Arabica vs. Robusta: No Contest

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Photo by mauroguanandi/Flickr CC

In the comments to my very first post, about caffeine content, a couple of the exchanges illuminated the need to explain a few terms in greater detail. One subject is Arabica vs. Robusta, the two species of coffee most widely cultivated.

For decades no debate existed among specialty roasters. All good coffees were Arabica (though the reverse was never true). Robusta was bad. Starting roughly ten years ago, a few specialty roasters began to experiment with Robusta in their espresso blends. I don't get it, as I wrote in an earlier post.

Arabica comprises about 75 to 80 percent of world production. While it's absolutely true that the greatest coffees in the world are Arabica, it is also true that there are lots and lots of Arabica coffees that don't come close to making the cut for any specialty coffee. Nearly every commercial blend in developed countries is predominately Arabica.

Like Arabica, qualities of Robusta coffee range through a spectrum from grades suitable only for making the cheapest instant coffee to higher-grown, washed Robusta that some roasters use to extend their blends.

To say Arabica doesn't denote the final quality. In 2007, Maxwell House, a lower priced, commercial coffee, switched its blend to 100 percent Arabica. Specialty coffee consumers took little note.

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Robusta (coffea Canephora) is typically produced at lower altitudes, is more disease- and pest-resistant (partly because of its higher caffeine content), and it typically produces a larger crop than Arabica. It is usually much cheaper. As I write, the futures market for Robusta is $0.70 per pound, while Arabica is trading at $1.14 per pound. Actual delivery prices for both species range from much lower for the lowest grades of Robusta to more than $10.00 per pound for small lots of very special Arabica. I'm certain that good horticultural practices and dedicated growers could produce better quality Robusta, but I would be surprised to find any with flavor comparable to good Arabica.

Robusta production greatly increased in the decades since World War II. Europe was devastated by the war. Food and money were scarce. The coffee markets responded in very different ways. In Germany, people who could afford it, wanted to buy beans so they could see whether fillers like chicory had been added. No "ersatz" coffee for them. In Italy and France, cheaper coffees and fillers found their way into the national taste. France encouraged Robusta production in its former colonies in west Africa and imposed a tax on Arabica coffees in support of that effort. Even now, blends that are 100 percent Arabica are always labeled to attract more discriminating buyers and to justify the increased price.

In the U.S., following the Brazilian frost of 1954, Maxwell House began blending Robusta to lower their costs. Others soon followed. All mainstream consumers in most every country have been very sensitive to coffee prices, which prompts roasters to maintain lower cost contents. U.S. coffee consumption fell from 75 percent of American adults drinking three cups a day in 1962 to less than 50 percent drinking fewer than two cups a day not so long ago. These lower-cost, lower-quality blends became the reason for the specialty coffee sector. As specialty has developed more and more over the last 40-plus years, consumption has begun to increase. We make it taste better and we sell more. Cool.

For more reading on Arabica and Robusta here's a link to the International Coffee Organization.