Robusta....it's not a dirty word! Arabica vs Robusta + Bonus!
When going to purchase your favourite coffee online or at your local roastery we often see on the packaging “100% Arabica” its highlighted on the packaging to get our full attention, but what are the alternatives to Arabica? First off, let’s start by explaining what Arabica is.
But first a quick history lesson!
Legend has it coffee was discovered in Ethiopia or Yemen, depends on who you talk to. The most commonly known story is the Ethiopian story, which goes a little something like this……
Legend says that around 850 AD in the region of Kaffa, Ethiopia a young goat herder called Kaldi found a bush that had some deep red cherries on it. He noticed when his goats ate the small red cherries, they became highly active. Intrigued by this discovery Kaldi plucked off some of the cherries from the bush and felt energised after consuming them. He wanted to share the effects of these magic cherries, so he went to a nearby Monastery and gave them to a Monk. The Monk viewed this discovery with suspicion when learning the strange influences the cherries caused, so he rejected them and threw them into the fire. The result was a delicious aroma that captivated the Monk. So, after the fire was stoked, they picked up the roasted coffee beans that were left behind, ground them up and brewed them with water. This produced the first ever cup of coffee.
Kaldi observing the energetic jumping goats once they had eaten the newly found coffee cherries
Arabica (Coffea Arabica)
Arabica coffee is grown between 800 – 2000 meters altitude and makes up to 60% of the world’s coffee production. The coffee is more balanced, floral and delicate in flavour with various aromas. When compared to Robust coffee the bean structure is softer and takes far less heat when roasting the coffee. Generally, Arabica coffee is used in light – medium roast profiles to get those sweet, fruity flavours and gives off those delicious caramel chocolate aromas. Once we start to push it to dark roast territory, we can really caramelise the sugars in the beans but if you push it too far can give you a real carbon, charcoal, highly roasted flavour which some people like, but it’s not my cup of coffee :-P
But what is my cup of coffee is Melbourne Coffee Roasting Co’s award winning “Melbourne Cup “blend this blend is a medium roast, that uses coffee from Ethiopia, India, Colombia & Brazil.
The Indian coffee sourced in this blend come from our friends at Riverdale Estate in the Yercaud. This farm was established in 1920 and produces some amazing coffees. I will do a blog in detail on them at another time.
These are some of the Arabica coffee cherries found on Riverdale Estate - India
When going for dark roasts the coffee oils are released much quicker giving the coffee a short shelf life, making the coffee have a short peak time and therefore having to be consumed much faster before it starts to degas and become stale. This is why you will find that coffee roasters go for a medium roast as it is a more balanced way to get the best of both worlds. However, in saying that the job of a coffee roaster is to find the sweet spots of every coffee variety to get the best flavours out of them. This is why we roast coffee individually then do a post roast mix to maximise the flavour profile.
Think of this like a band where we have to tune the guitar up and make sure the amplifier is working, then the bass player needs to tune up and the drummer gets his drums together for the recording of an awesome song. When these 3 individual sounds/flavours come together it sounds/tastes awesome!
Back to Arabica! Arabica in terms of shape is slightly elongated and is the largest of the varieties having a percentage of caffeine of around 1.5%. The plant also has 44 Chromosomes… so does humans… weird right?
In terms of disease resistant the Arabica coffee plant is susceptible to disease and is a very sensitive plant. It must be exposed to temperatures of 16-24 degrees Celsius.
I tried to grow a few plants in Melbourne once after a cold snap its safe to say they are no longer with us! The leaves were damaged and the plants quickly lost their iconic glossy leaves. This narrow temperature range that Arabica coffee is grown has many people concerned for the future of coffee production with Climate Change. If temperatures increase this may have a devastating effect. A world without Arabica coffee….. No Thanks!
Robusta ( Coffea Canephora)
The origins of Robusta are found in Congo to be said to have been discovered around the 19th century. Currently the crop is largely harvested in Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia and India.
As far as I know there are no legends surrounding Robusta coffee or any Mythical stories, it is the second banana in preference and at times with the “Third wave” of coffee it has been looked down upon as dated and something used in a bygone era. However, is very popular overseas i.e., Europe where “Specialty Coffee” hasn’t seemed to really kick off, where the daily punters still like their coffee strong, sweet and maybe bitter.
Robusta coffee to me and I think others would agree is quite often demonised, true it doesn’t taste as nice as Arabica with more of a woody, earthy flavour, but it has its place when blending coffee. Typically, Robusta is used in Italian style coffee blends taking up to 30% of the overall, with our Fed Square blend we use 20% Robusta.
Adding Robusta to a coffee blend gives it that real kick and cuts through the milk, the beans structure is much denser than Arabica coffee and can take far more heat when roasting the beans. In terms of the size, they are more rounded in shape and are smaller than Arabica beans. The caffeine levels are almost double with an average of 2.7%.
Due to Climate Change concerns Robusta will be viewed as the future of coffee and the search to find varieties that have better flavours will be highly sought after. This space will be interesting to see how Robusta is marketed in the future, will it be seen as the natural caffeine alternative to energy drinks or a cheaper more environmentally sustainable option when compared to Arabica?! Time will tell…
Altitude for where the coffee is grown up to 800 meters with a temperature range of 20-30 degrees. The plant is much more disease resistant when compared to the Arabica, hence the name Robusta. Currently the world market is 30 % and strangely has 22 Chromosomes…but wait if Arabica has 60% off the world market and Robusta has 30%, there is 10% missing! Right?!
Liberica ( Coffea Liberica )…. Bonus!
I honestly didn’t know this until I started writing this post, that there was a third variety Liberica!
The Liberica coffee plant is currently endangered, making the coffee very difficult to find commercially. However as the history books suggest, this wasn’t always the case.
Let’s go back in time!
It is believed that Liberica was introduced to the Philippines as a replacement for the lost Arabica that would succumb to a coffee rust disease that destroyed 90% of Arabica coffee world wide in the 1890’s leaving the Liberica behind. As the Philippines was an American colony much of the production was sent to the U. S where a large portion of coffee used in blends came from the region. This however this came to an end when the Philippines became an independent nation and the U.S stopped importation of rice, sugar and coffee.
Grown in low altitude from 900 meters – 1300 meters with most production coming out of West Africa, Philippines and Malaysia. It is said that the trees can grow as tall as 18 meters high. This is insane when you compare the size to Arabica where the trees/plants are modified to be no taller than 2 meters and a width of around the same, small more compact bushes makes it much easier to harvest.
This bean is much larger than Arabica and is said to have more of a bitter flavour with some notes of floral and a slight smoky finish. The beans also contain 1.8% caffeine on average also. Liberica is seen as inferior to Arabica and Robusta due to its general inferior flavour and aroma. There is a view that says you either love it or hate it, the lovers will go as far to say it ha s sweet stone fruit flavour to it with an unusual woody flavour.
Fans of the coffee say that there needs to be a greater awareness and a need to prove that Liberica can be comparable to a single origin Arabica. Currently there is no standard set up for the coffee, no specialty coffee and is very much in a primitive stage when compared to the other major varieties.
So there you have it Arabica vs Robusta with a bonus of Liberia!
Please check out my other blogs on www.melbournecoffeeroastingco.com/blogs