Robusta Coffee Primer

Coffea canephora, is popularly known as Robusta due to the resistant nature of its plant. Discovered by Dutch botanists in the former Belgian Congo, it was introduced in Southeast Asia in 1900 after coffee rust disease wiped out all coffee cultivation in Ceylon in 1869 and destroyed most low altitude plantations in Java in 1876. Growing as a shrub or small tree up to 10 meters in height, Robusta is self-sterile and exists in many different forms and varieties in the wild.

Cultivated in West and Central Africa, throughout Southeast Asia and to some extent in Brazil, its cross-bred varieties are often hard to identify, but two main types are generally recognized: Robusta, or up-right forms, and Nganda, or spreading forms.

Robusta fruit is rounded and takes up to 10 months to mature. Its oval shaped seeds have two sets of chromosomes and are usually unwashed, or dry-processed. Smaller than those of Coffea arabica, Robusta beans contain nearly twice as much caffeine (2-4.5% against 1.1-1.7%). Quality Markedly bitter and less aromatic than Arabica, the robust and full-bodied Robusta is widely used in blends.

The main Robusta producers include:

Africa: Ivory Coast followed by Uganda, Cameroon, Madagascar, Gabon, Angola, Zaire and other African nations.

Brazil: known as Conilon, a relatively mild Robusta.

Indonesia: Sumatra (Medan, Padang, Palembang), Bali (Buleleng), Ujung Pandang from Sulawesi (formerly Celebres), Timor and Java (Djakarta, Demarang, Surabaya) -bitter taste, sometimes fermented with consequent flavor, generally low quality.

Vietnam: Volumes of robusta production increased starting in the 1990-2000s and now it is the top global producer.

Robusta and Sweet Maria’s

It might seem unlikely that Sweet Maria’s even offers Robusta…  We never intended to be “Robusta Central,” (nor will we) but we do believe that each cultivar of coffee needs to be judged on its own merit.

The Robusta coffees we offer have attained the highest level possible in cup score given the limitations of the species. A good robusta has different cup characteristics from a good arabica because of the difference in the plant material. Aside from picking and processing defects, robustas have higher caffeine, higher levels of chlorogenic acids, and often a lack of balance between types of acids and a lack of sweetness. This leaves the cup harsh, bittering, and often salty in nature. A good robusta will offset these detriments in the cup with a taste of positive acidity and perceived sweetness.

We offer a premium Robusta coffee selection for use in espresso blends. Robusta coffee is the common name for Coffea Canephora, a different species of coffee from the genus Coffea and cousin to the higher-grown Coffea Arabica L. that is the basis for specialty coffee. You may be interested to know that the bulk of cheap coffee in the world is actually arabica, not robusta. Arabica accounts for 75% of the worlds coffee production with the top 5% qualifying as specialty grade coffee.

Most of Our Robusta is from India. But we do find high quality from other origins too!

The most dedicated robusta-producing regions I have been to are in India and the plant, its blossoms and fruit are ironically more beautiful than arabica’s. The uniformly ripe and well-spaced clusters of fruit and flowers are very attractive. The plants can easily top the age of heirloom arabica trees, 30 to 80 years old as I have witnessed, with massive trunks, pruned to create an orchard-like grove that can be harvested from the shade beneath the tree. It’s too bad the plant imposes limits on the ultimate quality of the cup. This limitation, bias against robustas by quality-minded roasters who pay better for coffee, and the fact that Robustas trade on a different commodity index that allows for a horrendously high number of defects in a sample, leads to a cycle of failure for the robusta grower. What incentive is there to invest in plant health, improve cherry selection in picking, process with greater care, prepare the coffee to higher standards, and transport it with care if the market doesn’t reward this work with better prices?

Yet the vast majority of Robusta produced in the world is directed toward the bulk commercial trade, used to pump up caffeine content and as a cheap filler in institutional coffee. Robusta simply isn’t picked and prepared to the same standards as specialty arabica coffee. And when it is, it still has that Robusta flavor, a distinct taste that can remind one of the last time they ordered a cup at a truck stop. In that way, the best Robusta will never attain the refined cup flavors of a well-prepared, high-grown arabica. I just think you reach a quality threshold when a Robusta is picked ripe, well-processed, hand-sorted, and transported promptly; the coffee will be “good enough” to add positive properties to a certain style of Espresso blend. That’s about the limit of what a Robusta can do though, to not detract from the cup.

Robusta’s Taste and Use

Robusta is normally not for use in filter-drip coffee blends, except those of the lowest order. Common robusta has hard, rubbery off flavors due to both the plant itself, and the way it is processed without care. That said, you might be surprised with the cup quality of some of our premium Robusta coffees. Roasted to Full City+ or light Vienna you can indeed brew a French Press and get a very interesting, aggressive, pungent cup. If you like dry-process Sumatras, you might find this quite palatable. (And people who use a dab of cream and sugar might like it too).

There is a core use for Robusta coffees that are picked, sorted, processed and prepared with as much care as top grade Arabicas; this valid use is in the 5 to 20% range in espresso blends. Robustas add body, crema, and a distinct flavor to espresso. If you are familiar with traditional Italian espresso you will recognize this taste. It also aids the espresso in distinguishing itself in milk drinks. We don’t rate Robustas on the cupping scale since traditional cupping doesn’t apply on a coffee solely intended as a blend component in espresso.

See our Blending Article for specific comments about Robusta in Espresso Blends. Also, Robustas such as these are now being used in filter coffee “high caffeine” blend since the caffeine levels are doubled in Robusta over Arabica. But this really isn’t something I am going to endorse, or even investigate myself even though such brands as ShockCoffee are doing exactly this. Also check out Nestle’s description of Robusta -interesting! Robusta has also gained favor in Europe after the noble tradition of the large roasters to buy only arabica coffees. This shift occurred as stable old firms started to look toward short-term profits, and ways to cut costs to achieve good quarterly figures for investors. The breakthrough came when it was found that the disagreeable aspects of the robusta cup could be lessened by steaming/soaking the coffee before roasting. It would be like starting a decaf process, without actually following through on decaffeination of the coffee. But this sad practice has led to an erosion of cup quality in Europe, akin to the long, slow slide in American coffee quality that peaked in the 1970s and gave way for the rediscovery of coffee quality in the form of the Specialty Coffee movement.

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