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It’s a well-known truism in the coffee world that Robusta beans are inferior to Arabica beans, at least as far as flavor is concerned. Experts view Robusta coffee, grown at lower altitudes and in dryer conditions, than the more highly prized Arabica coffee beans, as harsh, bitter and poor in quality in comparison to even poor-quality Arabica beans. Some roasters, though, are taking a second look at Robusta beans and coming to realize that, when grown and harvested under the right conditions, Robusta isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation suggests.
A Little Coffee History
Robusta first entered the coffee world in the 19th century, after disease decimated the coffee crops in Sri Lanka and other coffee-producing regions of the world. Arabica coffee plants are notoriously finicky. They insist on a very narrow band of temperatures, elevations, moisture and soil quality to produce a good crop of coffee beans. If they don’t get it, they sulk terribly and produce small, often inferior-tasting, coffee harvests. In addition to that, Arabica coffee bushes attract pests and diseases that affect the size and taste of the coffee beans harvested.
Robusta is Arabica’s hard-scrabble cousin, growing in areas where the more refined Arabica would swoon and refuse to set foot. It readily tolerates drought conditions, and grows quite contentedly in the thicker air at lower elevations. Add to that the fact that the higher caffeine levels in Robusta beans resists pests and disease, and it’s easy to understand why coffee growers turned to Robusta when the Arabica crop started failing.
Because Robusta is so forgiving, it is also much less expensive to produce. That’s made the Robusta coffee bean the bean of choice for large-scale budget coffee roasters that produce instant coffee and economy coffee brands for supermarket chains. In fact, many of the biggest name coffee roasters blend Robusta beans with Arabica beans to stretch the yield.
The Good Stuff About Robusta Coffee
In addition to being a cheap alternative to the more expensive Arabica bean, Robusta coffee offers a few advantages of its own. The bitter edge of Robusta coffee comes from its higher caffeine content, which makes Robusta the coffee of choice for those who drink the beverage for its kick. It also works well in blends with very smooth, rich coffees that benefit from the little extra bite offered by Robusta’s bitterness. Finally, Robusta beans produce richer crema than Arabica coffee alone, so roasters often add a small amount of Robusta coffee to espresso blends to pump up the volume of crema.
The Other Look at Robusta
Hawaii Kona Coffee
After decades of hits on Robusta coffee — amplified when Colombia and Brazil started their publicity campaigns for South American coffees and declared that they were 100% Arabica beans — some boutique micro roasters are taking a closer look at Robusta coffees grown with special care. In Asian markets, where the taste for coffee is growing almost too rapidly to measure, Robusta coffee is far more popular than it is in most Western markets. In the past decade, Robusta’s share of the coffee market has risen from 30 percent to 40 percent, largely on the strength of instant coffees and the growth of the Asian market.
At its best, Robusta is sharp and bright, with few of the subtle background flavors found in Arabica beans. With nearly double the caffeine in Arabica, it’s a powerful wake-me-up cup, especially if you’ve roasted it fresh yourself within 48 hours of brewing. Brewed in the Vietnamese way in a top-hat brewer, and laced with thick, condensed, sweetened milk, Robusta coffee is ideal for after dinner coffee or first cup of coffee in the morning.
If you’ve never tried the better quality Robusta coffees on their own, or are looking for the missing edge in your espresso blend, pick up a pound of green Robusta beans from Sweet Maria’s or Dean’s Beans and roast them at home yourself. At about $6 a pound, it’s a cheap experiment in taste that might teach you a few things about coffee flavor.