While arabica and robusta dominate the coffee market, arabica has always been considered the superior of the two. Its typically smooth, sweet cup profile stands in stark contrast to the harsh, rubbery characteristics commonly attributed to robusta, making arabica coffee the most sought-after among specialty roasters.
However, in recent years, the tide has begun to change. “Fine” or specialty robustas with cupping scores of 80 and above have become increasingly widespread and are now being accepted not only as reliable blend components, but as standalone single origins.
What’s more, its resilience to climate change, diseases, and low altitudes mean that a number of specialty roasters are starting to look towards high-quality robusta as a long-term alternative to the more sensitive arabica plants.
But could robusta actually be better than arabica? And will the specialty coffee community ever truly accept it?
What is arabica & why’s it so special?
Coffea arabica (known simply as “arabica”) is the oldest species of coffee and, without a doubt, the most popular among third wave specialty roasters. Native to Ethiopia, it got its name after arabica beans were brought to present-day Yemen and lower Arabia around the 7th century.
Today, arabica represents approximately two-thirds of all coffee production. The biggest producer by volume is Brazil, generating more than 2.2 million metric tonnes per year.
Arabica takes approximately seven years to mature and requires specific conditions to grow. In addition to high altitudes (typically between 1,200m and 1,500m), it relies on average temperatures of 15-24°C, with no frost. Ample rainfall and protection from direct sunlight are also preferred.
Compared to robusta, arabica has low caffeine content at around 0.7-1.5%. While its characteristics depend on a wide range of factors from terroir to processing method, it is often described as sweet, aromatic, smooth, and light.
The high altitudes at which arabica is grown tend to produce dense beans packed with rich and complex flavours that are unlocked during roasting. As a result, specialty roasters often apply a light roast to arabica beans in order to highlight its distinct characteristics and limit the impact of the roasting process.
Since the first edition of the Cup of Excellence (CoE) in 1999, the winning coffee each year has been from the arabica species. The CoE is the world’s most prestigious annual coffee event, with thousands of coffees submitted each year.
The rise of fine robusta
In the specialty coffee industry, robusta has traditionally been overlooked. Often associated with harsh, bitter, burnt, and rubbery qualities, it has lower levels of acidity compared to arabica, meaning it generally tastes less sweet.
Thanks to its low cost, robusta is typically used for instant coffee and as a component of blends. It is also favoured for espresso due to its high levels of caffeine: robusta can sometimes have as much as double the caffeine content as arabica. Not only does this provide an added energy boost, it produces a good layer of “crema” when brewed.
An enduring reputation for inferior quality, unsavoury flavours, and a high number of defects means that many specialty roasters will avoid robusta at all costs. Not only do they see it as damaging for their brand to have anything but “100% arabica”, they assume that the addition of robusta will negatively affect the quality of their coffee.
Yet in recent years, more and more “specialty” robustas have entered the market. This has been helped along in no small part by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), which introduced its pioneering Q Robusta Program in 2010.
The aim of the program is to create a common language of quality around specialty robusta. Part of this involves the CQI protocol, a classification that means robusta can only be considered specialty if it meets a certain set of standards. These include no more than 5 secondary defects and a final cup score of over 80 points.
The greater focus on robusta and its potential has led a number of roasters to start offering it as an alternative single origin. For example, Switzerland micro-roaster Röstlabor offers single origin robusta from origins such as Mexico and Thailand alongside its specialty arabica range.
Rather than dark roasting the beans to mask imperfections, Röstlabor’s light-roasted coffees allow a full expression of the robusta’s flavours and aromas. This is attracting an ever-increasing consumer base.
Could robusta be better than arabica?
Since the emergence of specialty coffee over the last few decades, arabica has been front and centre. While a few unique robustas have entered the market, such as India’s fabled Monsoon Malabar, most struggle to compete with arabica on any significant level.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the “100% arabica” label has become shorthand for quality. Many roasters use it on their packaging to promote their coffee as superior, even if a fine robusta may have a higher SCA cupping score.
That being said, the addition of robusta to blends is now a widely accepted practice in the specialty coffee industry. Not only does it lower costs, it can also add to its quality, complexity, and depth, while creating a more well-rounded drink.
In a blog post on their website, Green Bean Roasters write: “Five, six or seven percent is enough to add real strength and finish to the flavour and to boost the caffeine levels without crowding out the more refined fruity tones of the arabica.
“If you take milk in your coffee, the little touch of robusta helps cut through the milk in the cup to bring forward the flavour notes and the highlights of the arabica. It also adds a lovely smooth, rich crema in most instances.”
What’s more, robusta is more resilient than arabica, particularly to the effects of climate change. Many experts warn that, at the current rate of global warming, arabica production will fall significantly in the future, which means that robusta could become increasingly important for roasters.
This shift will undoubtedly encourage producers to do more to cultivate and process high-quality robustas. If this happens, coffees like Black Sheep’s Robusta Revival, a washed Indian robusta with an SCA rating of 85, will undoubtedly become more widespread and start to challenge the dominance of arabica coffees.
Arabica and robusta don’t just have different characteristics in the cup – they have different packaging requirements, too. Robusta beans tend to have higher levels of sucrose and carbohydrates, which means they degas quicker than arabica beans.
As such, specialty roasters should consider including a degassing valve on packaging for robusta beans. This allows the coffee to release carbon dioxide without the bag splitting or letting in oxygen.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options with recyclable, BPA-free degassing valves. Our recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable pouches can all be fitted with additional components and customised to your needs.
For information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.