Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
If you walk into a coffee shop, you might be inundated with choices; beans from all over the world may stock the shelves, boasting various and diverse tasting notes, from floral and fruity to chocolatey and smoky. But, more likely than not, the coffees on your local coffee shop shelf might have more in common than you think.
Almost all coffee can be divided into two sub-categories: arabica and robusta. Arabica (Coffea arabica) is a species of coffee that accounts for about 55% of all coffee grown, while robusta (Coffea canephora) makes up the other 45%. And, for the most part, coffee experts and roasters tend to gravitate towards arabica: it’s generally regarded as better tasting. But a new wave of robusta enthusiasts is challenging why arabica has been the favored species for so long, pushing coffee pros and drinkers alike to consider robusta seriously.
Arabica vs. Robusta: What’s the Difference?
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
Coffee beans are the seed of a fruit and, like other agricultural products, have several different species that fall under the umbrella genus of coffee. There are more than 100 different coffee species, but arabica and robusta account for almost all coffee grown, and they have distinct differences. You’ve likely had both species without knowing it: if you’ve ordered coffee at a coffee shop, you were probably sipping on arabica beans, while many instant coffee blends have been made from robusta beans. In some instances, coffee roasters have used robusta in espresso blends, but robusta beans have yet to receive top billing at most shops.
Generally, arabica coffee is more delicate and fruity and is the primary species grown in countries like Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Colombia, which are prized for their coffee cultivation. However, arabica beans can be challenging to grow and sensitive to fluctuations in growing conditions and plant diseases.
On the other hand, robusta tends to be heartier: it can grow at lower elevations, has roughly double the caffeine as arabica, and generally has more resistance to common coffee plant diseases. So why isn’t it as popular? Robusta has been hampered by the perception of its flavor and quality in comparison to Arabica. “People usually associate robustas with a burnt rubber taste and an aftertaste of peanuts,” says Namisha Parthasarathy, co-founder of Ārāmse, a coffee subscription service, and founder of a YouTube channel, who is based in Mysore, India.
Parthasarathy points out that ascribing one flavor profile to robusta beans is impossible because robusta is grown worldwide. Vietnam is the world leader in robusta production, and while robusta coffee is regularly brewed and sipped in-country, robusta also grows elsewhere, including Brazil, India, and Indonesia. However, robusta’s reputation was bad enough that many brands used marketing tactics like “100% arabica” to sell their coffees (McDonald’s, for example, still uses this language to promote its McCafé line of drinks). For a long time—before there were coffee shops on every corner—robusta was in a lot of grocery blends you might find in cans and in instant coffee, which helped set the perception that it was inferior. “Indeed, the specialty-coffee boom of the 1990s—the demand shock that carried Starbucks to global dominance—came in reaction, and revulsion, to instant coffee made from robusta, which had been ubiquitous up until that point,” writes Alina Simone for The Atlantic.
However, the problem seems to be that we’ve never gotten past this initial judgment of robusta. “We will never find out what robusta’s potential is if we keep it shut up in a conceptual box constructed out of judgments concocted by well-meaning people 40 years ago,” Kenneth Davids, founder of the coffee evaluation site Coffee Review, told Simone.
It also doesn’t help that arabica and robusta are often talked about in contrast to one another simply because no other coffee species are grown in the same abundance. “It’s almost always been an answer to arabica in terms of growing difficulty—i.e., post coffee leaf rust (a coffee growing disease that kills plants that arabica is especially susceptible to),” Parthasarathy says. “So when it’s viewed as this plan B for arabica, people just don’t put any effort into seeing it for what it is and getting the most out of it. It’s not sexy enough, so it suffers from a perception problem. That’s the story that needs to change.”
Changing Perceptions About Robusta Coffee
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
When Sahra Nguyen launched Nguyen Coffee Supply four years ago, she was fighting a coffee industry that generally looked down on robusta. “For folks who worked in the coffee industry, I definitely received some snarky remarks and skepticism, the tired narratives of ‘robusta is gross, robusta is cheap, robusta is inferior,'” she says. She notes that not every comment was negative: she received some genuine questions from coffee people but noticed that people with no baggage associated with the term “robusta” were willing to try it out. “For folks who didn’t understand the difference between arabica and robusta and weren’t familiar with the binary narrative, they were very open-minded and excited to try something they previously didn’t have access to.”
Nguyen Coffee Supply is “America’s first specialty Vietnamese coffee company and proud champion of the resilient robusta bean,” according to their website, and part of Nguyen’s success has been customers responding positively to their coffee beans. “Customers love our coffee—we publish 100% of reviews on our website so that you can see firsthand their positive reactions,” she says. “Many people have said it’s the best coffee they’ve ever had.”
