For Good Espresso, Insist on Arabica

Espresso makers, here and across the pond, sometimes use Robusta to try to be "more Italian." But the best stuff is all Arabica. Here's why--and what it means about the increasingly large role America plays in coffee.

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Photo by Greencolander/FlickrCC

On a trip to Italy in the early '80s, I visited a roaster in Pavia, near Milan. I accepted the offer of an espresso, but declined sugar. My host was surprised. After one sip I understood his surprise, and I asked for double sugar--to defeat the vile, rubbery, bitter, fermented fruit taste of the Zaire robusta he had blended [Curator's note: Coffea canephora, or robusta, the low-growing, cheaper, and commoner kind than high-growing Coffea arabica]. When I asked why he included this coffee in his blend, his reply was, "to make better crema." I didn't understand.

A few specialty roasters in the US have begun to experiment with putting robusta into their espresso blends. The typical reasons are to make it more like Italian blends or make a thicker crema. I do understand the preference for the texture of a good crema, but I don't understand sacrificing flavor to achieve it.

I try to keep an open mind, but I have yet to taste the espresso that is better for having robusta of any quality selected over a well-chosen arabica.

In Seattle recently, I visited a small roaster on First Avenue downtown. I ordered an espresso, which was very well prepared. Then I tasted. As noted, the coffee was well made, and it was decently roasted, but why go to that trouble if you are using robusta or some low-grown, unwashed arabica in the blend? Crema? Not necessary. Authenticity?

Why try to make espresso "more Italian" when specialty roasters in Italy are either abandoning robusta completely or have developed 100 percent arabica blends at the top of their product range? Torrefazione Mexico in Milan, Illycaffe in Trieste, and Caffe Kimbo in Naples are just a few of countless roasters who are 100 percent arabica or, "prefer the excellence of a 100 % arabica blend," as Kimbo says on its website. Even Lavazza, the Folgers of Italy, has 100 percent arabica blends that are at the high end of their offerings.

Whenever we have tried blends with robusta, even those cited as "good robusta" (such as India, Papua New Guinea, and Flores), we have strongly preferred the 100 percent arabica. I only want my coffee to taste good; all other attributes are secondary. I try to keep an open mind about other points of view, but I have yet to taste the espresso that is better for having robusta of any quality selected over a well-chosen arabica.

Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and into the '80s, we specialty coffee roasters, along with other members of the new American food movement, used French and Italian references to borrow credibility and authenticity to what we were doing.

By the late '80s, French and Italian coffee roasters, to name only two countries of many, were examining the success of American specialty roasters in establishing a customer relationship based on flavor instead of price, while their vintner colleagues were adopting winemaking and growing techniques from America. We had established our own credibility. We may have been inspired by the Old Country, but our coffee was as good and authentic as any. And in Peet's case (among many roasters) it did not--and does not--include robusta in any blend.

Today the coffee in many European countries is improved (not Germany, alas). [Curator's note: More cross-European comparisons, please! And wasn't Germany a pre-Japan leader in snapping up supplies of great beans, by which I of course mean arabica? What happened??] A few roasters are leading the way in making flavor more important than price or crema thickness. And, as many of us know, many excellent arabica coffees, including washed coffees, make superb espresso with a good crema.

These things I understand.