We’ve talked about the difference between speciality and commodity coffee, but there’s another dichotomy to discuss. Arabica vs. robusta. You’ve got a vague understanding that arabica is A Good Thing™, from it being splashed over packaging, but what does it mean?
It’s not exactly the difference between good and bad - you can have an awful cup of 100% arabica coffee. Arabica and robusta are just two of over 100 coffee species, the 1st and 2nd most popular in the world - but other than that, they’re pretty different…
You don’t need to know the difference between the two to be able to taste it.
The much lower level of lipids and sugar in robusta beans, and higher chlorogenic acid content (CGA), means you get a cup of something described as rubbery and burnt tire-like. You will be getting more of a buzz, as there’s almost twice the caffeine, but that makes it taste even worse!
So what is robusta even for - people willing to chug down a shot of something disgusting just for the hit (admittedly not the most unfamiliar scenario you can imagine…)?
It’s often used in instant coffee, or blended with arabica for various reasons - including because it supposedly improves the crema of an espresso shot. Though, worth noting, at a cost to the taste.
As you can taste in the coffee itself, the makeup of the bean varieties is quite different - but it doesn’t stop there.
The superficial differences are plain to see: robusta beans are more circular than the familiar oval shape and arabica trees are always around two metres shorter.
And the two coffees don’t even grow in the same way. Robusta needs to be cross-pollinated, unlike arabica, and grows at much, much lower altitudes. And that brings us to some of the advantages of robusta…
It’s high caffeine and CGA content makes it much more resistance to crop disease and pests, as does its ability to grow at high temperatures in a rapidly warming world. It also produces fruit faster, with just two years to arabica’s four.
On the farm
The differences between the two species is more than apparent to the farmers growing them. As robusta is such a tough cookie, it’s a lot easier to grow - less needy than its sensitive sibling arabica who reacts poorly to adverse weather - and produces a higher yield of cherries.
This lowers costs for farmers, but it was means it sells for less too - it’s about 50% cheaper than arabica coffee on the commodity market. Which means it’s always going to be a trade off - but they’ll never earn the rates they can earn through growing speciality arabica (from us or through a similar supply chain, even factoring cost in).
Where in the world
The last notable difference is where the two coffees actually grow. While our arabica coffee tends to come from South America or Africa, robusta grows exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere. We’re talking Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and others.
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