Its happened many times: a customer walks in prepared to buy beans, breathing deeply of the pleasant aromas, a gleam in their eye. They take a look at our menu and we begin to decipher their tastes and likes. Suddenly, they stop, stare me dead in the eye and say accusingly, “These are all arabica beans, right?” I assure them that yes, we only carry arabica. “Good. Robustas are so awful!”
Are they? I started thinking: why do robusta beans get such a bad rap? What’s the big difference? Let’s talk.
Two major coffee plant species exist: coffea arabica and coffea robusta. Both plants produce coffee cherries, but there are three main differences—production, taste, and economics.
Seventy percent of all coffee beans grown are of the arabica variety. They are grown at high altitudes in tropical or sub-tropical climates and require lots of moisture, rich soil, shade, and sun. These plants are very delicate and extremely vulnerable to cold and poor handling. In addition, arabica plants are susceptible to pests and disease. They require a lot of attention and care from farmers in order to prevent crop failure and loss of product. As flavor is greatly affected by soil and climate, the constant care allows the arabica plants to produce coffee that has a greater complexity in taste. However, the difficulties in growing the disease prone crop results in smaller yields per acre thus these coffees are expensive. In contrast, robusta beans are hardier and require less attention, are less affected by climate change, and is resistant to numerous pests. They are grown primarily in Southeast Asia and Africa at lower altitudes. Coffee cherries of this variety yield a much greater crop than arabicas at a lower cost of production.
Arabica is the basis of all premium coffees producing rich flavors and full body. The taste is vast from sweet-soft to sharp-tangy. Unroasted beans have a sweet smell often likened to blueberries and roasted is perfumey with fruity notes and sugary tones. Robustas taste very bold and harsh. Before roasting, they can be likened to oats or peanuts. Even if roasted properly, robustas smell burnt and have a taste like burnt rubber. It must be noted, however, that robustas have higher caffeine content than arabicas, almost twice as much!
Most agree that the best coffees are all arabicas, but the cost of production means it’s also the priciest. Arabicas are mostly found, therefore, in coffee shops (like ours) and specialty shops. Big coffee companies take advantage of the inexpensive robusta and use it as filler in canned coffee. In fact, many of your pre-ground coffees are mostly robusta to better profit margins and to hide the stale taste. Jars of instant coffee are almost exclusively robusta.
So which is the better product? Most would say arabica without a doubt. But we must point out that arabica does not equal quality. With so many coffees grown, there is also a percentage of garbage out there. A low quality arabica is still inferior to a high quality robusta. Many great espresso blends use robusta for its strength and crèma. So keep this thought in mind next time you turn your nose up at the mention of robusta. A good bean is still a good bean no matter what the variety.
Hope this gives you something to think about. I know my little hamster is turning his wheel.
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