
With this distinctive feature at the latest, I start to shake my head quickly. From a genetic point of view, Robusta, with only 22 pairs of chromosomes, is definitely at a disadvantage in terms of taste. The 44 pairs in the Arabica bean ensure that we coffee experts can continuously talk about over 800 aromas and different taste nuances: where more DNA, because of more complexity.
However, I lean out of the window and claim that the typical Jacobs buyer has never had a real Robusta coffee in his entire life and therefore does not know where the difference should actually be found.
I also lean out of the window and claim that a poor industrial roast made from Arabica beans tastes three times worse than a robust medium roast from the drum.
Precisely because Arabica is a mass product, it is also processed by the coffee industry as a mass. And that means quick roasting to become dark without the required attention – the main thing is that it pops and smells of crowning glory. The genetic advantages of the Arabica bean, which is expressed in a significantly higher proportion of aromatic oils, are not worked out or destroyed.
If the appropriate effort is put into the roasting process, however, Arabica coffee can give a thousand notes: fruits and flowers, grasses and sweets, leather notes and woody plants, mildness and spice – and sometimes everything combined.
Typical taste profiles for Robusta roasts, on the other hand, read like a survival guide: here we talk about earth, wood, bitter substances, chocolate, and generally about taste with chest hair.
This also contributes to the profile problem of the Robusta, as it is challenging to provide a positive spin.
At the same time, it also becomes clear that the taste of a Robusta roast can go wrong more lasting than that of the Arabica. If the Arabica variety isn’t appropriately treated, it will reduce its taste profile considerably, but will still have enough DNA power to satisfy the average palate.
If something goes wrong with the Robusta roasting, you have bitter, strong plumbing in the cup that only remotely reminds you of coffee. For this reason alone, the mass roasters do not dare to offer pure Robustas. Even with small roasters, pure robustas are (still) a big exception. Seen in this way, the supposed villain Robusta is the more delicate and sensitive type.
Caffeine, crema, and the soul of chlorogenic acid: Robusta, take over!
If we summarize our previous findings on the difference between Arabica and Robusta, the question inevitably arises as to why the broad bean Robusta is bought, processed, and drunk at all.
We owe this not least to the Italians – especially the residents of the lower part of the boot. Because the further south you come to Italy, the darker and stronger the caffè – i.e., the espresso.
The Robusta bean gets dark and robust from a standing start. Especially when you pour sugar onto such a Robusta espresso, there is a delicious caramel attack. That alone does not clarify the right to exist. We have to look for it in a completely different direction – and with it the most significant advantage of the Robusta bean:
Every Robusta bean contains about twice as much caffeine as an Arabica bean.
This makes it much easier to make an espresso with a start without having to rely entirely on the more expensive Arabica coffee. Robusta also makes every barista’s life easier when it comes to crema :
The lack of oil, which one can blame the Robusta bean for, ensures that the crema on the espresso from the portafilter or the fully automatic espresso machine lasts longer. Pure Arabica espresso also forms a crema that is particularly aromatic when appropriately prepared. But it is terribly susceptible to the espresso machine or human error.
For this reason alone, many espresso blends based on the Italian model consist to a large extent of robusta beans. The portion is between 30 and 40 percent.
This makes “foolproof” espressos possible, which also delivers a decent kick of caffeine and tickles the classic espresso taste profile from dark, strong, and always intense without any problems. With the addition of Robusta, Italo-Espresso could also become an affordable mass-produced product and thus begin its triumphal march across the world.
With these properties, it is almost absurd that Robusta is treated so neglectfully. But unfortunately, only approximately. Because Robusta also has a very decisive disadvantage:
Every Robusta bean contains about twice as much chlorogenic acid as an Arabica bean.
This ester of caffeic acid in the coffee bean is responsible for typical stomach problems that can occur when drinking this variety of coffee. It should not be forgotten that studies also show that this acid can lower blood pressure and even have a positive effect on stomach ulcers in mice.
It has also not yet been clearly proven whether stomach pain is actually caused by chlorogenic acid. But when it comes to luxury foods, it doesn’t matter how scientifically sound the assessment is, but what the majority of connoisseurs feel afterward.
To reduce chlorogenic acid in the finished bean, nothing else is actually possible then to carry out slow drum roasting with a roasting time of at least 20 minutes at low temperatures. But this, in turn, brings even more bitter substances out of the Robusta and lets the taste drift quickly into the musty.
At the same time, of course, the manufacturers of supermarket coffee do not allow such time but beat their beans through the roasting process in up to 600 degrees Celsius in five minutes. That’s why they have to be so careful with the Robusta portion in their espresso blends. Otherwise, the customers complain about stomach ache – wherever they come from in the end.
