What is Robusta Coffee?
You’ve probably noticed all the expensive coffee in your local store is labelled “100% Arabica.” But what about the rest? It’s almost certainly Robusta, the only other commercially grown coffee.
Robusta coffee has a reputation for being poor in quality and flavour. But is that deserved? Or does Arabica coffee just have a better PR person? Find out in this quick guide to Robusta coffee. Learn where it’s from, how it’s grown, and most importantly, how it tastes.
What does Robusta coffee mean?
Robusta coffee is coffee made from the seeds of the Coffea canephora plant. Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica are the only two commercially grown varieties of coffee. Coffea canephora became known as Coffea robusta or Robusta because it is the more robust of the two plants. Robusta coffee makes up about 40% of the coffee grown globally.
Growing the Robusta coffee plant
Robusta coffee originated in Africa, with roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. It is still grown commercially in Africa, particularly in Uganda, Tanzania, and Cote d’Ivoire. But production has expanded all over the world. The biggest producer of Robusta is Vietnam, followed by Brazil and Indonesia.
Robusta thrives in a warm climate, ideally temperatures between 21 and 30 C, and can be grown at elevations as low as sea level.
It grows well in full sun, making large plantations viable, though these certainly negatively affect local plants and wildlife.
Because of its robust nature, Robusta is widely considered to be more resistant to the effects of climate change than Arabica coffee. But it too will suffer as our planet warms (1).
What does Robusta coffee taste like?
Like all coffee types, Robusta coffee has a variety of flavor profiles that depend on growing and processing conditions. However, Robusta coffee beans are known for particular characteristics, many of which aren’t necessarily appealing.
Robusta coffee has earthy, rubbery, or grain-like flavours, often with peanut or sesame aftertaste. It is very low in acid, has a heavy body, and tends to bitterness more than sweetness. It is highly caffeinated, with 250 mg of caffeine in a brewed 235 ml cup.
Because of these inherent flavour characteristics, professionals do not consider Robusta among the best coffee beans. Therefore, they often use it for low-end applications, like cheap pre-ground or instant coffee.
There is a theory that because Robusta is grown for these applications, it isn’t processed with the same care as Arabica. This cycle keeps Robusta from achieving its full flavour potential, according to the Coffee Quality Insitute (2).
Robusta is often overlooked because of its traditionally unfavourable cupping quality, which traces directly to the way it is processed.
Farmers are growing enthusiasm for high-end Robusta, which could fetch higher prices while maintaining the advantages of the harder plants. So, don’t expect to see a blonde Robusta coffee at your local Starbucks anytime soon.
This video offers a fascinating look into the potential of Robusta beans:
Robusta beans do find their way into specialty coffee shops in the form of espresso blends. Blending Arabica and Robusta takes advantage of the best properties of both to produce a delicious espresso that is more than the sum of its parts. The complex flavours and sweetness of the Arabica are enhanced by the heavy body, creamy mouthfeel, and rich crema of the Robusta.
Robusta vs. Arabica
Many things distinguish Robusta vs Arabica beans. At the farm level, Robusta coffee is much easier to grow. It can handle a broader range of temperatures, does not require high elevation, and is more resistant to pests and diseases.
Regarding processing, Arabica beans tend to be picked, sorted, and washed more carefully, and this is because Robusta beans are destined for cheaper applications that don’t require the same quality. The processed and dried Robusta beans are smaller and rounder than Arabica beans.
Finally, there is a difference in the cup. Arabica coffee is sweeter, more acidic, and has more complex flavours than Robusta.
To learn more about Arabica coffee, read this article: What are Arabica coffee beans?
Many countries produce both Robusta and Arabica coffee beans, though most prioritise one over the other. Brazil, Indonesia, and India all produce substantial quantities of both varieties of coffee.
Robusta has more caffeine than Arabica. A 235 ml brewed cup of Robusta coffee has approximately 250 mg of caffeine compared with about 100 mg for 235 ml of brewed Arabica coffee.
Yes, there are other coffee bean varieties. Along with Arabica and Robusta, the other different coffee varieties are Liberica and Excelsa. However, Liberica and Excelsa together make up less than 4% of the world’s coffee production.
- Bean Scene Magazine. (2020, June 23). Robusta coffee more sensitive to climate change than previously thought. Retrieved from https://www.beanscenemag.com.au/robusta-coffee-sensitive-climate-change/
- Hedlund, D. (2022, February 1). Can Fine Robusta Be Considered Quality Coffee? Retrieved from https://www.eraofwe.com/coffee-lab/en/articles/can-fine-robusta-be-considered-quality-coffee