You’ll have seen it everywhere – from supermarket shelves to fast food outlets; from high street coffee chains to the most niche speciality coffee houses – ‘100% Arabica’ seems to be something that everyone boasts about. But what does it actually mean?
We want to go one step further than just saying we use 100% Arabica coffees, and explain the background behind the claim: what that guarantees to you as a consumer, and what the alternatives are. First things first, a little science lesson…
A quick delve into our biology books tells us that coffee is part of the genus Coffea, with as many as 124 species! Only a few of these are of any importance to us in the coffee consuming and producing worlds; C.Arabica, and C.Canephora (a.k.a robusta) being the main ones.
There is growing interest in other members of the coffee family, such as Liberica and Stenophylla, which may become more commonly produced as climate change takes a hold. These coffee types are more resistant to high heats and common diseases like coffee leaf rust.
As the name would suggest, robusta is the hardier of the two. It can withstand higher temperatures, grows well at low altitudes and is much more resistant to disease than arabica. It’s cheaper to grow and as such is generally cheaper to buy. It has around twice the caffeine levels of arabica. If it sounds like robusta has a lot going for it, it’s true – except for one major drawback – it doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as arabica. Its flavour is powerful but lacks finesse and is often dominated by a burnt rubber harshness with woody undertones.
Robusta, admired for its lower price by commercial roasters and instant coffee producers, is, in fact, the parent plant of arabica. In recent research, scientists have been able to conclude from the genetical footprint of the two species, that Arabica evolved from the natural cross-breeding of Robusta and another species called Coffea euginoides. Robusta is indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo) and Uganda, whereas arabica first flourished in Ethiopia and southern Sudan.
One of the perks of roasting coffee is being able to take part in the quality control process that we go through daily, which, in the industry, is known as cup tasting (a.k.a cupping). The first stage of the cupping process involves assessing the dry aroma of the coffees we roast – this is often where the qualities of arabica (and in our case, speciality grade arabica) coffees shine. There’s a whole host of complex, sweet notes that come to the nose – from delicate florals, a whole spectrum of chocolates, and coffees which are syrupy and buttery.
It is rare for Robusta to offer such incredible aromas. The flavour of the coffee usually follows the clues found on the nose and it can be solidly argued that such incredible character and complexity has been the driving force behind the success in speciality coffee in recent years. The prominence of aroma in robusta coffees rarely translates into a pleasant taste when the cupping continues.
In terms of coffee production, Vietnam is the largest producer of Robusta by a huge margin. In the early 1990s, the county produced less than a million 60KG bags of coffee a year, but nowadays, production is closer to 20 million bags, making it the second largest coffee producing nation in the world. The top producer is Brazil, which can harvest as many as 60 million bags per year – the majority of it arabica. Other large robusta producers include Indonesia, the Ivory Coast and Uganda (although we’ve been lucky enough to have roasted some great Ugandan arabica coffees)! In total, around 70% of the world’s coffee is arabica, the rest being Robusta.
As with arabica, there are various grades of robusta, ranging from the undrinkable to quite nicely nuanced, but it is rare for speciality coffee roasters to use even the very best of this species. Simply put, even an average arabica is likely to taste a lot better than the very best robusta. However, the Coffee Quality Institute, the body that runs the highly respected Q Grader Arabica professional tasting programme, has recently introduced an equally demanding tasting exam called the Robusta Grader – nicknamed, ‘R Grader’. Both exams are extremely difficult to pass and only a small percentage of the world’s coffee specialists hold either of these two qualifications – though we are extremely proud that our own Dave Burton is amongst those with the Q Grader Arabica qualification!
At Rounton Coffee, we have no intention to be snobby or haughty about Robusta. It has its place in the market and is more affordable, and we’ve even (very occasionally) tasted blends containing robusta that we’ve enjoyed… it’s just not our cup of coffee! Our values are simple: roasting sustainably sourced arabica coffees, and making them taste as good as we can get them to – and it’s fair to say that not a single robusta bean has experienced the inside of our roaster.