Arabica does not have these problems but generally appears more digestible at all degrees of roasting. And because there are so many flavors per bean, you won’t notice if more than half of the industrial roast disappears in turbo gear. Again, the main thing is that it smells and tastes of a crown.
From an industrial point of view, the Robusta bean is a necessary evil. You could, for example, equate it with the emulsifier carrageenan: it ensures stability is not a problem under food law but at the end of the day not precisely “clean consuming” and difficult to market. That is why Robusta is rather hidden in industrial coffee production.
But what about the independent coffee world? There is good news here: there is movement on the market, and more and more roasters are trying to get the rustic survival bean Robusta out of its niche.
Robusta as a new trend in the coffee industry
If you click through the small roasters of your area, you will increasingly stumble across coffee offers that shine with a Robusta share beyond the industrial border. Portions from 50 percent are becoming more and more established, and 100 percent Robusta roasts are appearing more and more.
What sounds like an attack on everything good and sacred when it comes to enjoying coffee sometimes turns out to be a great success. Until I tested an equivalent alternative, the Huber Robu 100 espresso is the standard for me, but it’s a little hard to find:
Careful roasting and excellent raw material have created an espresso that brings out the best properties of the Robusta: it is strong, extremely chocolatey, smokey, and dense. There was no question of stomach problems here, even if the caffeine kick naturally started and lasted longer.
At around 25 dollars per pound, the espresso from a precisely named plantation in India was still far below an equivalent Arabica coffee – and I (felt) had more of it in the end.
Could it be that Robusta is finally making a big appearance in the coffee world? Finally, I have often noticed that the third floral wave seems to be slowly fading away and is giving way to a more robust style.
I honestly don’t think Robusta will ever be as sexy as Arabica. You can put on beautiful clothes and teach manners to a farmer’s tramp, but the smell of the stable will never go away completely. The Robusta bean is simply a collector’s item that delights trained palates in search of the thick leg of coffee.
However, I think that a little more Robusta in the roaster range could change the overall coffee trade. Firstly, underrepresented growing areas also have their rights. Secondly, the rise of Robusta takes some pressure off the supply of Arabica. Thirdly Robusta is better provided to deal with climate change, to which Arabica must inevitably submit.
Will this ultimately ensure that the coffee trade as a whole is fairer? No. You can’t tell that from a type of bean. But with the competition from their own family of plants, the full dominance of the Arabica bean is pruned to a more realistic level. Time will tell whether this also has humanistic effects.
Arabica and Robusta: similarities and differences
Plant Family: Rubiaceaen for both Arabica and Robusta
Variety: Arabica and Canephora for Robusta
Share of global consumption: Approx. 65% for Arabica vs 35% for Robusta
Altitude of farming: 600-2350 meters for Arabica and 300-650 for Robusta
Climate requirements: constant, shady with high hmidity for Arabica and simply nice and warm for Robusta
Caffeine content per shot (est.): 75 mg for Arabica and 140 mg for Robusta
Average % of chlorogenic acid: 6.5% for Arabica and 10% for Robusta
Average % of coffee oils: 15-17% for Arabica and 10-12% for Robusta
Bean shape: Arabica is elongated and oval whereas RObusta is round and smaller
Flavor profile: Arabica is sweet, floral and more versatile. Robusta is robust, bitter, woody, nutty and more earthy
Cultivation areas: Ethiopia, Brazil and Colombia mostly for Arabica. Robusta is cultivated at Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia.
Please note that the respective numbers for Arabica and Robusta are never set in stone but vary from bean to bean, year to year, and measurement method. But it should be reasonably apparent that the comparison between Arabica and Robusta also has a little apple-pear character.
Conclusion: Which coffee is better for you?
I hope I was able to show you that the quality discussion about Arabica vs. Robusta is entirely hollow. Good coffee can come from both varieties – worse just as well. It is therefore utterly irrelevant whether the coffee roast you choose advertises with the “100% Arabica” tag or whether this fact is only reported as a fact.
Arabica alone is indeed much more versatile, extraordinary, and appealing than Robusta due to its worldwide distribution in a wide variety of growing areas and its basic properties.
It is also true that Arabica coffee tends to be great when compared directly, which Robusta has to fight hard for. But it is also true that the Arabica mania is responsible for the disgusting price dumping, which leads any quality promise to absurdity.
Likewise, we have to face the fact that we have created an environment in which there could be less space for Arabica in the future, but more space for Robusta. So it is only logical to dedicate yourself to the Rumpel sister with a little more dedication.
More and more roasters and more and more customers are doing that. At the end of the day, however, there is also the realization that a good coffee is nothing more than the result of ingredients, roasting skills, preparation methods and care. No matter which plant it comes from.
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