While Arabica coffee beans are milder, lower in caffeine, and more expensive, Robusta coffee beans are a popular alternative for many kinds of coffees drunk worldwide, especially in Africa or Asia.
They came originally from Africa, but can now be found planted in the lower lying areas of both South America and many parts of Asia, such as Vietnam and Indonesia.
The Robusta beans tend to still have a bad reputation for cheapness and quality, and that is an undeserved one. For example, you will find quality Robusta coffees in many coffee blends, esp. the best espresso beans for its flavor, no less. Or so argues Oliver Schwaner-Albright in the article entitled ‘Robusta Economy‘ in the New York Times on March 23rd, 2009.
Robusta Beans: Origins and Growth
Discovered in the former Belgian Congo by botanists, they were first properly described only about 100 years after Arabica. They grow indigenously all over Western and Central Africa.
Nowadays, though, the Robusta coffee beans are cultivated in many areas of the world because of their relative ease of cultivation: they do need more water and warmth.
But they can grow at much lower elevations; the robusta beans are also produced in much greater quantities; and they are resistant to more pests and disease making it less expensive for farmers to grow.
Robusta coffee beans are harvested from Robusta shrubs or small trees that can grow up to thirty feet high. Although they don’t require as much maintenance as Arabica plants, they do need pruning to keep harvesting at manageable levels for growers and pickers. There are upright Robusta trees as well as spreading (Nganda) varieties.
Arabica Beans vs. Robusta Beans
While Arabica plants are finicky about their growing conditions, Robusta can grow 600-2000 feet above sea level and is much more tolerant of variations in temperature. This hardy plant yields more beans per acre than Arabica and produces its first crop only 2-4 years after planting.
Other differences between the beans that coffee drinkers may wish to remember include:
1. Caffeine Content:
The Caffeine content is much higher in Robusta Beans, perhaps explaining why it’s more resistant to pests, at about 1.7~4.0%. Arabica coffee beans may contain up to 1/2 that amount.
The beans are shaped differently, too. Robusta beans tend to be smaller in size, and rounder or more oval. Arabica beans are larger and seem more elongated. In appearance, they are pale green in color with a brownish tinge. So they’re easy to spot!
Robusta beans contain only half the sugar and about 2/3rds of the lipids than their cousin, the Arabica. This variation may account for the differences in roasting both beans, as well as the perceptions of acidity.
The taste of coffee made from Robusta coffee beans has been described as grainy, harsh and musty; the lack of body is noticeable compared to Arabica coffee beans.
Robusta Beans: So how can I tell?
Apart from inspecting the beans yourself (impossible if it’s ground or in your cup already!), you may find that Robusta is grown in Nigeria, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Bali, Vietnam, Java, Angola, and India.
If you see these countries listed on the bag or can of coffee or beans you are considering, the beans or ground coffee may include Robusta Coffee Beans. But you will find that Brazil Coffee also contains robusta beans.
One obvious giveaway, of course, is the price. If your chosen coffee is relatively inexpensive, and the origins are not listed, or the brand is a typical supermarket brand, you can assume that the coffee beans include Robusta. Look for clues: the origins, the price, percentages of Arabica beans, the flavors, etc.
Robusta: Instant Coffees or Classy Coffees?
Robusta Coffee Beans are usually used to make instant coffee because it is less expensive. It an also be found in many generic (store brand) coffee blends, just browse your typical coffee brands, and you will know.
With twice the caffeine of Arabica beans, it’s great at waking a person up if flavor isn’t important! That extra kick of caffeine is what helps open my eyes in the morning! Perhaps it’s why my bag of Arabica beans, while lighter in flavor, tends to have less of a kick than its darker roasted, and cheaper ‘espresso blends’.
And yet, many fine European blends also include Robusta Coffee Beans. Who, I hear you say? Well, the Italians and the French. Surprised?
So that’s what’s in my cappuccino!
The Italians began using high quality Robusta beans in their espressos because of its ability to hold the crema head on a cup of espresso.
It also adds body to the flavor, and provides an additional kick for their morning espresso shot or cappuccino is considered an additional benefit. Typical Italian espresso blends may include up to 15% Robusta beans for coffee drinkers.
While the French can add up to 70% Robusta coffee beans to their blends to make their cafe au laits. That might be why we tend to see the French Roasts as darker coffees with more body.
Robusta coffee beans then, it turns out, are more than just Arabica’s poor country cousin. In fact, they’re consumed all over the world, are a mainstay for many coffee farmers, and provide a great finish for some of the finest blends in the world!