“100% Arabica”…better than Robusta Coffee?
You may have heard the phrase “100% Arabica Beans” in reference to certain brands or blends before and you’d be forgiven for assuming this was a quality-assurance statement, right? After all, one hundred per cent of a good thing must be the way to go!
However, you may also be aware that the coffee industry is prone to marketing gimmicks designed to influence consumer perceptions – and often with great success!
Hang on, what’s actually going on here?
So is Arabica actually better? Better than, ahhh what? What even is Arabica or Robusta coffee?!
Or maybe the marketing monster has struck again?
Let's start with some definitions
To start with, Arabica and Robusta are both species in the Coffee family/genus. There are hundreds of species of Coffee however, only Coffee Arabica (Arabica coffee) and Coffee Canephora (Robusta coffee) are cultivated for consumption because they taste the best.
ARABICA VS ROBUSTA COFFEE FLAVOUR
As a general rule, Arabica Coffee is sweeter and has a much brighter acidity whilst Robusta Coffee is bolder and carries more bitterness. Generally, it also creates more crema when extracted as an espresso. The biggest contributing factors to the increased bitterness of robusta coffee are:
1. A higher-caffeine content. Caffeine in its pure form has a “chemically-bitter” taste. Robusta coffee has a caffeine content of roughly 3%, with Arabica coffee only having about 1.5% – read more here. Here’s the thing though: bitterness within itself isn’t necessarily a negative as long as it’s in balance. It’s exactly like a cold glass of home-made lemonade! Yes, it is more bitter than orange juice but it’s balanced by the sugar in a very pleasant way.
2. Arabica is sweeter. Arabica coffee has roughly twice the sugars and 150% the lipids (fatty acids) than Robusta coffee. This difference is because the maturation time of Arabica Coffee is significantly longer and it takes longer for these compounds to develop to sufficient levels for us to taste their sweet contribution.
Already we can see that there are some significant differences between the two – but maybe not as many as you may have been led to believe. In fact, there are even advantages that each has over the other.
Picture this: when coffee farmers go to bed at night, they dream of the perfect coffee species: a high-yielding coffee plant that does not require much attention! It would quickly produce sweet, delicious beans all-year-round whilst fighting off pests. It may even be self-pollinating!
Unfortunately, no such Unicorn-Coffee plants exist just yet, although scientists are working on this right now.
Robusta Coffee has a much faster maturation time and can produce larger amounts of coffee per plant, partially due to its bigger tree-size (4-6 meters tall) and its preference for warmer climates.
The bitter taste of caffeine acts as a natural pest repellent. Since Robusta Coffee has a higher concentration of caffeine, it is naturally more resistant and “robust”.
Arabica Coffee, with cherries that take much longer to ripen, will have a significantly sweeter flavour profile due to the increased nutrient distribution during gestation to the seed and cherry. This sweetness, however, does attract a plethora of pests that love to munch coffee.
Another consideration is that Arabica Coffee grows best in temperate climate conditions and usually at higher altitudes. As such, coffee farms are often located on hills and mountains. This creates logistical complications when harvesting and transporting the beans to the coffee mills.
So what does this mean when it comes to roasting coffee? Is one coffee better than the other? Will they be roasted differently and how will this affect their flavours? Well, as you are starting to guess, the answer isn’t quite so simple. Could it be that both species have a role to play?
As a general rule, you will find that Arabica Coffee is used as the base ingredient for creating blends, due to its sweeter, more-balanced acidity. Single-origin coffees are very likely to be Arabica beans for exactly the same reason. Robusta beans on the other hand are usually used to help the flavour of espresso blends cut through in milk and to add flavour and body to certain coffees, especially strong ones.
IT IS VERY SIMILAR TO BAKING A CAKE
Certain ingredients are better base flavours (flour, egg, milk etc) than others (salt, vanilla essence, lemon etc.) While we love the end-result, the cake itself requires certain opposing flavours to be in balance for the desired effect (deliciousness) to be achieved! Would you drink vanilla essence by itself? Ahh, no! But if you add it to a cake with the right combination of other ingredients, the results are magic.
Blending coffee works in exactly the same way.
It is worth mentioning that we are speaking generally here. Both Arabica Coffee and Robusta Coffee exist on a spectrum of quality. In other words, you can most certainly find an extremely low-quality Arabica Coffee and you can no doubt find some sensational Robusta Coffee with has great sweetness and complex, balanced flavours.
HMMM, SO IS ONE REALLY BETTER THAN THE OTHER?
To say that a coffee blend is “100% Arabica Coffee” isn’t necessarily misleading, however, it can invite the assumption that one is better than the other.
As you can see though, we aren’t really dealing with the issue of quality.
We are dealing with the issue of appropriateness in use and the balancing of flavours that comes from skilled recipe-creation by people who know what they are doing!
Which brings us to the final point.
The entire coffee industry has undergone significant change over the last few decades and without a doubt the people at the forefront of the emerging challenges are our farmers.
We have all heard about the fair trade movements and direct trade, both of which are exceptional initiatives that are well-worth getting behind and supporting. However, for a number of farmers and co-ops, it simply isn’t enough to help them navigate the new terrain.
Unfortunately, in many regions, producing coffee has become financially unviable.
This financial pressure has directed industry research towards cultivating Robusta Coffee trees that produce the quality usually reserved for Arabica Coffee trees due to the financial benefits Robusta Coffee offers.
Some Arabica-Robusta hybrids have also been cultivated and are being tested for use in producing commodity-grade coffee. Unfortunately, we are yet to find a sustainable path forward for maintaining our collective love of this delicious, daily pleasure.
Robusta Coffee has received a fairly bad rap and one could argue, undeservedly so.
Marketing juggernauts happily used the term “100% Arabica” to imply a quality improvement, however as you have seen the truth is not simplistic. Nor can we say that one species is better than the other.
A low commodity grade Arabica Coffee will never stand up against a well cultivated Robusta Coffee!
The best thing about coffee is that it is truly a subjective experience and despite what people “in the know” tell you, if you like a certain coffee (even pure Robusta), enjoy it and savour every sip! Hopefully it will maintain its prime position in all of our lives for many centuries to come.