Robusta coffee beans have long lived in arabica beans’ shadow when it comes to premium coffee - but is robusta good coffee that’s just been misunderstood? Let’s bust some myths about robusta beans.
Is Robusta Coffee Good?
To answer a question as seemingly simple as “is robusta coffee good?” we have to dive into a larger conversation about the coffee industry as a whole. Whether your eyes glaze over reading things like “100% arabica beans” or you can easily rattle off your favorite coffee growing regions, the coffee you buy plays an important role in shaping our global coffee market.
For decades, robusta coffee has lived in the shadow of arabica coffee due to perceptions about taste and quality. But is arabica coffee actually inherently better or have misconceptions about robusta just created a vicious cycle in the industry?
Is all coffee the same?
Even if you’re not a coffee expert, you’ve probably at least heard of the two most common types of coffee beans on the market today: arabica and robusta.Other varieties of coffee - such as Liberica and Excelsa (a member of the Liberica family) - are also available, but are rarely found on grocery store shelves or in your local coffee shop.
Aside from having a go-to brand or cafe, it’s easy to think all coffee generally tastes like, well, coffee! But just like different grape varieties create very distinct flavors of wine, each coffee species has its own unique flavor profile. And in the same way that different fermentation and aging processes can turn the same grapes into distinctly different wines, different processing and brewing methods can give the same variety of beans a huge array of different flavors!
To use our wine comparison, a merlot from one winery might taste better than a merlot from another - and someone else might not like merlot at all. The species of the grape is a big factor, but it’s still only one one piece of the puzzle. So when we talk about whether a certain type of coffee “tastes good,” the type of bean itself is important, but not the only consideration! The way the coffee was grown, harvested, processed, roasted, and brewed all have to be part of the conversation - and so does personal taste.
Benefits of robusta coffee
Despite being left out of the specialty coffee conversation for many years, robusta has a lot to bring to the (coffee) table - and people are starting to notice!
- Climate resilient: It’s estimated that 50% of suitable coffee growing areas could be lost to climate change by 2050. Robusta, however, can grow in more climates and is more resistant to pests, insects, and weather conditions meaning it often requires fewer pesticides. In fact, the name “robusta” refers to the hardiness of the plant!
- Higher caffeine: Robusta has about double the caffeine of arabica coffee per serving, so you get more buzz for your buck. Believe it or not, that caffeine is actually part of what makes the plant more resistant to pests!
- Higher yield: Robusta plants produce more coffee per hectare than arabica plants, meaning less land is needed for production. Robusta also grows faster, speeding the time from planting to harvest.
- Higher in antioxidants at lighter roasts: Like many plants grown in harsher conditions, robusta coffee is quite high in antioxidants when green or light roasted. After roasting, its antioxidant levels are comparable to arabica.
- Better crema: Robusta is often used in espresso blends because it’s known for creating a better crema - the creamy layer on the top of an espresso shot!
How did robusta get its undeserved bad rap?
Historically, arabica has been the most popular coffee species, accounting for about 60-70% of the coffee market worldwide. Robusta is the second most popular, accounting for about 30-40%. Despite its wide consumption however, robusta has lived in arabica’s shadow when it comes to the specialty coffee market.
Robusta tends to be more resilient and produce higher yields, which helped to meet increasing demand for coffee over the years - but the downside was that the focus for robusta farming became optimizing quantity rather than quality.
As a result, robusta became commoditized and was utilized more for mass market, cheaper coffee blends and instant coffee and largely left out of the conversation when it came to specialty coffee. Lack of demand for premium robusta meant farmers weren’t incentivized to invest in their quality, and lower prices led farmers to focus on increasing output instead of improving quality or sustainability. This has perpetuated a vicious cycle for robusta beans and the people who farm them.
Meanwhile, as coffee industry leaders touted the superiority of arabica and continued to invest in arabica farming, the quality and flavor of their beans continued to improve. This also meant that producers could sell the beans at a more premium price. Premium prices led to further quality improvements, and as we know, quality of the coffee beans makes a big difference in taste.
Busting 4 Robusta Myths
- Robusta coffee tastes bitter. Robusta coffee is indeed known for its strong, bold flavor profile - and with up to 80% more caffeine (which has a bitter taste), it can be slightly more bitter than arabica. However, as demand for robusta increases in the specialty coffee market, bean quality also improves and you can now enjoy smooth, specialty quality robusta.
- Robusta tastes burnt. Typically, a burnt taste comes down less to the bean and more to the roasting and brewing process. It’s worth trying a specialty quality robusta to get a true sense of the flavors and aromas.
- There are no sustainably sourced robusta beans. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta coffee, and unfortunately, was left behind in the global push for sustainability in the coffee industry. However, that’s already begun to change. We partner closely with our farmers to reduce chemical inputs and use planet-friendly practices like composting the coffee cherries to create fertilizer.
- Robusta inherently tastes bad. This couldn’t be further from the truth! The taste has more to do with quality than the species of bean itself. If you like a bold, chocolatey, rich coffee, a high quality, carefully cultivated robusta blend might be your new go-to.
The bottom line:
Is robusta coffee good?
When cultivated with the same care as an other specialty coffee, robusta is a delicious, rich coffee with mocha and nutty undertones. The best way to learn what coffee you like is to try it for yourself! Coffee is a matter of taste, and can vary greatly from one farm, one harvest, and one batch to the next. But with a little more history and context, you can try your next cup of robusta coffee with a full appreciation for the history behind it - and we have a feeling you just might love it.