Coffee Myths: Robusta vs Arabica
Updated: Oct 20
There is a seemingly pervasive idea that when it comes to Robusta vs Arabica, Arabica is better than Robusta.
It’s an assumption that Arabica is the end of all coffee plants.
There’s kind of a consensus idea in the coffee world that Arabica is the “good one” and Robusta, which is a “sister” species, is the “lesser half.”
Marketing has supported this idea over the years.
If you go back to the second “wave of coffee,” the last half of the 20th century. A lot of direct marketing by big coffee companies emphasizes 100% Arabica.
That’s how you knew what good coffee was.
With the advent of the specialty coffee market and super high-end niche stuff, you don’t even have to put it in your bag.
You just know it’s 100% Arabica. That’s a pretty firmly entrenched assumption.
What is the Difference Between These Two Species?
We’re going to go straight back to high school biology 101.
In the plant kingdom. You have a family of coffee species called “cafayah.” And within this family, there are 125 different species of the coffee family.
Two of those species are the ones that we drink. One is “cafayah Arabica,” and the other is “cafayah Canafera,” also known as Robusta.
Most of those other 123 other species, you would never drink them.
Coffee has been a global product for 2 – 3 hundred years, and these 2 species have “won the race.”
They can provide humans with what they’re looking for in a seed that can be roasted, ground up, and consumed for caffeine and flavor.
Better is in the eye of the beholder.
Who Are We Talking About?
Are we talking about coffee drinkers? People with a certain kind of palette for taste? Are we talking about farmers?
The characteristics of these 2 species are quite different from a farming perspective.
And in many cases, I think Robusta is a better plant for a coffee farmer. Where in the world are they? What size of the farm do they have? And the structure of the farming system they find themselves in.
Are We Talking About Flavor or Farming?
I’m aware that many roasters use Robusta in their blend, not just because it’s cheaper. But because it has some specific characteristics that are useful in a blend.
Coffee is a product humans have designed and, consequently, has an audience in mind & built-in requirements.
Is One Better Than the Other?
It depends on what your end goals are. That’s also true of the Arabica vs Robusta debate.
Arabica evolved in mountainous highland forests in Ethiopia. And are densely shaded high-altitude cloud forests.
We’ve done a lot of breeding over the years to bring Arabica out of these shady environments.
Robusta is a more genetically diverse species. It has more than 1 center of evolutionary origin in various parts of West Africa.
There’s more genetic diversity available in Robusta than there is in Arabica.
The more genetic diversity you have, the more tools you have for solving problems.
Coffee Robusta is generally more resistant to diseases and pests. Robusta is a much older species & is “genetically ahead” of Arabica.
Robusta coffee has developed in a broader range of environments than Arabica.
Arabica matures more slowly than Robusta because of the environment in which it grows.
These environments are conducive to more exciting flavors.
Suppose we consider climate change and all the physical changes in the places where coffee is growing. We need to take a closer look at Robusta (because it grows in more flexible environments than Arabica).
Global Trends Are Changing
Ten years ago, the demand for Arabica was 70%, and Robusta’s demand was 30%. Today it’s closer to 60%, 40%.
The shift is partly due to new countries, such as Viet Nam, growing Robusta. India used to be a totally Arabica country and is now about 50-50.
India has had severe disease and pest problems with Arabica.
Putting disease aside, how do they cup? How do they taste? Could there be Robusta that can compete with the high-end Arabica that exists in the super-specialty market?
High-end Arabica that exists in the super-specialty market?
This conversation is already happening. There are high-quality Robusta possible. How do we define quality? How do we determine what good is?
Right now, there are no standards for Robusta (as opposed to existing standards for Arabica).
Minimal standards are developing, but they’re not widely known.
Most Robusta Coffee is being Combined With Other Robusta Coffee
There are distinctions; they are not being taken into account (as they are with Arabica).
By acknowledging Robusta’s differences, you’re making it possible to get something better out of it.
Some farms are trying to determine if we can produce a better quality Robusta.
The answer is yes. If you apply useful farm management techniques and take care of your processing, you will produce better coffee.
That is still an open question. Is there a market for higher-quality Robusta? Will people pay enough for what it takes?
To answer that question, there’s still much more to be done with figuring out the potential with Robusta.
It’s not going to taste like Arabica. It’s a different plant. It will never be identical to Arabica.
What are its unique points that you couldn’t get in Arabica?
There’s a lot of potential if you look into the possibility of blends.
There might be some exciting attributes to good quality Robusta that roasters could do exciting things with.