We all know that arabica coffee beans are ‘supposed’ to be better than robusta beans – it’s stamped all over every bag of fine beans I’ve ever seen!
Why are they so much better though? Is it really that big of a difference? Does anyone know?
As it turns out there really is a big difference and if you stick with me I’ll let you in on a little secret…
Robusta beans are pretty good for making certain types of coffee (but not all types). I’ll go into this in greater detail a little later.
For starters however you should know that arabica and robusta beans differ primarily based on three components:
- the way they taste,
- how much they cost, and
- how hardy the bean is.
Let’s look at each of these components one at a time.
I think you’ll find this interesting.
Robusta Coffee Beans are Easier to Grow & Harvest
The main reason that robusta beans are cultivated so widely is because they are hardier and produce more yield for the space the crop requires.
Robusta beans grow at lower altitudes and because the plant contains so much caffeine it is very resistant to damage from insects. It’s a hardy and reliable crop giving beans which are much cheaper to produce than the more refined and sensitive arabica beans.
Robusta beans are around 40% cheaper to buy than arabica, so the temptation for producers to include it in their blends is obvious. Taste is often compromised until an optimum between price and flavor is reached.
Robusta beans also tend to be the dominant bean used in the production of instant coffee. Instant coffee being cheaper than store-bought ground coffee is notoriously less tasty than fresh brewed coffee and it is higher in caffeine – both of these traits come from the main ingredient Robusta.
Do Arabica Beans Actually Taste Better?
Robusta beans are bitter and contain less sugars than arabica beans, they taste nutty rather than fruity and make bitter coffee similar to what you’d find in coffee that is past it’s prime.
Arabica beans, while they can also fluctuate between fruity and bitter, are generally sweeter than Robusta coffee, with nicer flavor and tones.
While you can get robustas that are better than some arabicas, you’re not going to find this happening regularly.
But is there nothing more than this to the robusta bean?
Is it nothing but a filler used to keep prices down?
Well apparently there is more to it, for some at least. Your robusta is certainly not a drip coffee bean, coffee pros are almost unanimous about that but there is one thing they can be good for.
Espresso on the other hand, is dipping a cautious toe in the water of robusta use, and finding there are some redeeming features to the much maligned bean species.
What Does Robusta Bring To An Espresso?
Robusta beans are sometimes used to give a thicker crema to the cup, and to give a lasting flavor to the coffee.
Robusta beans are excellent for making a more luxurious crema, and for this reason they are regularly used in Italy to make up part of espresso blends.
You can take advantage of this even if you don’t have an espresso maker because there are a few ways to approximate espresso at home without a machine.
The trick then is to find a robusta that is neutral enough in taste, blend it with the sweeter arabica beans and you’ve got the best of both worlds: the great flavor of arabica and a crema you could float your biscotti on.
Robusta Coffee Adds Caffeine to Your Blend
Another difference between these types of bean is in the caffeine content.
Arabica beans contain much less caffeine than robustas. This means that when they are used in espresso, they can give the shot a little more punch. Given that it is most common for espresso to be made with dark roasted beans which have much of the caffeine roasted away already, the use of robustas can really give the drink its mojo back.
In our article comparing the differences between the Chemex and the Aeropress espresso maker we say that each of these brewing methods can yield richer coffee than drip so there is a little room for robusta beans in good coffee.
All that’s required is to find a variety which doesn’t taste of anything at all and then it’ll make a very useful addition to your espresso. It can’t hurt to experiment with it, after all, it certainly has qualities that can add a lot to your cup.
So What Does 100% Arabica Mean?
So the next time you are browsing the coffee and tea isle of your local grocery store and you see a bag of coffee grind or whole beans with the words “100 percent arabica coffee” you can be sure that the coffee contains no Robusta beans of any kind.
It does not however mean the coffee is low in caffeine and it does not mean that the coffee is not a blend. In actuality the producer might still be mixing arabica beans from a variety of sources to achieve a well balanced flavor profile.
Light roasted beans tend to have more caffeine too so a light blend especially will likely contain a higher level of caffeine.
You also can’t infer that the arabica beans are certified by any trade industry or seal of approval from any organization. They may or may not be organic, they may or may not be certified, and they may or may not be fair trade. Arabica beans can be any of those or none of those.
And the same goes for Robusta coffee as well!
Whether or not there will ever be a robusta blend that competes with the high end arabica beans is questionable and remains yet to be seen from my vantage point but there’s no reason to discredit all robusta coffee as inferior. Within blends especially robusta coffee has it’s place – it’s your job as the consumer unfortunately to figure out of the producer is using cheap beans as filler or using quality robusta to enhance the profile of the blend.