While Nguyen works with growers who produce both arabica and robusta beans, the company is still focused on elevating and exploring the potential of robusta—and getting the results into more people’s hands, which is why they launched a series of ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee beverages made from 100% robusta beans earlier this year. Available in three flavors—classic black, coconut, and condensed milk, which is “an homage to the beloved cà phê sữa đá of Vietnam (the iconic ‘Vietnamese iced coffee’)”—cans can be ordered online and are also available in supermarkets and coffee shops across the US.
Of course, there are still skeptics questioning robusta’s role in coffee. Still, Nguyen Coffee Supply’s success—along with their public reviews, which you can find at the bottom of each product page—speaks to how varied coffee can be and the potential to explore new avenues. “Just as we’re curious to try different wines or have a preference for white during a hot summer’s day and maybe a bolder red with dinner,” Parthasarathy says, “consumers should view robusta as an alternative offering in the world of coffee.”
Nguyen agrees that robusta isn’t about replacing or changing preferences but opening up new possibilities for consumers who have felt left out of the coffee conversation. “Coffee is personal and subjective, so we can’t expect all consumers to like the same thing,” she says. “Be mindful that robusta may or may not be for you personally, but including robusta in the conversation and investing in its potential is for the betterment of the whole.”
The Future of Robusta
Serious Eats / Ashley Rodriguez
Chances are you’ve seen some alarming headlines about coffee and climate change. Numerous studies have come to an arrestingly dire conclusion: we’re at pace to lose 50% of suitable growing areas for coffee by 2050.
Coffee is perhaps much more delicate than you might assume for a beverage charged with waking us up and inspiring us to hit the pedal to the metal. Like many agricultural goods, coffee is harvested in predictable, seasonal patterns (they can differ from country to country, but generally speaking, there is a rainy season of growth and nurturing and a dry one of flowering and harvesting) and just one climate event that falls out of line with projections could wield disastrous consequences, from coffees tasting subpar to farmers losing significant portions of their crop.
Robusta tends to be regarded as heartier, although some studies suggest that robusta might be more sensitive to climate change than previously known. While it’s unclear if robusta can be a solution to the effects of climate change on coffee, it’s clear that taking it seriously could advance farmers’ lives, particularly in countries where robusta is the main coffee crop. “Paying attention to robusta is about investing in the future of coffee and all coffee-growing communities,” Nguyen says. She also noted that the “robusta is bad” refrain can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy: writing off an entire segment of coffee can cause divestment of resources. This is a big deal in coffee, where investment and care are fundamental to quality. “By elevating the robusta coffee experience, we’re able to uplift an entire segment of the coffee industry that has historically been excluded from opportunities to elevate their crop and livelihoods.”
Other roasters are beginning to explore the potential for robusta. Blue Bottle Coffee just released its first blend specifically designed to highlight the smoky flavors of robusta (it’s important to note that roasters have likely been using robustas in blends without naming the beans, keeping robusta anonymous). “This blend stands to question everything the world believes about the robusta species,” the company said in an Instagram post, and others note that we’re in the very beginning stages of understanding the potential of robusta. (Note: the Robusta Blend No. 1 is currently sold out, but Blue Bottle still features robusta in 17ft Ceiling, which is one of their flagship blends.) “[Robusta is] newer (first seen around 1870 in the Congo and 350+ years after arabica), so we just don’t know as much,” says Parthasarathy. “We’re so early in the robusta process, and it’s an exciting time. But it’s slow going. The key to coming out of this climate crisis in coffee is to be open and appreciate variance and quirks in coffee rather than the forced consistency we are taught to love.”
What is robusta coffee?
Robusta is a species of coffee. There are over 10,000 species of coffee, but the two most popular are arabica and robusta. Robusta is often talked about in contrast to arabica: it has double the caffeine of arabica beans and is generally thought of as easier to grow (arabica thrives at higher elevations, which can make it more difficult to harvest, while robusta can tolerate lower elevations). It’s also more resistant to diseases that can harm coffee crops.
Where is robusta coffee grown?
Vietnam is the world’s leader in robusta production, and you can also find robusta beans growing in Brazil, India, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Where can you buy robusta coffee beans?
You wouldn’t go into a coffee shop and ask for robusta beans—most coffee shops use arabica beans. You might see some coffee brands advertise their coffee has “double the caffeine,” which might be shorthand for the fact they’re using robusta, but unless they offer information about where the coffee is sourced from, I’d suggest steering clear of these companies. It’s best to try robusta coffee from brands that specialize in robusta sourcing or have a well-established coffee sourcing program, like Nguyen Coffee Supply or Blue Bottle.