While there are about 25 major species within the Genis “Coffea”, there are only two main species that are cultivated for commercial coffee consumption; Coffea Arabica (Arabica
), pronounced either a-rã-bik-a or ar-a-bë-ka and Coffea canephora (commonly referred to as Robusta
) which between them provide 95% of the world's demand for coffee beans. Arabica contributes about 70% of the demand and Robusta about 25%.
As a rule, in its roasted form: Arabica is visually identified as being more oval, larger, has a flatter dome and has a more variant underside crease than Robusta. Also as a rule, Arabica is the bean of choice for the specialty coffee trade and Robusta is used predominantly in instant coffee production.
Arabica sells in the market for about twice the price of Robusta because Arabica is more costly to produce being vulnerable to weather conditions, is grown high in difficult to access areas of the mountains, its production is labor intensive, it has a lower plant yield and is more susceptible to disease than Robusta.
Also driving the price up for Arabica is the acknowledged taste benefit that these fine, mild, aromatic, generally full-bodied coffee beans create compared with Robusta and its more woody, sharp and astringent flavors.
Seeing the obvious superior cup that Arabica beans create, marketers have been keen to promote the 100% Arabica as the ultimate espresso coffee experience and shunning the use of the Robusta beans in their premium coffee offers.
Not the best espresso coffee experience ... according to my experience.
It is well known that Italian roasters have for centuries been including a 10-15% Robusta blend in their premium espresso coffee bean offers. Italians have been including premium Robusta coffee beans from Africa, PNG and India and in particular the smooth tasting monsooned Robustas and Kaapi Royale from India. Italians know that a premium Robusta produces a better cup than a poor grade Arabica, so 100% Arabica may not deliver that 'nectar of the gods' experience you are craving and you may be paying a premium simply for the perception of quality.
Most roasters are far too aware of the customer's uninformed dismissal of the Robusta bean to risk their business by adding it to their premium offers, but this means that we as espresso coffee consumers are missing out on some of the best taste experiences that espresso coffee can give. Just as some of the finest wines are blends of two varieties, so it should be with coffee, but while there is a customer acceptance of the blend in premium wine it is yet to occur in premium coffee.
Personally, I have built the success of my many coffee shops on a 85% Arabica and 15% Robusta coffee bean blend: Tropicana Blend
. For me, Robusta beans add a few positive aspects to the coffee drinking experience for the following reasons;
- Robusta tends to produce more crème than Arabica adding to the presentation and potential coffee-art creations of your espresso coffee.
- Robusta adds to the coffee experience that literally makes hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It adds the 'woo' and the blinking eyes where 100% Arabica can sometimes appear sweet, weak and nice ... but without character.
- I have found that having Robusta in the mix allows for an even finer grind of the Arabica (without choking the espresso making process) which is important when trying to extract the most aromatic oils. There is more hard shell in the Robusta which allows the heated water to still pass through the compacted ground coffee while extracting the oil from the fine ground Arabica as it goes.
- Robusta gives consumers that morning ‘Hit’ they are looking for from their coffee. See the fat in the milk tends to mask the high notes of the Arabica bean, while the crème and more astringent taste of the Robusta shine through to give you a real morning jolt for those first few slips. Eventually the aromatic oils from the Arabica takes over as you continue to drink and you are still left with a pleasant caramel after-taste. (Note: I would not recommend a Robusta blend for black coffee as there is nothing to compensate for the increased bitterness. So I would still recommend a quality 100% Arabica for a Short Black)
There you have it. Don't be fooled into thinking that 100% Arabica is a guarantee of exquisite espresso taste ... and don't discount what the humble Robusta coffee bean can add to making your 'nectar of the gods' espresso drinking experience.